Keep Space for Peace

Presentation at Atioch College

March 14, 2000

By Karl Grossman

We only have a narrow window to prevent an arms race in space. The U.S. military seeks to "control space," to "dominate" space and from it Earth below-and "control" and "dominate" are the words repeatedly used in U.S. military documents-and to base weapons in space.

The use of nuclear technology in space is intertwined with this. The weapons the U.S. military is interested in deploying in space will need large amounts of power, military reports acknowledge, and nuclear energy is seen as a power source.

As New World Vistas: Air And Space Power For The 2lst Century, a U.S. Air Force board report, states: "In the next two decades, new technologies will allow the fielding of space-based weapons of devastating effectiveness to be used to deliver energy and mass as force projection in tactical and strategic conflict…These advances will enable lasers with reasonable mass and cost to effect very many kills."

But "power limitations impose restrictions" on such-based weapons systems making them "relatively unfeasible….A natural technology to enable high power," it goes on, "is nuclear power in space." "Setting the emotional issues of nuclear power aside, this technology offers a viable alternative for large amounts of power in space," asserts New World Vistas.

People in the Unites States, people all over the world, must be aware of what the U.S. is up to and challenge it.

The U.S. push to weaponize and nuclearize space flies in the face of the intent of the Outer Space Treaty, the fundamental international law on space, initiated in 1967 by the U.S., the United Kingdom and former Soviet Union and now signed by 91 nations.

The Outer Space Treaty reserves space for peaceful uses. It also says that nations shall not "contaminate" space and that "states shall be liable for damage caused by their space objects."

The U.S. military plans for space are explicitly laid out in a large number of U.S. military documents. These include the Vision For 2020 report of the U.S. Space Command. Its cover depicts a laser weapon shooting a beam down from space zapping a target below.

US Space Commands Vision 2020 front cover
The US Space Command Vision

The report proclaims, in wording laid out like in the start of the Star Wars movies: "US Space Command-dominating the space dimension of military operations to protect US interests and investment. Integrating Space Forces into warfighting capabilities across the full spectrum of conflict."

US Space Commands Vision 2020 inside cover
The US Space Command Vision

Vision for 2020 compares the American effort to control space and the Earth below to how centuries ago "nations built navies to protect and enhance their commercial interests" by ruling the seas.

U.S. corporate interests are directly involved in helping set U.S. space military doctrine. As the Long Range Plan of the U.S. Space Command starts out: "The Long Range Plan has been US Space Command's #1 priority for the past 11 months, investing nearly 20 man-years to make it a reality. The development and production process, by design, involved hundreds of people including about 75 corporations." The Long Range Plan goes on to list those 75 corporations-beginning with Aerojet and going through Lockheed Martin and Rand to TRW. President Eisenhower warned in the 1950s of a "military-industrial complex" achieving enormous power over U.S. policy. That is now happening in spades and the U.S. military speaks proudly of it.

US Space Commands Long Range Plan
The US Space Command Long Range Plan

Guardians of the High Frontier, an Air Force Space Command report, declares: "Space is the ultimate `high ground.'" The Air Force Space Command is committed to "the control and exploitation of space," it says.

A Space Command motto: "Master of Space." Master of Space. That pretty well summarizes the U.S. military attitude.

Master of Space
Master of Space

As General Joseph Ashy, then commander-in-chief of the U.S. Space Command, has said: "It's politically sensitive, but it's going to happen. Some people don't want to hear this, and it sure isn't in vogue, but-absolutely-we're going to fight in space. We're going to fight from space and we're going to fight into space….That's why the U.S. has development programs in directed energy and hit-to-kill mechanisms."

General Ashy spoke of "space control," the U.S. military's term for control of space, and "space force application," its definition of control of Earth from space. Said General Ashy: "We'll expand into these two missions because they will become increasingly important. We will engage terrestrial targets someday-ships, airplanes, land targets-from space. We will engage targets in space, from space."

This is far more than reports and rhetoric. A multi-million dollar contract has been signed for a "Space-Based Laser Readiness Demonstrator." The military's poster for this laser shows it firing its ray in space while an American flag somehow waves in space above it.

Billions of dollars a year are being poured annually into what is now called U.S. Ballistic Missile Defense, renamed from Strategic Defense Initiative, the "Star Wars" program under Reagan and Bush. Missile defense? In context, what the U.S. military appears to want is in large part not defense but offense. It's Son of Star Wars.

"With regard to space dominance, we have it, we like it, and we're going to keep it," Assistant Secretary of the U.S. Air Force for Space Keith Hall, who is also director of the National Reconnaissance Office, has stated.

Simultaneously, the U.S. drive to use nuclear power in space continues unabated. That's how I first got into this issue: learning, in 1985, that NASA intended to launch two space shuttles in 1986-one of the shuttles the Challenger-with plutonium-fueled space probes aboard. After the shuttles achieved orbit, the probes would be fired from them.

After reading about the plan in a Department of Energy publication, Energy Insider, I filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request with NASA, DOE and the national laboratories said by Energy Insider to be involved in the missions. Energy Insider said that the government had evaluated the consequences of an accident with the probes-on launch, in the atmosphere, if a probe fell back to Earth-and I asked for this information.

It took nearly a year to get it. It was quite an uphill fight although FOIA requires that the government handle FOIA requests promptly. What the government finally advised was that, yes, there could be quite a disaster if the plutonium-considered the most dangerous radioactive substance-was dispersed in an accident but the likelihood of a catastrophic shuttle accident was but 1-in-100,000

That was late 1985. On January 28, 1986, on my way to teach an Investigative Reporting class, I heard over the car radio that the Challenger had blown up. I stopped at an appliance store and saw that horrible image on 100 TV sets-and thought, what if it was May of '86, the Challenger's next mission, when it was to loft the Ulysses plutonium-fueled space probe, with 24.2 pounds of plutonium? There wouldn't have been seven brave astronauts dying if the explosion occurred then and the plutonium dispersed-as pieces of the Challenger dispersed-far and wide. Many, many more people could have died.

I began writing articles, then TV documentaries and a book, The Wrong Stuff, on the use of nuclear materials on space devices. NASA, incidentally, soon changed the odds of a catastrophic shuttle accident from 1-in-100,000 to 1-in-76. We only know real probabilities through empirical evidence.

The Wrong Stuff
The Wrong Stuff

And I kept asking: why? Why use nuclear materials on space devices? For example, Ulysses was to be lofted by Challenger and sent to orbit the sun. The plutonium on it and other space probes is used not for propulsion but just to generate a small amount of electricity-256 watts on Ulysses-to power onboard instruments. Why not use solar photovoltaic energy?

Why put the entire space program at risk by using nuclear material? Part of the answer to that question was simple: as the informant Deep Throat told reporter Bob Woodward as he investigated the Watergate situation-follow the money. Who makes money on the use of nuclear devices in space? General Electric, which manufactured the plutonium systems, and, in recent years, Lockheed Martin, which took over that division of GE. Both GE and Lockheed Martin, it turned out, long lobbied the government to use their plutonium systems in space. Further, there are the national laboratories involved in developing space nuclear systems, including Mound Laboratory here in Ohio, seeking to retain their funding.

Then I got to the military connection: the desire of the U.S. military to deploy nuclear-powered weapons in space. NASA was set up in 1958 ostensibly as a civilian agency but, particularly after the end of the Apollo man-on-the-moon missions and seeing-heavens forbid-its budget drop, it became increasingly involved with the U.S. military. Indeed, the shuttle program itself was created as a half-civilian, half-military program.

The U.S. military wants nuclear-powered weapons in space and that's been a key reason why NASA has been insisting on using nuclear power in space-even when solar power would suffice.

Most recently, in 1997, NASA launched its Cassini space probe with more plutonium than ever used on a space probe-72.3 pounds. Afraid to use a shuttle for this launch, NASA sent Cassini up on a Titan-4 (Lockheed Martin) military rocket. It got up, although three Titan-4's have blown up since. Indeed, the Titan-4 launch record is now 1-in-12. One catastrophic accident for every 12 launches. If you knew your Honda or Ford would blow up when you got in and started it up one in 12 times, you would think of another way to get to and from downtown.

Cassini Space Probe
The Cassini Space Probe

Then, last year, NASA sent the Cassini space probe and its pounds of plutonium fuel hurtling past the Earth, 700 miles high, on August 17-to give it a "gravity assist," additional velocity to reach its final destination of Saturn. The good news: Cassini got past.

Cassini Trajectory
Cassini Trajectory

That bad news: On September 23 the Mars Climate Orbiter seeking to pass over Mars ended up coming too close to the Martian atmosphere and crashed into Mars. That could have been Cassini and the Earth five weeks before. It turns out that the two teams of Mars Orbiter scientists were working with different scales of measurement: one feet, one meters, and that's how the screw-up occurred. Yes, accidents will happen when human beings are involved.

More bad news: NASA, according to the U.S. General Accounting Office report, Space Exploration: Power Sources for Deep Space Probes, is "studying eight future space missions between 2000 and 2015 that will likely use nuclear-fueled electric generators."

The next NASA space nuclear mission is that of the Europa Orbiter in 2003-to go to Europa, a moon of Jupiter.

Europa Orbiter
Europa Orbiter

The European Space Agency, meanwhile, has developed new "high efficiency solar cells" for use in space-as a substitute for nuclear power. And in 2003 ESA will be launching its Rosetta probe using solar arrays for power-to go beyond the orbit of Jupiter to rendezvous with a comet called Wirtanen. "Rosetta will make first contact with Wirtanen about 675 million km from the sun," notes ESA. That's 500 million miles from the Sun. "At this distance, sunlight is 20 times weaker than on Earth," ESA points out.

But, again, NASA-seeking to coordinate what it does with the military and wanting to satisfy Lockheed Martin and the national nuclear laboratories-sticks with nuclear-in-space.

Speaking of accidents involving space nuclear devices, I'm not talking about something theoretical, that might just possibly happen. I'm not saying that the sky might be falling. Accidents have already occurred in both the space nuclear programs of the U.S. and the former Soviet Union, now Russia-in fact, there has been a 15% accident rate in both nations' space nuclear programs.

The most serious U.S. mishap happened in 1964 when the SNAP-9A plutonium power system aboard a satellite crashed to Earth, the satellite and SNAP-9A disintegrating, spreading 2.1 pounds of plutonium around the world. Dr. John Gofman, professor emeritus of medical physics at the University of California at Berkeley, has long connected that mishap to an increase of lung cancer on Earth.

The SNAP-9A accident caused NASA to become a pioneer in developing solar photovoltaic energy technology-now the power system on all U.S. satellites.

The worst Soviet space nuclear accident occurred in 1978 when a Cosmos satellite with a nuclear reactor aboard crashed into the Northwest Territories of Canada splattering nuclear debris over a vast area. The most recent Russian space nuclear accident: the crash of the Russian Mars '96 space probe with a half-pound of plutonium aboard into Chile and Bolivia.

Cassini carried the most plutonium of any space device-so far.

And what a colossal disaster could have occurred if it screwed up.

NASA in its Final Environmental Impact Statement for the Cassini Mission said that if the probe did not fly overhead as planned but dipped into the Earth's 75-mile high atmosphere on the "flyby"-making an "inadverent reentry"-it would break up (Cassini had no heat shield), plutonium would be released and-these are NASA's words-"approximately 5 billion of the…world population at the time…could receive 99 percent or more of the radiation exposure."

NASA, in its plan, said that if plutonium rained down on areas of natural vegetation, it might have to "relocate animals," if it fell an agricultural land, "ban future agricultural land uses" and, if it rained down on urban areas, to "demolish some or all structures" and "relocate affected population permanently."

As to the human death toll: Dr. Gofman projected 950,000 dying as a result of a Cassini "flyby" accident. Dr. Ernest Sternglass, professor emeritus of radiological physics at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, estimated the death toll at between 20 and 40 million.

The Outer Space Treaty declares that "states shall be liable for damage caused by their space objects." But, in 1991, the NASA and the U.S. Department of Energy entered into a Space Nuclear Power Agreement to cover America nuclear space flights with the Price-Anderson Act. This is a U.S. law which limits liability in the event of a nuclear to $8.9 billion for U.S. domestic damage and $100 million for damage to all foreign nations.

Thus if an "inadverent reentry" of Cassini back into the Earth's atmosphere occurred last year, and a part of Europe or Africa or Asia suffered nuclear contamination, all the nations and all the people affected could have collected in damages-despite the amount of land left polluted, the number of people who would develop cancer-would have been $100 million.

As to the U.S. military's plans for space, because of them a vote was called this past November 1 in the United Nations General Assembly to reaffirm the Outer Space Treaty and, specifically, its provision that space shall be used "for peaceful purposes" and the "exploration and use of outer space…shall be carried out for the benefit and in the interest of all countries."

Some 138 nations voted for the motion titled: "Prevention of an Arms Race in Outer Space." The United States, joined by Israel, abstained.

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan declared at the opening in January last year of the UN Conference on Disarmament in Geneva, Switzerland that space must be maintained "as a weapons-free environment."

Said Wang Xiaoyu, First Secretary of the Delegation of China to the Conference on Disarmament, at a seminar at the UN in Geneva last March on "Prevention of an Arms Race in Outer Space"-which I keynoted- organized by the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom:

"Outer space is the common heritage of human beings. It should be used entirely for peaceful purposes and for the economic, scientific, and cultural development of all countries as well as the well-being of mankind. It must not be weaponized and become another arena of the arms race." The following day, at the UN Conference on Disarmament, Li Changhe, Ambassador for Disarmament Affairs of China, formally proposed "an international legal instrument banning the test, deployment and use of any weapons, weapon system and their components in outer space, with a view to preventing the weaponization of outer space." A ban on all weapons in space.

China received wide support from other nations on the motion.

The U.S. has been blocking it ever since.

Craig Eisendrath, a former U.S. State Department officer who helped create the Outer Space Treaty, notes that keeping space weapons-free was the original intent of the treaty. Dr. Eisendrath told a workshop I led on weapons-in-space issues at the Hague Appeal for Peace Conference in The Netherlands last June that it was in the wake of the Soviet launching of its Sputnik satellite in 1957 that the U.S. sought to "de-weaponize" space-before it got weaponized. The State Department, he explained, used the Antarctica Treaty as a model for the Outer Space Treaty.

But the treaty ended up "just" banning "nuclear weapons or any other kinds of weapons of mass destruction" in space.

It's time we return to its original intent. And we have only a brief span of time to do so.

For if the U.S. moves forward with its military plans for space, other nations will follow. George Friedman, co-author of this book, ,i>The Future of War: Power, Technology & American World Dominance in the 2lst Century - yes, American World Dominance in the 2lst Century - claims that the U.S. can control the Earth for many years ahead because of its technological space prowess. Other nations-he names Russia, Japan and China-are just "passing blips," he says, "to compete with the U.S."

I've been to Russia; I've been to Japan; I've been to China. They are not passing technological "blips."

If the United States moves to utilize space as the "ultimate high ground" militarily, to weaponize the heavens, other nations will attempt to meet us in kind-leading to a new arms race and ultimately war in space.

George and Meredith Friedman, "think tank" arms specialists, conclude in their The Future of War book-which includes several pages on the glories of nuclear-powered weapons systems in space: "Just as by the year 1500 it was apparent that the European experience of power would be its domination of the global seas, it does not take much to see that the American experience of power will rest on the domination of space….Just as Europe expanded war and its power to the global oceans, the United States is expanding war and its power into space….Just as Europe shaped the world for half a millenium, so too the United States will shape the world for at least that length of time. For better or worse, America has seized hold of the future of war…"

The people of the world including U.S. citizens must join to stop this and work-as UN Secretary-General Annan said at the beginning of last year -"to codify principles which can ensure that outer space remains weapons-free."

We must all work together-and time is of the essence-to end the nuclearization and prevent the weaponization of space. Space must be kept for peace. That is the title of four days of protest events-April 14 to 17th in Washington-being organized by the Global Network Against Weapons & Nuclear Power in Space. Telephone, E-mail, write-get involved with-the Global Network, the group leading the challenge in the world against the nuclearization and weaponization of space.

We must insure that the heavens not be turned into a war zone. We must prevent nuclear poisons from being placed overhead. We must keep space for peace.

Karl Grossman, a member of Antioch College's Class of 1964, is full professor of journalism at SUNY/College at Old Westbury, has specialized in investigative reporting for more than 30 years.
Books he has authored include The Wrong Stuff : The Space Program's Nuclear Threat To Our Planet (Common Courage Press).
He is writer and narrator of the video documentary Nukes In Space: The Nuclearization and Weaponization of the Heavens (EnviroVideo, 1-800-ECO-TV46).
He is a charter member of the Commission on Disarmament Education, Conflict Resolution and Peace of the International Association of University Presidents and the United Nations.
Home address: Box 1680, Sag Harbor, New York 11963.
Telephone: (631) 725-2858. E-mail:

The Global Network Against Weapons & Nuclear Power In Space can be reached by telephone at (352) 337-9274
and E-Mail at
Its address is PO Box 90083, Gainesville, FL 32607
and its Web Site:

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