31 January 2003
Space forum under scrutiny
Groups says UNM helping put weapons in space
by Stuart Overbey

Daily Lobo

The Institute for Nuclear Space Power Studies is in the Farris Engineering Center.
Media Credit: Laura Mann
The Institute for Nuclear Space Power Studies is in the Farris Engineering Center.
UNM's annual Space Technology and Applications Forum has raised questions about whether the military nuclear research plays a part in the program.

The forum is set to begin Sunday and is sponsored by UNM's Institute for Nuclear Space Power Studies.

It was started 20 years ago, when nuclear space power was in its infancy. UNM professor and institute founder Mohamed El-Genk envisioned a small gathering to encourage the exchange of ideas on the topic. But as the institute became a leader in the field, the forum became "the place to be" for nuclear scientists.

Despite the forum's reputation among researchers in the field, some local and international groups have collaborated to demonstrate against military use of nuclear technology in space and UNM's contribution to those nuclear applications.

"This is a big planning conference for militarization of space," said Bob Anderson, a UNM instructor and member of the local peace group, Stop the War Machine. "They call it exploration and development of space, but all the people from it are people who turn it into military weapons. Lockheed Martin, the largest defense contractor in the world, is one of their biggest sponsors."

Those who protest this issue locally have often targeted El-Genk for criticism. But El-Genk said that the ethical issue of how his research is applied is not his responsibility.

"I think the ethical part really falls on those who use the technology for something in particular," El-Genk said. "We who are here at the University are not in the political arena."

He compared the military application of his research to the military's appropriation of four-wheel drive technology.

"Would you think we should drive all the SUV's from the market and not build them anymore because the military might use it," El-Genk said. "How convenient would that be to everyone?"

But some say that attitude is reckless and irresponsible.

"I would characterize that as scientists and technologists out of control," said Bruce Gagnon, in regard to El-Genk's stance. "Ethics is not an issue for them."

Gagnon, of Gainesville, Fla., is the founder of Global Network Against Weapons and Nuclear Power in Space. He will speak Sunday evening, when the Space Technology Forum opens, at the First Congregational Church, 2801 Lomas Blvd. NE.

Monday and Tuesday, as forum presenters speak at the Albuquerque Hyatt Regency Hotel, 330 Tijeras NW, demonstrators will be outside ready to talk with the forum attendees about possible weapons applications of the material presented.

About a decade ago, Gagnon identified the Institute as a major source of nuclear technology that could enable plans to put the technology in space.

Gagnon pointed to two reasons for his opposition -- radioactive contamination from accidents in the laboratory and inevitable launch failures.

"This is not theoretical," Gagnon said, noting a 1996 article appearing in the Santa Fe New Mexican, which documents 244 cases of accidental radioactive contamination at Los Alamos National Laboratory in 1995. He also said 34 nuclear cores orbiting Earth have disintegrating orbits which will fall back on the planet, still radioactive.

Military demand for nuclear propulsion technology has funding behind it.

In the January issue of Air Force Magazine, Peter Teets, director of the National Reconnaissance Office and former president of Lockheed Martin, called for the Air Force to develop capabilities that will allow U.S. military control of space. Teets echoes the directives of a 1996 document called "Vision 2020," issued by U.S. Space Command, which is headquartered at Patterson Air Force Base in Colorado. "Vision 2020" also calls for global domination by the United States through the militarization of space.

In a recent press release, Gagnon quotes former Navy Secretary Sean O'Keefe, now NASA's director as saying, "It's imperative that we have a more direct association between the Defense Department and NASA. Technology has taken us to a point where you really can't differentiate between that which is purely military in application and those capabilities which are civil and commercial."

O'Keefe's statement outlines the implementation of "dual-use technologies," in which technology developed for private sector applications will also be used by the military.

Grant sponsors for El-Genk and the Institute for Space Nuclear Power Studies indicate involvement in the dual-use research. From a list provided by UNM's Public Affairs Department, El-Genk's grant sponsors have included the Air Force Research Laboratory, the Department of Energy, Sandia National Laboratories, Defense Special Weapons Agency and NASA.

"There is a trick I don't know if you're aware of," said El-Genk in regard to a contract he had had with the Air Force. "The Air Force might come and say, 'We're interested in this technology,' but of course development technologies can't come from their budget. So DOE or another agency will say 'OK, the nuclear part, we'll develop it and you pay for that development.' But most government agencies don't stay around. They want some other agency to develop the technology then they can go and use it.

"The Air Force never came out and said, 'We need this technology and we'll pay to develop it.'"

However, El-Genk's institute is not alone in working for the military.

Fifty-three other UNM professors from various departments have security clearances to enable them to work on military projects. UNM student and Stop the War Machine member Trey Smith asked for a list of the names of those professors, but the Public Affairs Department would not release them citing security issues.

Gagnon said he hopes the upcoming demonstrations will get people thinking and talking about weapons in space.

"We're not saying there shouldn't be any space program," he said, "It's a question of what kind of seed do we carry with us out into space? If we carry this seed of war and environmental degradation, we are doing something morally and ethically wrong."


Global Network