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U.S. should not blow up 50-year-old treaty and make space a war zone

Space Shuttle Atlantis launch on Dec. 2, 1988 Photo: NASA

If President Donald Trump gets his way on formation of a Space Force, the heavens would become a war zone. And inevitably there would be military conflict in space.

The Outer Space Treaty of 1967 designates space as a global commons to be used for peaceful purposes. Russia and China, as well as the United States, are parties to the treaty. If a Space Force becomes a reality, the years of work facilitating the treaty will have been wasted.

If the U.S. goes up into space with weapons, Russia and China, and then India and Pakistan and other countries, will follow. 

Moreover, space weaponry would be nuclear-powered — as President Ronald Reagan’s “Star Wars” scheme was to be with nuclear reactors and plutonium systems on orbiting battle platforms providing the power for hypervelocity guns, particle beams and laser weapons. As General James Abrahamson, director of the Strategic Defense Initiative, put it at a Symposium on Space Nuclear Power and Propulsion, “without reactors in orbit [there is] going to be a long, long light [extension] cord that goes down to the surface of the Earth” to power space weapons.

I got to writing about and presenting TV programs on space issues more than 30 years ago. It was 1985 and I was reading a U.S. Department of Energy publication, Energy Insider, which told of two space shuttles—one the Challenger—which were to loft plutonium-fueled space probes in 1986. The Challenger’s plutonium mission was to happen in May, the ill-fated shuttle’s next mission.

From having authored “Cover Up: What You Are Not Supposed to Know About Nuclear Power,” I knew that plutonium is considered the most deadly radioactive substance. I sent requests under the U.S. Freedom of Information Act to NASA and Department of Energy asking for their data on consequences if one of the shuttles underwent a major accident on launch, in the lower or upper atmosphere, or didn’t attain orbit and fell back to Earth.

The weeks dragged on — I had hit a stone wall. I protested this apparent cover-up and, finally, 10 months later, received documents claiming that because of the “high reliability inherent in the space shuttle” the odds of a catastrophic accident on one of these nuclear space shots were one-in-100,000. (After the Challenger disaster, those odds were suddenly changed to one-in-76.)

With the Challenger accident, I broke the story of its nuclear mission ahead and began researching accidents that had happened in the use of nuclear power in space. I connected the interest in using nuclear power in space with “Star Wars” and how it was based on nuclear-powered battle platforms overhead.

This resulted in my writing two books, “The Wrong Stuff” and “Weapons in Space,” and three TV documentaries, the first “Nukes In Space: The Nuclearization and Weaponization of the Heavens.” Considerable travel and presentations followed—including two presentations before members of the British Parliament and a series of talks at the UN in New York and Geneva. As the years have gone by I’ve continued to pursue the issue especially when there were administrations that pushed space warfare, the two Bush and now the Trump administration.

“It is not enough to merely have an American presence in space, we must have American dominance in space,” Trump said at a meeting of the National Space Council last month, announcing his intention “to establish a Space Force.”

In one of the TV documentaries, “Star Wars Returns,” on the push to revive the “Star Wars” program in the George W. Bush administration, I interviewed Craig Eisendrath who had been a U.S. State Department officer involved in the creation of the Outer Space Treaty. “We sought to de-weaponize space before it got weaponized…to keep war out of space,” he explained. It has been ratified or signed by 123 nations and provides that nations “undertake not to place in orbit around the Earth any objects carrying nuclear weapons or any other kinds of weapons of mass destruction.”

The U.S. military has been gung-ho on space warfare. A U.S. Space Command was formed in 1982. “U.S Space Command—dominating the space dimension of military operations to protect US interests and investment. Integrating Space Forces into war-fighting capabilities across the full spectrum of conflict,” it declared in its report “Vision for 2020.”

There have been attempts to expand the Outer Space Treaty to bar all weapons from space. This is called the Prevention of an Arms Race in Outer Space (PAROS) treaty and leading in urging its passage have been Canada, Russia and China. There has been virtually universal backing from nations around the world. But U.S. administration after administration have refused to back the PAROS treaty preventing its passage. And now with the Trump administration, there is more than non-support of the PAROS treaty but a new drive to weaponize space.

That could be seen coming. In a speech in March, Trump asserted: “My new national strategy for space recognizes that space is a war-fighting domain.”

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Karl Grossman
Karl is a veteran investigative reporter and columnist, the winner of numerous awards for his work and a member of the L.I. Journalism Hall of Fame. He is a professor of journalism at SUNY/College at Old Westbury and the author of six books. Karl lives in Sag Harbor. Email Karl