Space Militarism: A Debate

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Space Militarism: A Debate

The Space Arms Race-Military Seizure Of Our Future

by Jim Heaphy

‘Science for the People’ Vol. 13, No. 4, July/August 1981, p. 35–39

Space exploration offers potentially the most profound and revolutionary new possibilities for the future of humanity. This was understood over 50 years ago by a handful of scientists, including John Desmond Bernal, the noted British crystallographer and Marxist philosopher of science. Bernal clearly realized that technological advance has a social impact far greater than the simple economic results of increased productivity. And to Bernal, technology which would take human society literally off the planet would have especially revolutionary results. He was an enthusiastic advocate of spaceflight who forsaw a future in which people lived and worked in cities in orbit.

Bernal was a lifelong opponent of militarism who urged scientists to examine the connections between their research and the real needs of society. He demanded the highest of ethical standards from all scientists, and insisted that there was no “pure” research, divorced from society and class relations. Today, space colonies very much like those envisioned by Bernal are in vogue, (although Bernal would have despised the connotations of the term “colony”), and a thoroughly studied design for a space settlement is known as a Bernal Sphere.

The technology of space exploration is also the technology of the ICBM. It was U.S.-Soviet rivalry that spawned the space age, and it is the upsurge in hostility between the two countries that fuels a new arms race in outer space that threatens to upset the nuclear standoff in the 80s.

At the time that J.D. Bernal was first speculating on the future of space exploration, the scientific and engineering understanding required to make the feat a reality was only just emerging. Konstantin Tsiolkovsky in Russia, Willy Ley and Wernher von Braun in Germany and Robert Goddard in the United States and dozens of their friends and colleagues looked to the stars and began planning how to get out there.

The rocketry fanatics had only a single sponsor to turn to—the military. In Nazi Germany, especially, they found all the support they needed. The idealistic Verein fur Raumschiffahrt (Space Travel Society) of the Weimar period provided many Peenemunde rocket scientists when the Nazis took power. Although the V-2 rockets had virtually no practical military value in World War II, it was quite clear by the end of the war that military rocketry was the wave of the future. The Americans and the Soviets eagerly snatched up the German rocket scientists and quickly put them to work. Both sides realized that the rocket seemed the ideal mate for the atomic bomb which had devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The 1957 Soviet Sputnik beeping in the sky provoked near-panic in U.S. government circles, and an instantaneous and massive space effort began. The specter of Soviet atomic bombs whirling around 100 miles above our heads was more than could be tolerated. At first, it seemed that the nuclear arms race would move directly out into space, as the Soviets tested a Fractional Orbital Bombardment System and the U.S. Air Force began development of the SAtellite INTerceptor (SAINT) program to destroy enemy spacecraft.

Both nations found it advantageous, though, to downplay the space arms race in the early 60s, and emphasize scientific space exploration for national prestige. The accomplishments of the civilian space programs of the next two decades were a credit to both nations. Planetary exploration by automated spacecraft brought a Golden Age to astronomy. Weather satellites allow poor fishermen of tropical archipelagoes to hear accurate hurricane forecasts.

International law emerged which called for outer space to be used for peaceful purposes. Numerous United Nations resolutions attested to the international desire to keep militarism out of space. In 1963, the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty was signed, which applied to nuclear explosions in outer space. In 1967, the Outer Space Treaty was signed by 87 nations which banned nuclear weapons and weapons of mass destruction from outer space. The 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty specifically banned the development, testing and deployment of space-based ABM systems.

Although all the talk was peaceful, both sides continued low-key military space programs. The U.S. Air Force fought hard but unsuccessfully for two manned military space projects—Dyna Soar, a reusable space plane that was the theoretical ancestor of the Space Shuttle, and the Manned Orbiting Laboratory (MOL). Several groups of military astronaut-trainees were selected for MOL, some of whom later became NASA astronauts. But the war in Vietnam devoured too many military resources, and the project was scrapped in 1967, the same year the Outer Space Treaty was signed.

Reconnaissance satellites provided the first clear military payoff in space, though. Military communications satellites and navigation satellites followed, including some powered by thermocouples heated by sizeable chunks of plutonium. (In 1964, a military satellite powered by the SNAP 9A Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator (RTG) was lost at launch, and burned up on re-entry. This single incident accounted for the majority of plutonium 238 pollution in the atmosphere and about 5% of all plutonium isotope fallout of the last 30 years.)

Over the last 20 years, the military has increasingly relied on space-based systems as integral parts of its nuclear war fighting capability. The Navstar Global Positioning satellite system, for example, will provide navigational control to an accuracy of 10 meters .to military vehicles including ICBMs, bombers and cruise missiles, facilitating a nuclear first strike capability against “hard” targets, such as missile silos. The Satellite Data System spacecraft operate in highly-elliptical orbits above the North Pole the majority of the time, where they can communicate with bombers on the great circle route to the Soviet Union. American and Soviet radar ocean reconnaissance satellites monitor critical enemy fleet movements, providing key strategic intelligence. Electronic “ferret” satellites eavesdrop on the opposition.

Inexorable military logic has categorized all of these satellites as targets in their own right, leading to development of new generations of anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons. The current Soviet version is an intercept satellite which would explode near its target, destroying it with shrapnel. The American ASAT is a 20 ft. long missile launched from a high-altitude F-15 fighter jet. The non-explosive warhead homes in on the target with an infra-red sensor, destroying it by direct impact. The Soviets have conducted numerous ASAT tests recently, while the $3 billion U.S. system is in advanced development, and is approaching space tests.

The Space Shuttle, a unique spacecraft capable of a wide variety of missions, has been heralded as the start of a new era in space exploration. The Reagan administration, however, seems certain to exploit it to speed the arms race to space. Reagan budget cuts will eliminate U.S. participation in the International Solar-Polar Mission, end the peaceful National Oceanic Satellite System, and preclude any U.S. mission to Halley’s Comet. Scientific missions such as Venus Orbiting Imaging Radar and the Gamma Ray Observatory will be long delayed. Spacelab missions planned on a cooperative basis with the European Space Agency have been cut from one a month to only one or two a year in the mid-80s.

The hot new proposal for the Space Shuttle is laser battle stations—anti-ballistic missile systems in space. High-energy laser research has made enormous progress in the last five years, and aerospace companies like Boeing, Lockheed, TRW, Martin Marietta, and Hughes are spending tens of millions of dollars to design laser weapons to fit in the payload bay of the Space Shuttle. Hawkish Republican Senators led by Malcolm Wallop of Wyoming, Jake Garn of Utah, and ex-astronaut Harrison Schmitt of New Mexico favor plans to ring the Earth with 18 five-megawatt carbon dioxide chemical fueled laser ABM satellites. This plan would require some 50 Space Shuttle flights, requiring cancellation of quite a few “frivolous” scientific space missions.

In the past few months, successful initial tests of an extremely powerful X-ray laser pumped by the output of a nuclear explosion have taken place at the Nevada underground nuclear test site. Project Dauphin, the nuke laser plan, is managed by the University of California’s Lawrence Livermore Laboratories for the Department of Energy. Defense planners are contemplating rapid deployment of these compact nuclear lasers in space to destroy Soviet missiles. Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger has aided the process by openly criticizing and calling for a re-evaluation of the 1972 ABM Treaty which bans deployment of destabilizing ABM systems in space.

At the historical moment when the means to take a momentous evolutionary step off our home planet are first becoming available to us, the militarists are seizing the tools by which we can positively shape our very future. This is truly an issue which can affect the course of history for millenia.

A Science For The People Critique

Citizens For Space Demilitarization (CFSD) has amassed evidence revealing the militaristic usurpation of space science and technology which might otherwise serve the interests of the greater good. Several more points must be added to emphasize the importance of this issue. U.S. government support for space militari-zation is massive—over $7 billion a year1—with involvement going back to the very beginnings of space technology: “The campaign to militarize space was led in Congress in the late 1950s by then-Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson. By 1960, only three years after Sputnik, the United States was well on its way toward using space for strategic purposes … “2 Current U.S. space missions are apparently taken very seriously by the Soviet Union. A week before the first U.S. space shuttle was launched, the Soviet news agency Tass stated that the Pentagon “is intensively preparing for using outer space for military purposes … It is a question not of some ordinary measures to improve U.S. air defense, but of turning outer space into an arena of battle for America’s dominance on Earth.”3 This pronouncement was substantiated within a few days when the Pentagon asked President Reagan and Congress for a military space station in permanent orbit.

Also missing from the CFSD article is an analysis of the deep military and corporate involvement in and control of space science and technology. It must not be underemphasized that the early rocketeers such as Wernher von Braun and Robert Goddard mentioned in the article were engaged in the creation of weapons of mass destruction. Robert Goddard led research during WWI on tube-launched rockets that became the bazookas of WWII, and he developed jet-assisted take off and variable thrust rockets for military aircraft in WWII. In Germany, Wernher von Braun led the development of the V-2 rocket, the first long-range ballistic missile, of which 4000 were launched against Allied targets in the last months of the war killing nearly 3000 people in London alone. Such applications of their work and their general complicity with military purposes cannot be condoned or skimmed over by reference to their possible good intentions.

Military interest and control go back to the be-ginning of space technology. The Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has been interested in satellite warfare for several decades, probably as early as 1959, although a news blackout of military satellites was ordered by the Pentagon in 1962, thus masking much of DOD space activities then, as now.4 And according to a front page New York Times article entitled “Military Planners View the Shuttle as Way to Open Space for Warfare”, “Almost from the first planning and investment in the shuttle program a decade ago it was widely recognized on Capitol Hill that the major long-range benefits would be from military applications.”5 It is not a simple case of a good civilian program gone bad; military control has been an under-pinning from the very beginning.

Much the same thing can be said for corporate involvement. The major business interests are not from mining or manufacturing firms, they are from the weapons and spacecraft firms: Rockwell, Boeing, McDonnell Douglas, TRW. Corporations are interested in near-term, dependable profits, not in long-range exploratory possibilities enmeshed in the shifting political and economic sands.6

Even if business interests in space were for industrial development, as perhaps with the proposed Solar Power Satellite, who will be in control and whose interests will be served? CFSD began its article referring to the “revolutionary new possibilities” offered by space exploration. In what sense revolutionary? Perhaps only in the same sense as the automobile: something which has had a huge technical impact, with much social fallout, but which leaves the political-economic system intact while only serving to concentrate power further. Space industry will necessarily be capital intensive, highly centralized, and structurally and functionally quite distant from public scrutiny. The industrialization of space under the present economic and political structure of the United States will be a further solidification of present conditions: serving the profit interests of those in power at the expense and suffering of working people.

Will international cooperation and diplomatic efforts constrain this situation, as implied in the article? We think it may help some, but it will ultimately lose out to the more powerful forces of economic and political dynamics. According to the Center for Defense Information headed-up by Rear Admiral Gene LaRocque, “The race to militarize space is rapidly out-pacing the modest diplomatic efforts to control it.”7 SALT-I has often been analyzed as having little impact because it was agreed to only when the accepted constraints were a fait accompli. Even if this were not the case, all it takes is one president such as Ronald Reagan who, with one stroke, is prepared to abandon the SALT-II treaty and the seven years of negotiations that went into it.

Although we can agree with CFSD that space offers tremendous potential for scientific and technological development, we maintain that as long as the political and economic structure of our society is designed to divert such development to serve military and ·corporate interests, we must challenge it long before we could support it. We encourage CFSD in their efforts to challenge military and corporate control of space, but we maintain that support of technological development of space must be preceded by a fundamental transformation of our present economic and political institutions.

There is a strong constituency for space exploration and development, ranging from Star Trek fans to aero-space professionals. These people are presently focussed on the technical and speculative aspects of space. But CFSD recognizes the overpowering political forces at work. Military planners presently find space of central importance in their schemes; consequently, civilian and visionary projects are brushed aside with head-spinning speed. How can CFSD and SftP organize our natural constituency, make it aware of the dangers of the military monopolization of space, deepen the political understanding of the space-oriented public, and mobilize it to take action?

In short, we are questioning the strategy necessary for a progressive pro-space movement.

—East Bay Science for the People

Citizens For Space Demilitarization Replies

East Bay Science for the People cannot seem to make up its mind what it thinks about Citizens For Space Demilitarization. On one hand, SftP says that “CFSD has amassed evidence revealing the militaristic usurpation of space science and technology. . . ” and that “CFSD recognizes the overpowering political forces at work.” The same critique, however, accuses CFSD of condoning and skimming over the complicity of German and American rocket scientists in aiding military projects, and states that “an analysis of the deep military and corporate involvement in and control of space science and technology” is “missing from the CFSD article.”

CFSD does not claim that its analysis of the space militarization issue is the definitive and comprehensive one. We welcome, for example, the additional information included in the SftP critique which buttresses our contention that the space arms race is a vital issue deserving greatly increased attention in the 80s. We do object, however, to comments which imply that we have misrepresented the history of the relationship between rocketry and space science, and the military. We pointed out that the German rocket scientists collaborated with the Nazis on the V-2 project at Peenemunde. To also point out that the V-2 rockets had virtually no practical military value in WWII, which is true, does not challenge the judgement that rocketry was dominated by the military very early in its history, or belittle the memory of the thousands of civilians killed by the V-2 rockets in England.

We do not condone involvement in the V-2 project in any way, and oppose the macabre sentimentality concerning the V-2 still present in some U.S. aerospace circles. We doubt, however, whether bazookas or jet-assisted takeoff for aircraft can truly be considered “weapons of mass destruction,” since that term is properly reserved for nuclear, chemical and biological weapons and other systems suited to the indiscriminate slaughter of civilian populations. We do not disagree in any way with SftP’s statements about the early interest of the military in rocketry.

There is much that is “missing” in an article of this length, but we did mention the early development of the SAINT anti-satellite weapon. The military has been actively planning for the destruction of satellites since several years before the first satellite was launched. The United States maintained an active anti-satellite system based in the South Pacific using nuclear weapons until 1975.

SftP says, “It is not a simple case of a good civilian program gone bad; military control has been an underpinning from the very beginning.” CFSD feels that it is more useful to look at space developments as an interrelated series of programs, rather than as a single, monolithic program which is judged either “good” or “bad.” This approach allows CFSD to enthusiastically support projects like the U.S.-Soviet Apollo-Soyuz flight and the planned International Solar-Polar Mission, which rely on international cooperation to promote peace and achieve valid scientific goals.

We realize, however, that international cooperation and arms control treaties are not the entire answer, and we share SftP’s concern that space development will continue to be dominated by corporate interests. We mentioned the drive by several major aerospace corporations to convince the Pentagon to deploy laser battle stations in space. Our publication, Space For All People, has consistently cast a critical eye on corporate plans for space development. We will continue to do so.

Our strategy is evolving as our organization grows and develops. But we know the basic outlines. CFSD directs its organizing to the space constituency and to the progressive, anti-militarist movement. We advocate military conversion and democratic control of the economy. We are proud to count in our ranks growing numbers of aerospace workers and professionals, academics and students in the space sciences, and enthusiastic advocates of peaceful space exploration and development for the benefit of humanity. For progressives to say to aerospace workers, “Since the military is so heavily involved in space, we must oppose peaceful scientific space missions as well as military adventures,” is guaranteed to alienate those workers, and constitutes a kind of negative purism that says, “We’re against everything until the millenium.” We feel that the con-version strategy calls for the use of the productive capacity of the technologically sophisticated aerospace industry for peaceful uses, and we feel that space exploration has an appropriate place in such a program. Humanity is capable of grappling with many tasks at once. We strongly believe that economic justice and in-creased utilization of outer space are both on the human agenda in this decade.

Our primary focus is on the political and social effects of the immediate, practical applications of space technology. But we also have a vision of the future which justifies our opinion that the potential of space exploration is revolutionary. It probably won’t be much more significant than the impact of the auto industry on society if the economic system remains unchanged. But we want space to be explored, industrialized, and settled in the next several hundred years by a human species which governs itself in a democratic and just fashion. We believe that humanity’s move out into space is very much an imperative for the future, just as is the struggle for justice and peace for everyone. Economic collapse or nuclear destruction are real possibilities, but we are committed to organizing for a positive future.

We have appreciated the opportunity to open a debate on space with SftP, and we urge anyone intrigued by space exploration or concerned about the arms race in space to continue the debate by writing us.

Jim Heaphy is editor of Space For All People and a member of the national coordinating committee for the Progressive Space Forum (formerly, Citizens For Space Demilitarization).

>> Back to Vol. 13, No. 4<<


  1. The Defense Monitor, Vol. 9, No.9; published by the Center for Defense Information, 1980, p.1.
  2. Robert Aldridge, The Counterforce Syndrome (Washington, D.C., Institute for Policy Studies, 1978), p. 14.
  3. Oakland Tribune, April 5, 1981.
  4. Robert Aldridge, op. cit., p. 18.
  5. New York Times, March 29,1981, p. 1.
  6. See for example, New York Times (March 22, 1981) “The Industrialization of Space: Why Business Is Wary,” p. 111-1.
  7. The Defense Monitor, Vol. 9, No.9; published by the Center for Defense Information, 1980, p.1.