Organizing Notes

Bruce Gagnon is coordinator of the Global Network Against Weapons & Nuclear Power in Space. He offers his own reflections on organizing and the state of America's declining empire....

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Location: Bath, Maine, United States

I grew up in a military family and joined the Air Force in 1971 during the Vietnam War. It was there that I became a peace activist.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Debating the Colonization of Space

Yesterday my son Julian (who lives and teaches debate in Taiwan) wrote me asking if I would answer some questions that he would post on his web site that is a resource for debate students.  Julian is preparing to take his middle and high school students from Taiwan to a tournament in China in the coming months.  He told me that the topic for debate in China for the next half-year will be the colonization of space.

I was happy to hear that space colonization was being studied and debated by students and even happier to see my son integrally involved in the discussion.

Below find his questions and my responses.

Julian: If you were a teacher, what’s the most important thing you would want your students to learn about space colonization?

Bruce: Think outside the box – we are on the edge of a new dimension – the historical moment where the current global war system (with countries cutting each others throats for control and domination on Earth) is preparing to move into space where there are few if any rules.  Step back for a moment and think about the costs – money, lives, ecological impacts when you factor in the use of nuclear power, lasers and other advanced weapons technologies.

The public knows little to nothing about all of this – the opportunity for ‘democratic’ debate needs to catch up with the huge advances in technology.  Slow things down just so the people can catch up and have some input since after all – most of this space colonization will ultimately be paid for (one way or the other) by the great unwashed back here on the planet.

Julian: A lot of people think we should colonize space to avoid the eventual extinction of humans on earth. How would you respond to these points?

Bruce: Some years ago I was in Los Angeles and picked up the LA Times newspaper.  I read a story about ‘terraforming Mars’ so that snivilization could be moved there because, as stated in the piece by leaders of the Mars Society, the Earth “is a rotting, stinking, dying planet.”  I was offended by the Mars Society attitude about our beautiful mothership Earth that flies through space – far more lovely in my mind than the red planet of Mars.  I have nothing against Mars but am just partial to my Mother Earth.  Few of us here on Earth will be jetting off to Mars anytime soon.  It will be quite an expensive proposition to move snivilization to Mars – maybe some of those funds could be used to clean up our beautiful planet here.  As it turns out the US Pentagon is the largest polluter on Earth – maybe we could stop funding the Pentagon (at one trillion dollars a year) and we could really take care of our Mother Earth.  Plus at that time the president of the Mars Society was Robert Zubrin who was an executive at Lockheed Martin which stands to make a lot of $$$ if Congress could be convinced to spend the national treasury on more Mars missions.

Julian: You once wrote that colonization would be a “Trojan horse” for nuclear power and weapons in space. Can you expand/explain more?

Bruce: The nuclear industry and the weapons industry are itching to get their greedy hands on the money that would come into their bank accounts if nuclear power and weapons are moved into space.  Years ago the aerospace industry suggested that ‘Star Wars’ would be the largest industrial project in the history of Earth.  So once a nation like the US begins the process of colonizing space they will quickly say that it can’t possibly be done without the use of nuclear power (for mining colonies and to power rocket engines to Mars that would get them there in half the time) and space weapons to protect their ‘interests and investments’ in space.   Follow the money trail.

Julian: Many people write about how asteroid mining could prevent resource wars on earth. What are you thoughts on asteroid mining?

Bruce: It is true that the Earth is running out of many precious resources and it might be necessary to some day mine the sky.  But the real question is what is the process – who controls the process of deciding who owns what in space?  Who decides which country, corporation or individual gets to claim ownership?  The United Nations wisely came up with two treaties – the Moon Treaty and the Outer Space Treaty.  These treaties have declared that space bodies like asteroids are the province of all humankind.  To me that means if they are mined then the proceeds, the riches, should benefit all of humanity.  Mr. Big should not be allowed to push and shove his way to the planetary bodies and then stuff the proceeds from the mining operations into his already overstuffed pockets.  During the Obama administration the US already created a new law allowing US individuals and corporations to claim ownership of planetary bodies.  This is in violation of those UN Treaties.

Julian: Colonizing space would be really expensive and could take money from other programs that are more important like studying and developing technological solutions to climate change. Would you agree or disagree? Why?

Bruce: I would agree with that fully.  Some years ago (in 1999) the aerospace industry newspaper Space News ran an editorial entitled ‘Mars Missions are Affordable’.  They wrote that “Early estimates for Mars mission quickly ran up to $400 billion, and Congress eliminated funding for every project that bore the Mars label.”

Space News also suggested that, “The notion that it is too costly to conduct human exploration beyond Earth orbit is rubbish.”  They suggested that the US needed a dedicated funding source to pay for Mars missions and suggested that cuts could come from places like the Dept. of Housing and Urban Development (HUD); Veterans hospitals; and from popular entitlement programs (which officially are Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and what is left of the welfare program). 

Basically Space News suggested that the social lifeline for poor and working class people in the US should be defunded to pay for Mars and space colonization.  This attempt to defund social progress is well underway in the US today and in many other nations around the globe – especially nations that have undertaken plans to venture into space.  This should tell us something about the kind of people who are promoting space colonization – they are only out for their own profits and gain.  They don’t give a damn about the general public.

Julian: Is the technology ready for colonization? All technology can have some kind of accident. Should we be worried that trying to colonize too quickly could make accidents more likely?

Bruce: The technologists at the time (1912) said the new fancy high-class Titanic, the largest and most luxurious passenger vessel in the world, was unsinkable.  We were told that nuclear power plants were safe and cheap.  Nuclear power in space was also safe we were told (see below for list of space nuclear accidents).

Cassini was launched by NASA in 1997 with 72 pounds of deadly plutonium-238 onboard.  Just prior to the launch the Santa Fe, New Mexico newspaper reported that while fabricating the plutonium generators for Cassini the Dept. of Energy (DoE) lab at Los Alamos had reported 244 cases of worker contamination.  So even before the launch there was already tragic consequences from the space nuclear production process.  Factor in possible launch mishaps and we are asking for trouble when we seriously consider putting toxic nuclear materials on rockets that historically have about 10% failure rates.

United States

SNAP 9-A, April 1964: Launched aboard a Department of Defense weather satellite that failed to reach orbit. Reactor, as designed, released radioactive contents in upper atmosphere during reentry and then burned. Remnants struck the Indian Ocean. Total of 2.1 pounds of plutonium-238 vaporized in atmosphere and spread worldwide.

SNAP 19, May 1968: Meteorological satellite. Nuclear fuel, 4.2 pounds of uranium-238, stayed intact and was recovered off Southern California coast and reused.

Apollo 13, 1970: Nuclear material, 8.3 pounds of plutonium-238, inside lunar module when it was jettisoned before return to Earth. Now at bottom of South Pacific Ocean near New Zealand. Sampling so far shows no radiation leak.


COSMOS 305, January 1969: Soviet unmanned lunar rover lost rocket power and stayed in orbit, dispersing radiation in upper atmosphere.

Soviet lunar probe, Fall 1969: Unmanned lunar probe burned up and created detectable amounts of radioactivity in the upper atmosphere. Any surviving debris from incident presumed to be on the ocean floor.

RORSAT, April 1973: Soviet satellite launch failed; reactor fell into Pacific Ocean north of Japan. Radiation detected.

COSMOS 954, January 1978: Launch failed; 68 pounds of uranium-235 survived fall through the atmosphere and spread over a wide area of Canada's Northwest Territories. Canadian-U.S. teams cleaned up; no detectable contamination found.

COSMOS 1402, 1982: Failed launch; reactor core separated from spacecraft and fell to Earth separately in February 1983, leaving radioactive trail in atmosphere and landing in South Atlantic Ocean. Not known if any radioactive debris reached Earth surface or ocean.

COSMOS 1900, April 1988: Soviet radar reconnaissance satellite failed to separate and boost the reactor core into a storage orbit, but backup system managed to push it into orbit some 50 miles below its intended altitude.

COSMOS 1402, February 1993: Crashed into the South Atlantic carrying 68 pounds of uranium-235.

MARS ‘96, November 1996: Disintegrated over Chile or Bolivia, possibly spreading its payload of nearly a half pound of plutonium.

Julian: Do you think it’s better to colonize before 2050 or wait until later?

Bruce: We are going to have to wait until humans are much more mature before we move off the planet in order to go out and grab various planetary bodies for mining operations. 

In the US Space Command planning document “Vision for 2020”, in a section called ‘Historic Perspective’, they state:  “Historically, military forces have evolved to protect national interests and investments.  During the rise of sea commerce, nations built navies to protect and enhance their commercial interests.....Likewise, space forces will emerge to protect military and commercial national interests and investment in the space medium due to their increasing importance.”

Julian: You wrote about the risk of spreading disease before. But many advocates of colonization worry about diseases on earth that could kill us all. They also believe we could do things to prevent contamination in space. Aren’t diseases on earth a bigger threat than diseases in space?

Bruce: The biggest threat of disease from space is when potentially dangerous samples are brought back from Mars (or other planets) without taking appropriate safely measures.

A 1997 report, the “Assessment of Planetary Protection Requirements for Mars Sample Return Missions” recommends that any material brought back from the red planet be presumed hazardous and quarantined in a secure facility of the sort the US Army and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) use to study such exotic pathogens as the deadly Ebola virus.  There are currently no such space sample return safe facilities available and the more unregulated and decentralized the space mining/colonization industry gets the more risk there will be of future earthbound dangers.

Julian: You also once wrote about carrying our “bad seed” into space. Some might counter that point by arguing that colonization would create unity on earth. Which do you think is more likely- world peace from the overview effect or more of the same?

Bruce: Let’s recall the roots of the global war system here on Earth.  When nations built navies to explore and claim far away lands for themselves (England, Holland, France, Spain, etc.) they were soon sending armies and navies to secure their land claims so they could exploit the local resource base and dominate any indigenous peoples living on those lands.  This created the global competitive war system that we still suffer from to this very day.  What makes us think that if we carry this same ‘bad seed’ of competition, greed and conflict into the heavens that things will turn out any differently there – especially when asteroids and planets are so far away – who is going to know if country X destroys country Y’s mining colony?  There will be no media there to report anything. 

In a 1989 book called Military Space Forces: The Next 50 Years congressional staffer John Collins wrote the definitive study for the US government about how to control and dominate space for national interests.  In one section called the ‘Earth and Moon Gravity Wells’ Collins wrote, “L1, the lowest energy transfer site for 230-million-mile trips between Earth and Mars, could be fitted with military facilities......Armed forces might lie in wait at that location to hijack rival shipments on return.  L2, currently considered an ideal place to collect raw materials catapulted from the moon, also is a potentially important clandestine military assembly area.....Nature reserves decisive advantage for L4 and L5, two allegedly stable libration points that theoretically could dominate Earth and moon, because they look down both gravity wells.  No other location is equally commanding.”

This small section from Military Space Forces indicates that as far back as 1989 the US government was already planning to create the military capability to control the pathway on and off the planet Earth in the years ahead as plans for space mining/colonization move ahead.  So it is abundantly clear to me that our present human state of mind is not ready to venture off into a competitive dog-eat-dog space colonization gambit.  We urgently need the chance to involve the public in learning about and debating these issues – thus one of the primary reasons for the creation of the Global Network Against Weapons & Nuclear Power in Space in 1992. 

Yes, unity on Earth is a very good idea but let’s work to create it here now so that when we inevitably do move into outer space we don’t plant the flag (and bad seed) of endless conflict.

Julian: I know you are concerned about future generations. What would you say to the people who argue that colonization is the only way to guarantee that humans survive? Don’t put all your eggs in one basket, right?

Bruce: It might be necessary to move off Earth at some point in time but what do we gain if we carry the bad seed to new planetary bodies and plant the same earthly habits like greed, corruption, war and ecological devastation?  Already we can see how the space faring nations on Earth have terribly polluted the orbits just beyond our planet with so much space junk/debris that we now have to track it and frequently move satellites and the Int’l Space Station (ISS) in order to ensure they are not hit by debris flying past at 15,000 mph.  (Some scientists have predicted that at some point the ISS will be hit with space debris creating a cascading effect that only worsens an already grave problem that has no foreseeable solution.)

So what is the guarantee that humankind will survive for very long if they have not matured when they move to planetary bodies that will indeed be far less hospitable to human life than our lovely Mother Earth is. 

It’s a spiritual question even more than a technical or legal one.  What kind of consciousness should we carry with us into the spiritual realm of the heavens? 

Students and debaters would be serving the future generations in a good way if they also discussed these moral and ethical dimensions of space colonization.

I highly recommend watching these two space documentaries to get a much fuller understanding of these issues.

Arsenal of Hypocrisy (2003) here

Pax Americana and the Weaponization of Space (2009) here

~ Art by W. B. Park in Florida


Anonymous Yosi said...

Well done Bruce!
Please pass on to Julian that I, for one, would love to get more followup on his experience with his students on the mainland.
Best wishes

11/15/17, 10:14 AM  
Blogger Elaine said...

I'm late in skimming through your always worthwhile writings, dear Bruce. As you know, with a book-in-progress (and a sense of urgency to complete it while I still have good energy even at 82) I can't keep up with all of what's out there, though I do dip in now and then to worthwhile sources, to keep in the loop, like now.
I simply want to tell you how wonderful - how moving it is, to listen in to this dialogue between you and your son. Simply that. And also: Keep it up! Grateful hug, Elaine

11/28/17, 9:16 PM  
Blogger Bruce K. Gagnon said...

Thx Yosi and Elaine - it was a rare treat for me to have this exchange with Julian. I wrote him and told him, "Hey, your questions were excellent. It is clear that you have been paying attention over all the years." He responded, "Of course I was paying attention."

11/28/17, 10:19 PM  

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