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Global effort needed to save space for peace


What is our vision for the heavens? On a beautiful starry night do you look up to the moon and the stars and feel the connection to the ages?

Can you imagine military bases on the moon and constellations of space-based lasers orbiting our planet? Can you envision the new military space plane, the successor to the shuttle, dropping off new space-based weapons systems and then returning to earth?

We are at a defining moment in history as the United States leads the rest of the world into this new space age -- a moment that both ripples with technological advances and challenges the peace and environmental movements to update our thinking and our organizing.

In 1989 I organized a demonstration at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The keynote speaker that day was an Apollo astronaut, Edgar Mitchell, the sixth man to walk on the moon. Mitchell spoke out against Star Wars. He told us that if we allow the Pentagon to put weapons into space, and to even test them against old satellites, that we will create so much space junk that we will not be able to get a rocket off this planet. Mitchell said that we would be entombed on the earth.

Currently there are 110,000 pieces of “space junk” larger than a half-inch orbiting the earth at 18,000 mph. They are tracked on radar screens inside Cheyenne Mountain in Colorado. Recently the International Space Station, which will cost taxpayers well over $1 billion once completed, had to be moved to a higher orbit because space junk was moving dangerously near it. On its last mission prior to its fatal launch demise, the shuttle Challenger had its windshield cracked by a tiny speck of paint that hit it while orbiting earth.

We once viewed the oceans, lakes and rivers as vast and limitless. It was official policy to pour raw sewage and industrial pollution into these bodies because no one imagined that any harm could come from doing so. Dilution was the solution to pollution.

Today, some view space the same way. The heavens are vast and limitless, and it is assumed it won’t matter what we throw up there in the name of national security. NASA, the Department of Energy and the Pentagon do not worry about the consequences of plans to dramatically increase deployments of nuclear materials into space to power space probes and space-based weapons.

The ballistic missile defense system is sold to the American people as a way to protect us from attack by “rogue” states, or as they are now called, “states of concern.” National missile defense is the $60 billion program to protect the continental U.S. from “attack.”

North Korea, one so-called possible enemy, has suspended its missile-testing program and is now negotiating reunification with South Korea. China, another state of “concern,” has only 20 nuclear missiles capable of hitting the United States while we have 3,500 to “hit back.” Chinese officials have been asking over and over again for the United States to join them in signing a global ban on weapons in space. The United States refuses to discuss such a ban saying that there is “no problem.”

Then there is the program called theater missile defense, which would place weapons on ground launchers, ships and airborne lasers so that the U.S. could hit “offending” ballistic missiles in their boost phase, right after launch.

The U.S. Space Command, with its logo “Master of Space,” is also working hard to develop the space-based laser program. The $30 billion laser program will soon begin construction of a test facility at either Cape Canaveral in Florida, Redstone Army Arsenal in Huntsville, Ala., or at the Stennis Missile Testing Center in Mississippi. The program would deploy a constellation of 20 to 30 lasers orbiting the earth with the job of knocking out satellites and hitting targets on earth. These lasers could possibly be powered by nuclear reactors. Imagine what would happen if they tumbled back to earth?

We are now standing on the edge of history, poised to move the bad seed of war, greed and environmental degradation into the heavens. We have already sown this bad seed ever so widely on our fragile planet, leaving behind human suffering and environmental waste.

I am not opposed to the space program altogether. But I believe we should approach space exploration with a sense of awe and mystery. We should approach this final frontier with a reverence for what the heavens will reveal to us, rather than with the arrogance of exploitation. The time has come for a new consciousness about space. Space is not a junkyard or bombing range or playground for the high-tech boys with their new expensive toys. It is a place of wonder and life. It is the place where our spirit soars and our dreams live and grow.

The United Nations recognized this when they created the 1967 Outer Space Treaty that says no weapons of “mass destruction” can be put into the heavens. The treaty says that space is the province of all humankind. We must call for the strengthening of this treaty, not its nullification.

Space must be protected just like any other wilderness. We must create a global movement that says we shall not move the bad seed of war into the heavens. We must not pollute space any longer with nuclear reactors and nuclear generators, and we must stop all planning for U.S. space weapons and military bases on the moon.

For once, we have a chance to stop something truly horrific before it actually happens. We can prevent an arms race before it begins if we act now. If we pause long enough to give the Pentagon and the aerospace industries the opportunity, they surely will move the arms race into the heavens and rob our children and their children of the resources they need to create a sustainable life on our earth.

We must call out to the public to help us keep space for peace. We must demand that the politicians rescind plans for “missile defense” and the space-based laser. We must say that space will be protected as a wilderness.

When we look up at that beautiful moon on a clear night we must remember that everyone on the entire planet has the same experience -- it is a unifying symbol for all the people. Our ancestors who sat around their council fires for centuries before us marveled at the wonders of the night sky. We must honor them by preventing the arms race from moving into the heavens. We must keep space for peace.

Bruce K. Gagnon is coordinator for the Global Network Against Weapons & Nuclear Power in Space, based in Gainesville, Fla. His e-mail address is globalnet@mindspring.com

National Catholic Reporter, February 2, 2001