Space Wars

Interview with Bruce Gagnon

The administration's proposal for human space exploration is designed to project U.S. military power into the skies.

This article is from the March/April 2004 issue of Dollars and Sense: The Magazine of Economic Justice available at

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This article is from the March/April 2004 issue of Dollars & Sense magazine.

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"Mankind is drawn to the heavens for the same reason we were once drawn into unknown lands and across the open sea. We choose to explore space because doing so improves our lives, and lifts our national spirit. So let us continue the journey." With these words, President Bush unveiled a plan in January to establish a permanent base on the moon for use as a launching pad for missions to Mars. Dollars & Sense asked Bruce Gagnon, the coordinator of the Global Network Against Weapons and Nuclear Power in Space, to explain the earthly motives behind the administration's celestial designs. - Adria Scharf

Dollars & Sense: Why did George W. Bush announce this new initiative now, in the face of a historic budget deficit?

Bruce Gagnon: The timing has to do with fear he won't be re-elected. The idea is to get these programs institutionalized—embedded into the budget—before he leaves office. Second is the fear that China, which recently launched an astronaut into space, will beat us to the moon. Whoever has bases on the moon will be able to control the "earth-moon gravity well"—the pathway between the moon and earth. The administration wants to gain control over the shipping lanes there and back before any other country does so first. The moon is also the gateway to cheaper space exploration beyond. Spacecraft built on the moon lift off using less energy because of the lower gravity. So controlling the moon would give the U.S. control over getting elsewhere.

D&S: Why establish "shipping lanes" to the moon?

BG: Helium-3 [an isotope of ordinary helium], found in lunar soil, could become a substitute for dwindling fossil fuels. Some see it as the energy source of the future. It would be used in fusion reactors. Helium-3 is one of the reasons the United States never signed the 1979 U.N. moon treaty, which says no one can claim ownership of the moon or have bases there. It's like a modern-day gold rush, but helium-3 could be far more valuable than gold.

Read Air Force Space Command's "Strategic Master Plan-FY06 and Beyond." It says: "While our ultimate goals are truly to ‘exploit' space … we cannot fully ‘exploit' that medium until we first ‘control' it." The document outlines a 25-year plan to sustain, modernize, and maximize war-fighting capability in space. It also says: "Military forces have always viewed the ‘high ground' position as one of dominance and warfare advantage … This capability is the ultimate high ground of U.S. military operations … Our charter is to rapidly obtain and maintain space superiority … ."

D&S: Is a "Star Wars"-type "strategic defense system" part of these plans?

BG: Bush's fiscal 2005 budget includes $47 million for technological development on an advanced, lightweight, space-based missile interceptor, to be developed by the Pentagon.

Meanwhile, NASA's Project Prometheus is developing nuclear-powered rocket engines. The nuclear engines will be used to provide power for another initiative, the space-based laser, which the Pentagon calls the "Death Star." The idea is to have a constellation of 25 to 40 orbiting battle stations powered by nuclear reactors knocking out others' satellites with lasers. Ultimately their dream is to hit targets on the earth as well. Because projecting a laser requires huge power, they need a way to refuel. So the battle stations would have nuclear reactors on them. The problem is, inevitably they'll start tumbling back to earth like the Columbia shuttle did last year, burning up on re-entry.

Both the missile interceptor and the death star laser are designed to be used offensively. None of this is really about defense. It's about controlling space, dominating space, and denying others access to space.

D&S: How does Mars figure in to the president's initiative?

BG: They believe they'll find magnesium, cobalt, and uranium there. The Mars Exploration Rovers are not looking for the origins of life. They're doing soil identification. NASA has said it hopes to have mining colonies established on Mars by 2025. New rocket technologies will be required to make it cost effective to haul mineral resources back to earth. Listen carefully to the language in Bush's speech, and you'll hear him talk about new "propulsion" technologies. That's code for nuclear-powered rockets.

The rovers already on Mars are themselves also powered in part by plutonium. Project Prometheus is working on developing many more nuclear missions. These planned nuclear-powered mining colonies will mean a massive increase in launches of nuclear materials into space, on rockets that have a historic 10% failure rate.

D&S: How risky was the launching of the Mars rovers, and have any accidents involving nuclear materials in space already occurred?

BG: All rocket launches are risky. Launch explosions happen. Multiple event failures happen. As you increase the number of launches, the risk of a major disaster increases. We've already had bad accidents involving nuclear power in space. In 1996, a Russian Mars mission with a half-pound of plutonium fell back to earth soon after its launch, raining debris over the mountains of Chile and Bolivia. In 1964, a U.S. military satellite powered by 2.1 pounds of plutonium fell back to earth, burned up on re-entry, and spread radioactive nuclear particles into the atmosphere, where they scattered globally. Dr. John Gofman, professor emeritus of molecular and cell biology at the University of California-Berkeley, believes this is a cause of the increase in cancers around the world since the 1960s. According to a NASA environmental impact statement for the 1997 Cassini Space Mission, which had 72 pounds of plutonium on board, a launch accident could have released plutonium over a 60-mile radius.

When Bush took office, he appointed Sean O'Keefe as head of NASA. O'Keefe, who used to work for Dick Cheney in the Department of Defense, and served as Secretary of the Navy under Bush senior, is a big proponent of nuclear propulsion.

D&S: President Bush seemed to downplay the cost of his space initiative, announcing just $1 billion in new funding, plus plans to reallocate $11 billion from existing NASA programs. What do you make of these figures?

BG: His plan is to get this rolling by embedding technological development into the budget now. The real money will kick in after he's gone. The collective cost estimates go back to his father, who had similar plans to send humans to the moon and on to Mars. In 1989 the plan was costed out at $400 billion. Today experts estimate it will cost $500 to $750 billion, but NASA space missions have a historic 100% cost overrun ratio. The International Space Station was even worse. Originally projected to cost $10 billion, it has cost $100 billion.

In the next five years, they plan to spend over $55.1 billion just for Star Wars technological developments. That doesn't count nuclear projects embedded in the Department of Energy (DOE) budget, or the costs of developing a whole new generation of satellites. It doesn't count other NASA projects, National Security Agency projects, or the costs of satellite development by the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) [a Department of Defense agency that designs and operates spy satellites]. The funding is allocated and buried in different budgets. Some is hidden in civilian or dual-use programs. You start adding it all up—and it amounts to an enormous expenditure.

Plus, when they finish constructing the space station, they're planning to close it down and shift the funding over. We'll ride the shuttle a couple more years, then shut it down. Each shuttle flight costs about $500 million.

A major aerospace industry publication, Space News, published an editorial in 1999 arguing that the Mars missions are affordable. It argued that the place to look for funding is entitlement programs. That's Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, what's left of welfare. The aerospace industry has identified these programs for financing and is going after them.

D&S: What aerospace corporations and Pentagon military contractors stand to benefit from this and how?

BG: Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, Boeing, and Northrop Grumman are the big four. They'd all profit from a space arms race. Star Wars will be the largest industrial project in the history of the planet earth. These are the same corporations that have brought us endless war here on earth, and now they want to move this madness into the heavens. If they get away with it, there will be no money left for anything else. And NASA has said that once the aerospace industry can successfully mine the sky for profit, the whole program will be privatized.

D&S: What are the connections between the aerospace industry and the nuclear industry?

BG: It's the same gang—military contractors Boeing and Lockheed Martin are working on developing nuclear generators and reactors for use in space, and space weapons. Corporations in the nuclear industry do a lot of work with the DOE, which recently announced that it would expand production capability at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee by allocating $100 million to the lab to meet the growing demand for space nuclear power. The DOE owns the lab and contracts it out to aerospace corporations.

We know the DOE has a terrible history of contaminating local communities and exposing workers to radioactive material. So we should be worried about nuclear-powered militarization of space not only because of space accidents, but because of the whole production process and its effects on workers and communities.

Think of the 15th century, when Spain sent Columbus to look for the "New World." Once Spain had staked claim to the "New World," it had to spend 100 years building an armada in order to maintain control over the wealth of resources, the sea routes, and the emerging markets. This helped to create the global war system. NASA and the Pentagon are doing the same long-range planning today.

Interview conducted by Adria Scharf, co-editor of Dollars & Sense.

The Global Network has a new video called "Arsenal of Hypocrisy: The Space Program and the Military Industrial Complex." For more information, visit