Fire from the Heavens: Bush’s Plan to Nuclearize and Militarize Outer Space
by Karl Grossman

On January 14, President George W. Bush announced plans to "build new ships to carry man forward into the universe, to gain a new foothold on the moon" and from the moon go on to Mars. "It's time for America to take the next step," he said at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) headquarters.

Last year, two days after the Columbia shuttle disaster, NASA presented its three billion dollar Project Prometheus budget to Congress. NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe declared, "We're talking about doing something on a very aggressive schedule to develop the capabilities for nuclear propulsion and power generation."

Those challenging Project Prometheus see a link with the Bush space plan--and so do engineers working on the project.

Considering the fairly rapid time frame Bush has outlined to develop new spacecraft for the mission, "Nuclear power makes sense," says Kathy McCarthy, director of nuclear science and engineering at the US Department of Energy's Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory, where much of the nuclear rocket work under Project Prometheus is being done.

The notion of nuclear-propelled spacecraft is not new for NASA. In the 1950s and '60s, billions of dollars were spent by NASA and the US Atomic Energy Commission, the predecessor to the Department of Energy, on a series of projects finally canceled in 1972 because of the problem of an atomic rocket falling back to Earth and spreading radioactive debris. If Columbia had been a nuclear spacecraft, cancer-causing nuclear debris would have been spread over Texas and Louisiana.

"Only nuclear can work in space," maintains Dr. Robert Zubrin, president of the Mars Society, a group lobbying the government for going to Mars. "By restarting the languishing space nuclear power program, NASA and the Bush administration are making a critical contribution to science and the human future."

NASA stresses that nuclear-propelled rockets would shorten voyages in space. "Project Prometheus will develop the means to efficiently increase power for spacecraft, thereby fundamentally increasing our capability for solar system exploration," says NASA.

Opponents of using nuclear power in space warn of serious accidents from Project Prometheus. And it's not a matter of the sky falling--accidents have already happened in the use of nuclear power in space. In 1964, there was an accident in which a SNAP-9A, plutonium-powered US satellite fell back to Earth, disintegrating and spreading plutonium over every continent at every latitude. Dr. John Gofman, professor emeritus of medical physics at the University of California-Berkeley, has long linked the SNAP-9A accident to an increased level of lung cancer.

Warning of a "Chernobyl in the sky," Dr. Michio Kaku, professor of nuclear physics at the City University of New York, points to alternatives to atomic power in space--among them solar power and long-lived fuel cells. "Some of these alternatives may delay the space program a bit. But the planets are not going to go away." Indeed, as a result of the SNAP-9A accident, NASA intensified its work on solar energy systems, and its satellites are now powered by solar energy, as is the International Space Station. NASA has a division working on the additional uses of space solar power.

There is no "edge" or limit to solar power, says Dr. Geoffrey A. Landis, scientist at NASA's Photovoltaic and Space Environment Branch in Cleveland, Ohio. "In the long term, solar arrays won't have to rely on the sun. We're investigating the concept of using lasers to beam photons to solar arrays. If you make a powerful enough laser and can aim the beam, there really isn't any edge of sunshine." Still, there is a more powerful push for space nuclear power being driven by the Department of Energy and its national nuclear laboratories, the manufacturers of nuclear space systems led by Lockheed Martin and Boeing and dominant pro-nuclear forces within NASA.

Space nuclear power also has boosters among the military, which has been considering space-based weapons--devices that need substantial amounts of power. Additionally, the military has been interested in nuclear-powered rockets. In the late 1980s, an earlier series of nuclear rocket projects was first revived with Project Timberwind, a program to build atomic rockets to loft heavy Star Wars equipment and also for trips to Mars.

This kind of "dual use" now runs through all NASA operations, says Bruce Gagnon, coordinator of the Global Network Against Weapons and Nuclear Power in Space. "Right after Bush swore the new NASA chief into office, O'Keefe told the nation that from now on every mission would be dual use. By that he meant that every mission would carry military and civilian payloads at the same time. This is further evidence that the space program has been taken over by the Pentagon."

"Space is viewed today," says Gagnon, "as open territory to be seized for eventual corporate profit" and for US military control.

Gagnon speaks of proposals to "mine the sky"--to extract minerals from celestial bodies, with the moon considered a prime source for rare Helium-3. This elemental substance would be brought back to Earth to fuel supposedly cleaner fusion-power reactors. Gagnon says that the US military wants to establish bases in space, including on the moon, to protect these operations and to control the "shipping lanes of the future."

"The Bush space plan will be enormously expensive, dangerous and will create unnecessary conflict as it expands nuclear power and weapons into space," notes Gagnon, "all disguised as the noble effort to hunt for the 'origins of life'."

For more information, contact the Global Network Against Weapons and Nuclear Power in Space, POB 652, Brunswick, ME 04011; (207) 729-0517; email:

Karl Grossman, professor of journalism at the State University of New York/College at Old Westbury, is the author of The Wrong Stuff: The Space Program's Nuclear Threat to Our Planet and writer and narrator of the Nukes in Space television series available from Enviro Video at (800) ECO-TV46.

© Earth First! Journal March-April 2004