Lessons from the Challenger Explosion
A speech by Gar Smith given at the January 28, 1989 commemoration of the Challenger shuttle disaster
February 14, 2003

CAPE CANAVERAL - The Redstone rocket that launched Alan Shepard on the world's first sub-orbital manned mission stands at the gate behind us. While it looks rather primitive by today's standards, it had something the space shuttle lacked. At the very top of the Redstone you'll see a tower carrying an escape rocket.

We now know that the Challenger astronauts - Dick Scobee, Michael Smith, Judy Resnick, Ellison Onizuka, Ron McNair, Greg Jarvis and Christa McAuliffe - were sthe victims of a corporate coverup by the Thiokol company (and quite possibly the victims of a rumored "hurry up" call from the White House, which hoped to reap political hay by launching America's first "teacher in space"). But the Challenger Seven were also victims of the militarization of space.

In the 1970s, when NASA's budget was cut back by the Nixon Administration, the military insisted on more lifting capacity to orbit its newest spy satellites. In an attempt to meet the military's needs and deliver what one NASA engineer called "more bang for the buck," the shuttle was redesigned for economy. One of the systems cut was the crew's escape system. A decision was made that military needs were more critical than human lives.

Space as a Wilderness

Some folks may wonder why an environmental group like Earth Island is interested in space. After all, there are no flowers, redwoods or harp seals floating around up there. Well, our name tells part of the story. If you accept that we all inhabit an "Earth Island," then you've got to be concerned with the wellbeing of the ocean of space that surrounds us.

Like many of you, I grew up in the era of Flash Gordon and John Kennedy. I was taught to think of space as a "frontier to be challenged and to be conquered." Since then, I've gone through the Vietnam war years and I've seen what can happen when Manifest Destiny gets in the saddle. I'm no longer willing to accept an interstellar version of the Westward Expansion. If we are going into space, we've got to brush up on our manners. But so far, the language we've used suggests that we are out to conquer the solar system the same way we "tamed the West" - with paranoia, greed and firepower.

We've got to broaden our perspective. Once we step into deep space, even the radical cry of "Earth First!" takes on a distinctly jingoistic tone. If we don't want to sound like we are calling for Gaia Über Alles, we have to ask whether there's some new philosophical ethic beyond Deep Ecology. We might call it "Deep Cosmology."

While most of us grew up with the idea of space as the "Last Frontier," Earth Island is now asking people to look at space, instead, as the "Last Wilderness." And like any wilderness, space needs to be protected. From wars. From exploitation. From pollution.

A Dirty Business

The environmental problems with space travel begin at the launching pad, when each lift-off creates clouds of choking smoke and toxic gases. A typical shuttle blast-off leaves behind about eight million pounds of water contaminated with corrosive hydrochloric acid. As the rocket bores its way into the sky, the waste cloud streaming from its flaming engines reacts chemically to devour the Earth's protective ozone shield.

As the Challenger disaster demonstrated three years ago, there's no guarantee of a perfect launch.

The Magellan probe to Venus and the Galileo probe to Jupiter are both powered by RTG (Radioactive Thermal Generators) plutonium packages. The Galileo carries 44.25 pounds of plutonium - enough to kill tens of thousands if dispersed in a Challenger-like explosion; enough to build seven atom bombs. (The Galileo probe has already caught fire once in the laboratory.)

It may sound impossible, but the fact is: space is already polluted. The US and other "space-faring" nations are guilty of a kind of orbital "off-shore dumping."

Since the dawn of the Space Age, more than 15,000 objects have been chucked up into Earth orbit; everything from spend payloads, rocket bodies and dead satellites, to clamps, lost wrenches and human wastes. More that 60 satellites have broken apart in orbit (not counting the perfectly good weather satellite intentionally blown to pieces by the US in a space weapons test). As a result, the once-pristine space around our planet is now littered with more than 7,000 pieces of space junk the size of baseballs and larger, whizzing along at speeds of 9,000 mph.

Some of that floating junk includes nuclear-powered satellites. Once promoted as safe, the fact is that nearly one-fifth of the 60 or so nuclear powered missions launched by the US and USSR has met with failure.

In 1964, a Navy transit satellite burned up over Madagascar and plunged into the Indian Ocean, trailing clouds of plutonium oxide through the stratosphere. Deadly plutonium-238 continued to drift down to Earth over the next six years.

In 1969, two Soviet moon missions ignited in the Earth's atmosphere, releasing detectable amounts of radioactivity. A year later, an Apollo 13 lunar lander mission missed its intended target and wound up 2,700 fathoms under the Pacific off New Zealand - with 8.6 pounds of plutonium on board. And in the most notorious case (so far), the USSR's Cosmos 954 crashed into a remote region of northern Canada on January 24, 1978, spreading radioactive debris over 40,000 square miles. The cleanup took six months and cost $14 million.

The Soviets responded to the Cosmos caper with a classic techno-fix. The satellites were redesigned to jettison their nuclear cores for "safe storage" in a higher orbit. As a result, we now have a "nuclear dump" located in a region of space 600 miles over our heads filled with 3,000 pounds of plutonium and uranium 238. Perhaps this is an appropriate occasion to suggest that our new environmental president nominate space for listing among the EPA's Superfund Sites.

Meanwhile, scientists (including a team right here at the University of Florida), are working hard to place a new generation of nuclear reactors in space by 1995. These won't be the traditional low-power jobs that only turn out enough electricity to power a blow dryer. These brutes are designed to power Star Wars weapons. The smallest would produce one megawatt of power. The largest would weigh more than 3,000 pounds and kick out 500 megawatts. (Picture an orbiting Lincoln Continental turning out enough electricity to light Miami for a year.) Current scenarios envision 100 of these Star Wars reactors cruising in Earth orbit.

This presents us with a very sticky problem. On one hand, you've got this hailstorm of orbital litter zipping along at hypersonic speeds. On the other hand, you've got these guys who want to orbit nuclear reactors as big as a barn door. With space litter growing at the rate of 15 percent a year and scientists predicting there's a 1-in10 chance of the larger satellites being hit in the next 15 years, trying to put reactors in space makes about as much sense as building a beehive on a freeway.

Congress has started to take note. In early March, Congressmember George Brown (D-CA) will introduce a bill to ban nuclear power in orbit. On another hopeful note: 1992 hasw been designated "International Space Year." Let's work to see that it becomes "International Nuclear-Free Space Year."

Sustainable Astroculture?

There's something about space rockets that brings out the gladiator spirit in the human psyche. Even Isaac Asimov, who should know better, recently wrote warmly of how human space settlers are destined to become "the Vikings of the future."

The spirit of plunder and pillage is alive and well on the drawing boards of America's "spaceploiters." There are already plans afoot to mine the moon for aluminum, titanium, iron and hydrogen while nuclear reactors are being designed to turn moon dust into oxygen.

Some US planners predict a permanent moon base population of 1,000 could be in place by 2040, with a tourist trade soon to follow - featuring, perhaps, guided trips to the craters of Tycho and Aristarchus.

If that seems far-fetched, consider what we've already inflicted on our celestial neighbors: plutonium power packs abandoned on Mars, Venus and the Moon; Polaroid film wraps scattered on the lunar dust; an abandoned Moon Buggy (with a fender missing after Eugene Cernan racked it up joyriding over the lunar rills). And God only knows what became of the golf ball Apollo 14 astronaut Alan Shepard whacked out of a lunar sand trap during one mission.

Would you believe advertising in space? The French are already planning to celebrate the centennial of the Eiffel Tower by orbiting a huge reflective circle, as visible as a fool moon. What's next on the horizon - the logos of VW, Mitsubishi, McDonald's or Mercedes Benz?

It is also a matter of record that a consortium of Florida morticians and Houston rocket engineers hope to package the remains of 5,000 cremated clients into shiny capsules for launch into permanent orbit 1,900 miles above the Earth at a carrying cost of $3,000 per capsule. (In keeping with the Wild West imagery of US space activities, the missile that will haul these ashes to their heavenly resting place is called the "Conestoga.") Too bizarre to happen? Don't bet on it. Former Transportation Secretary Elizabeth Dole, NASA and the Defense Department have already given clearance for these space burial missions.

The "Disposable Planet"

Those of us who are still alive also have to take care not to think of space travel as a convenient "escape hatch" from the problems we've created on Earth. The "Disposable Planet Mentality" argues that we've simply outgrown this planet and now it's time to move on to the stars. With the impacts of global warming suddenly falling about our ears, this temptation is greater than ever. But before we embark on a mission to Mars, we need to undertake what former astronaut Sally Ride has called a "Mission to Earth."

After all, if we still haven't learned how to survive within the limits of our planetary ecosystem, how can we possibly hope to thrive in the cramped quarters of a voyaging spaceship?

I'd like to propose today that we institute a People's Law. It would require that every would-be world leader be shot into space and left to orbit the planet for at least a week before assuming office.

We know from past experience that something wonderful and profound seems to happen to human beings once they've gazed down at our home planet from the perspective of a small, floating capsule. They get to feeling downrightc protective. Send up a politician; down comes a poet. It couldn't hurt.

If we have a future at all, it won't be found in the stars. It's got to be created right here on Earth.

Reprinted form the Spring 1989 issue of Earth Island Journal. Gar Smith is the only environmental editor who has been "banned for life" from entering the Cape Canaveral Space Center without "the express written permission of the base commander."

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