Confessions of a Recovering Pyroholic
Space Privatization: Road to Conflict?

June 27, 2004

Confessions of a Recovering Pyroholic
Gar Smith / The-Edge

Jerry Gerth is silhouetted by fire as the Los Angeles Symphony performs the 1812 Overture in the Hollywood Bowl. Credit: Photo composite by Gar Smith
It may have begun with my first encounter with birthday candle or a holiday sparkler. Whatever the reason, from an early age, I acquired an unnatural love of loud noises and meaningless bursts of light.

In grammar school, I built bottle rockets. In high school I joined the Rocket Club. On the sun-cracked desert of Edwards Dry Lake, we commandeered abandoned Air Force bunkers and used electric squibs to remotely ignite our creations.

Most fizzled. But there was that one day when everything worked perfectly. Rocking back on our heels, we watched in slack-jawed awe as one of our gleaming, 50-pound missiles vanished into the blue atop an arrow-straight chalk-line of smoke. Unfortunately, the rocket nearly nailed a NASA spotter plane flying by at 900 feet. That was the day the government grounded our budding careers as rocket scientists.

Back home in the San Fernando Valley, I turned to making my own fireworks. I cadged magnesium scraps from my dad's machine shop. I ground my own charcoal and pestered the neighborhood pharmacist for bags of saltpeter to make gunpowder.

I stuffed the gritty powders into hand-rolled cylinders and, when the neighborhood grew dark, I dazzled my sister's friends with fandangos of flame and sparks that left blackened stigmata on the concrete test-bed of our suburban driveway.

In college, when a classmate revealed that he was preparing to earn a State Pyrotechnician's license, my fate was sealed. We both apprenticed to one of the state's best-known 'works wizards, Jerry Gerth of Astro-Pyrotechnics -- the Cecil B. DeMille of the Combustible Arts.

Left: The author works on a set-piece called "Vesuvius," joining explosive lances with a fuse called "quick match." Right: Jerry Gerth works atop "St. Paul's Cathedral" for a show at the Oakland Coliseum. Credits: Martin Howell; Gar Smith.
Playing with Fire
Now, instead of watching the shows from a safe distance, I was up early, helping Gerth set up Independence Day extravaganzas at the San Francisco Marina or the Oakland Coliseum.

In the days before computerized pyrotechnics, the work was hands-on and sweaty. We hand-carried the aerial shells to the mortars (metal tubes secured in 55-gallon drums packed with sand) and hand-lowered them into the steel barrels, leaving their fuses dangling outside.

At show-time, the veteran fire-hands would race from tube to tube brandishing road-flares. They would torch the fuses and duck as the rockets belched from their breeches. And then, we apprentices would dash forward to replenish the smoking tubes with the next sequence of shells -- always making certain (we hoped) that no embers remained to spark a premature explosion.

In those days, July 4th shows featured "set pieces," a nearly forgotten artform used to create burning pictures using thousands of small, intricately fused roman candles nailed onto patterns of twisted wicker wired to wooden grids and lashed to metal scaffolds.

Our set pieces went far beyond fiery facsimilies of Old Glory and blazing profiles of Abe Lincoln.

Earthquakes, Buzzbombs and Alcatraz
One year, we staged "The Great Earthquake and Fire of San Francisco." Putting aside our road flares, we impersonated a mob of hapless San Franciscans, carousing to dancehall music in the moments before all Quake broke loose. As we fled in mock terror, our City of scaffolds, wicker and squibs rocked with bomb blasts, ignited with 10,000 jets of roaring flame and slowly burned to ashes.

For a full, shell-shocked minute, the stadium sat in utter darkness. Then, far up on the stadium wall, a red spark winked and an apparition sprang to light. Gunpowder flashed from the bottom to the top of a hidden armature, drawing an image in the night of a burning phoenix, wings aflame, rising from the ashes.

The next year, Jerry staged "The Battle of Britain," complete with German "buzz-bombs" flying overhead on long guy-wires and crashing into a fire-etched image of Big Ben. But the moment that stands out in my memory is the vision of the County Fire Marshall and his family leaping from their front-row seats and running for their lives as a number of the bombs broke free and started bounding across the infield grass like a stampede of fiery-tailed jackrabbits.

One summer, San Francisco hired us to launch the July Fourth show from Alcatraz Island. We managed to fire a dozen skyrockets before the fog closed in and the show was cancelled. (From the Berkeley hills, only our highest aerial bursts were visible, poking out of the fog like fitfully illuminated bubbles of swamp gas.)

Meanwhile, back on the island, errant piece of flaming debris had set a grass-covered field afire. While the City slept, we danced across the field, stomping out the ankle-high tufts of flame with our boots.

That was to be my last year as a pyroholic. It was the year I became consumed by a new passion -- environmentalism.

Fireworks: Breathtaking... and Deadly
Skyrockets bear picturesque names -- Chrysanthemum, Peony, Willow, Saturn, Strobe, Salute -- but the dirty truth is that the fireworks fallout poses a threat to nature and human health. Swedish scientists estimate that the Millennium fireworks shows shot 124 tons of lead into the air above European Union countries.

The blackpowder that kicks skyrockets aloft and blasts them into patterns of glowing sparks, contains carcinogenic sulfur-coal compounds. The dazzling colors come from a spectrum of toxic metals -- red (strontium and lithium), blue (copper), yellow-orange (sodium chloride), green (boric acid and radioactive barium), purple (potassium and rubidium), white (magnesium, titanium and aluminum).

Fireworks contain more than 108 additives, including: acetone, ammonium perchlorate, xylene, chlorine, alcohol, hexachloroethane, iodine, lead tetraoxide, lead monoxide, methylene chloride, chlorinated rubber, polyethylene, tungsten, zinc chromate and polyvinyl chloride. Fireworks fallout poses a direct risk for people with asthma, metal allergies and chemical sensitivities. Children are particularly vulnerable.

Fireworks: Our Magic Wand to Beat Back Fear
Fire is our ancient defense against the dark (and firepower is our modern defense against the Unknown). When dragons dance down the streets of Chinatown, it is understood that the writhing strings of firecrackers bursting underfoot are scaring away evil spirits. In this fundamental sense, a candle, a campfire, a flashlight, a skyrocket, an AK-47 and a cruise missile all serve the same function. They are the flaming wands that we use to keep the Unknown at bay.

And the dark, star-strung sky is the ultimate Unknown -- a mystery of such magnitude and depth that attempting to comprehend it can steer a mind towards madness. The sun may warm our days, but the night holds the eternal cold glow of death.

This may explain the fascination that draws our culture into the night to watch red trails of sparks climb into the sky and vanish for a heartbeat before erupting into animated dandelions of glowing dust.

Perhaps we throw fire into the night sky to briefly obliterate the implacable witness of those trillion burning stars. We launch our roaring bombs to shout down the soundless void of space. We've mastered the chemistry of combustion to fill the skies with a self-important hocus-pocus of flash-bang grenades to "mark our territory" beneath the Great Unknown. At root, even our most artistic pyrotechnic spectacles may amount to little more than chemically enhanced barking at the moon.

We need to relearn how to gaze into the Universe without going mad. It's a simple matter, really. It requires letting go of certainty, shelving self-importance and ditching the kind of mechanistic thinking that turns petrochemicals and rare earth into cellphones and iPods.

Eons ago, our human family was presented with a choice when a bolt of lightning helped kindle the first campfire. Today, far too many of us have gone too far down the wrong path. We have become worshipers of the fire and have forgotten the stars.

Space Ship One shadowed by the White Knight.
Space Privatization: Road to Conflict?
Bruce K. Gagnon
Global Network Against Weapons & Nuclear Power in Space

The news brings us the story of "space pioneers" launching privately funded craft into the heavens. A special prize is offered to the first private aerospace corporation who can successfully take a pilot and a "space tourist" into orbit.

Is this "privatization" of space a good thing? Is there any reason to be concerned about the trend? Are there any serious questions that should be raised at this historic moment?

Three major issues come immediately to mind concerning space privatization. Space as an environment, space law, and profit in space.

We've all probably heard about the growing problem of space junk where over 100,000 bits of debris are now tracked on the radar screens at NORAD in Colorado as they orbit the earth at 18,000 m.p.h. Several space shuttles have been nicked by bits of debris in the past resulting in cracked windshields. The International Space Station (ISS) recently was moved to a higher orbit because space junk was coming dangerously close. Some space writers have predicted that the ISS will one day be destroyed by debris.

As we see a flurry of launches by private space corporations the chances of accidents, and thus more debris, becomes a serious reality to consider. Very soon we will reach the point of no return, where space pollution will be so great that an orbiting minefield will have been created that hinders all access to space. The time as certainly come for a global discussion about how we treat the sensitive environment called space before it is too late.

The US Plan to Seize the Moon
When the United Nations concluded the 1979 Moon Treaty, the US refused (and still refuses) to sign it. One key reason is that the treaty outlaws military moon-bases but also outlaws any nation, corporation, or individual from making land "claims" on the planetary body. The 1967 UN Outer Space Treaty takes similar position regarding all planetary bodies. The UN, realizing we needed to preempt potential conflict over "ownership" of the planetary bodies, made claim that the heavens were the province of all humankind.

As the privateers move into space, in addition to building space hotels and the like, they also want to claim ownership of the planets because they hope to mine the sky. Gold has been discovered on asteroids, helium-3 on the moon, and magnesium, cobalt and uranium on Mars. It was recently reported that the Haliburton Corporation is now working with NASA to develop new drilling capabilities to mine Mars.

One organization that seeks to rewrite space law is called United Societies in Space (USIS). They state, "USIS provides legal and policy support for those who intend to go to space. USIS encourages private property rights and investment. Space is the Free Market Frontier." Check their web site at

Thanks for the Subsidies: Now We're a 'Free-Market'
NASA has been funded with taxpayer dollars since its inception. Taxpayers have paid billions of dollars in space technology research and development (R & D). As the aerospace industry moves toward forcing privatization of space, what they are really saying is that the technological base is now at the point where the government can get out of the way and lets private industry make profit and control space. Thus the idea that space is a "free market frontier."

Of course, this means that after the taxpayer paid all the R & D, private industry now intends to gorge itself in profits. One Republican Congressman from Southern California has introduced legislation to make all space profits "tax-free." In this vision, we taxpayers won't see any return on our "collective investment."

So let's just imagine for a moment that this private-sector vision for space comes true. Profitable mining on the moon and Mars. Who would keep competitors from sneaking in and creating conflict over the new 21st century gold rush? Who will be the space police?

Commercializing Space Means Militarizing Space
In the 1989 Congressional study Military Space Forces: The Next 50 Years we get some inkling of the answer. The forward was signed by former Sen. John Glenn (D-OH) and Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL). The report stressed the importance of military bases on the moon and suggested that with a moon-base, the US could control the pathway -- or "gravity well" -- between the Earth and the moon. The study envisioned how "Armed forces might lie in wait at that location to hijack rival shipments on return."

Plans are now underway to make space the next "conflict zone" where corporations intend to control resources and maximize profit. The so-called private "space pioneers" are the first step in this new direction. And ultimately the taxpayers will be asked to pay the enormous cost incurred by creating a military space infrastructure that would control the "shipping lanes" on and off the planet Earth.

After Columbus returned to Spain with the news that he had discovered the "New World," Queen Isabella began the 100-year process to create the Spanish Armada to protect Spain's new "interests and investments" around the world. This helped create the global war system.

Privatization does not mean that the taxpayer won't be paying any more. Privatization really means that profits will be privatized. Privatization also means that existing international space legal structures will be destroyed in order to bend the law toward private profit. Serious moral and ethical questions must be raised before another new "frontier" of conflict is created.

Bruce K. Gagnon is the Coordinator of Network Against Weapons & Nuclear Power in Space [PO Box 652, Brunswick, ME 04011, (207) 729-0517)

For more information contact:

Home | Background | News | Links | Donate | Contact Us |

(510) THE-EDGE (843-3343)
E-mail us at