Missile Swords Into Plowshares

A NEW attitude is spreading through the space community: cooperation with the Russians, instead of competition.

On March 27, the White House announced that the United States will purchase an unfueled Topaz 2 nuclear electrical power system from Russia, together with several pounds of plutonium-238 for it and four electrical space thrusters that can provide low-level but highly efficient thrust in space.

While these purchases will most likely be used for the Strategic Defense Initiative, NASA has also begun to show interest in Russian space hardware and capabilities. In particular, NASA is looking at the Soyuz-TM spacecraft that the Russians use to ferry cosmonauts to and from their Mir space station. The space agency is considering using the Soyuz-TM as a standby emergency escape vehicle for space station Freedom. NASA Associate Administrator Arnold D. Aldrich said that buying the Russian spacecraft wou ld be 75 to 80 percent cheaper than developing our own "lifeboat."

NASA is even starting to consider missions for the Russians' Energia booster. The world's champion weightlifter, Energia is comparable to our Saturn V, which we scrapped after the Apollo program was killed. Energia is a booster with no mission, since the future of the Russians' space endeavors is clouded.

NASA's new administrator, Daniel S. Goldin, is apparently thinking of Energia as a possible booster for future lunar missions. Energia could loft 35 tons to the moon and be a valuable asset in the eventual return of human explorers and the creation of permanent lunar bases.

Roald Sagdeev, former chief of the Soviet Institute for Space Research, pleaded last month with Congress for cooperative efforts. Russian space hardware, scientists, and technicians are "international treasures," Mr. Sagdeev told a Senate committee, but they may be "an endangered species" because of the chaos in Russia.

Besides government-to-government cooperation between the US and Russia, what about the fledgling private companies in the US that are trying to create new industries in space? Is there any way for them to cooperate with the Russians fruitfully?

These companies are hoping to do research in orbit on low-gravity materials processing, to use satellites to monitor the Earth's environmental condition, to create global personal telephone services. Some of them are already arranging to fly experiments on the Mir space station. Others are building their own satellites and searching for the best and most economical launching services for them.

This suggests an important new avenue of cooperation to be explored, one that will: (1) help move private enterprise into space; (2) help bolster the Russian economy; and (3) help to speed nuclear disarmament.

The US and Russia are beginning to dismantle thousands of ballistic missiles. Destroy the nuclear warheads, certainly. But why not offer the missiles as low-cost boosters for commercial space launches?

THE commercial utilization of space has been hamstrung by the high costs of placing hardware in orbit. Several American companies, such as Martin-Marietta, General Dynamics, Space Services Inc., and Orbital Sciences are struggling to market space-launching services. Their Competition comes from government-subsidized launching programs in Europe, Russia, and China.

If the US and Russia made their decommissioned ballistic missiles available to commercial enterprises, it could present the fledgling space-launching industry with an unparalleled opportunity. It could also bring desperately-needed hard currency into the Russian economy.

Moreover, cheaper launch services would help to usher in a renaissance for unmanned scientific satellites and deep-space probes. Many space scientists are calling for smaller, cheaper, but more numerous unmanned scientific missions. By offering booster rockets at "war surplus" prices, the cost of scientific space missions could be greatly reduced.

There are more than 4,000 Minutemen, Poseidons, Tridents, and various Russian ICBMs and SLBMs currently sitting in silos and submarines. Instead of spending billions of dollars to destroy them, let's sell them to space entrepreneurs.

It will take a great deal of trust on all sides to even begin turning the ballistic missile swords into commercial booster plowshares. Yet it can be done. And by making thousands of SS-19s and Minutemen and all the other missiles available at bargain prices, the governments of these two former enemies can help to fortify their national economies, to increase humankind's understanding of the universe, and to build entire new industries in space.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to Missile Swords Into Plowshares
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today