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OpEdNews Op Eds    H2'ed 4/16/10

What's Really Going On In Space?

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Message Ron Fullwood
MUCH of our country's space exploration, for most Americans who chip in with their contributions to our government's budget, is a hobby and a fascination; much more than it's essential or even relevant to the needs and concerns that are their own personal priority for government. It's entertainment at shuttle launch time, and it has been a propagandized race with the Soviets, and China that politicians seem to believe still has merit and should fill us with patriotic pride at our insistence on Cold War-like competition in space over more pragmatic and peaceable cooperation between nations. In many ways, it still is.

That fascination with space exploration and our politicians' exploitation of Americans' willingness to let them spend the money needed to fuel that ambition led the President yesterday to give the go-ahead for the industry's own dream of developing and manufacturing an infrastructure to Mars.

As many like to point out in defense of the tax dollars that fuel the space chase, the percentage of that budget which goes into space exploration is relatively small compared to where the rest of the money is spent. That little blip in the trillion-plus national budget make space exploration a negligible expense in their eyes - save for the trillions of dollars in escalating debt (ironically, much of it to the China), and the miserly way money for our basic needs is apportioned out by Congress.

It was clear in Barack Obama's selection of his NASA chief early in his term that he was giving the nod to those in the aerospace and defense industry who were deeply invested in funding the pursuit of manned space flight. It was a thumbs-up to legislators of both parties with firms and companies in their states connected in some fashion or another to the billions appropriated for missile defense systems, military satellites, propulsion systems, robotics, and every little facet of starry-eyed and enterprising space enthusiasts' wish list that they can manage to convince the American public to fund.

General Charles Bolden, NASA administrator, was a Marine aviator, flew more than 100 combat missions in the Vietnam War, was an astronaut who flew into orbit four times, twice as a shuttle commander. He's also a former aerospace consultant and was director of Aerojet, a NASA contractor supplying propulsion systems and has a contract to build engines for a new astronaut capsule. For several months in 2005, he was a registered lobbyist for the aerospace firm ATK, a company that makes engines for the first stage of a new space rocket under development.

The association of Bolden with the military and his industry ties call into question his ability to objectively determine the course of space exploration. He's doesn't have a scientific-based background, so he's reliant on other 'experts' and technicians with more experience when debating and determining issues of direction and investment. His defense background calls into question his ability to be objective about matters where his office and activity are compromised by defense priorities.

In remarks at the National Space Symposium conference in Colorado Springs this week, Bolden told the audience that the administration's new strategy would "create new research products, businesses, industries and a host of technology and space oriented jobs across our nation and the world." The way funds are allocated to NASA, money is dispersed and mostly hidden throughout the Defense, Energy, and Interior appropriations. The Defense Dept., through their Air Force budget, shoulders a great deal of responsibility for delivering the feed to the industry trough.

Bush's Chief Administrator of NASA for a time, Sean O'Keefe, who just happened to serve as Navy secretary, as well as comptroller and chief financial officer at the Defense Dept., was quoted declaring that NASA and the Pentagon were practically inseparable.

Bruce K. Gagnon, Coordinator of the Global Network against Weapons and Nuclear Power in Space, quotes O'Keefe, who was on a paid advisory board of Northrop Grumman and Raytheon, that it is "imperative that we have a more direct association between the Defense Department and NASA."

O'Keefe, continues, "Technology has taken us to a point where you really can't differentiate between that which is purely military in application and whose capabilities are civil and commercial in nature."

NASA's mission to Mars claims to place a high priority on the search for life beyond Earth. NASA touts recent discoveries on Mars and the moons around Jupiter, which they say indicates that there may be or have been habitable environments on these worlds that supported the development of life.That's the official story.

What I believe is behind the hawking of this space mission (among other considerations like keeping these defense industries on the public dole) is the industries' desire to promote and legitimize new nuclear propulsion technology needed to support such missions. These would be added to a long list of moneymaking boondoggles for the aerospace industry.

NASA, the Department of Defense and the Department of Energy are currently working together to develop the technology base for what they term, Space Nuclear Reactor Power. This program will develop and demonstrate in ground tests the technology required for space reactor power systems from tens of kilowatts to hundreds of kilowatts. The SP-100 nuclear reactor system is to be launched "radioactively cold.' When the mission is done, the reactor is intended to be stored in space for hundreds of years. The reactor would would utilize new blends of "recycled" uranium fuel.

The Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of the California Institute of Technology, manages the Mars Odyssey mission for NASA's Office of Space Science. Additional science partners are located at the Russian Aviation and Space Agency and at Los Alamos National Laboratory. Lockheed Martin Astronautics, Denver, is the prime contractor for the project to develop and build the orbiter. Mission operations are conducted jointly from Lockheed Martin and JPL.

Included in NASA plans for the nuclear rocket to Mars; a new generation of Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generators (RTGs) for interplanetary missions; nuclear-powered robotic Mars rovers to be launched in 2003 and 2009. 136 NASA touts future mining colonies on the Moon, Mars, and asteroids that would be powered by nuclear reactors.

To develop and demonstrate these new nuclear power and propulsion technologies, President Bush's budget proposed $279 million; ($3 billion over five years) for Project Prometheus, which builds on the Nuclear Systems Initiative. Project Prometheus includes the development of the first nuclear-electric space mission, called the Jupiter Icy Moons Orbiter. The mission would conduct extensive, in-depth studies of the moons of Jupiter that might harbor subsurface oceans. Most experts believe that only advanced nuclear reactors could provide the hundreds of kilowatts of power the craft would need to get a manned crew there in the time needed to protect them from the degrading effects of space radiation.

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Ron Fullwood, is an activist from Columbia, Md. and the author of the book 'Power of Mischief' : Military Industry Executives are Making Bush Policy and the Country is Paying the Price
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