In violation of international accords, Trump wants to create a new branch of the military that will dominate the frontier of space with weapons
MARC STEINER: Welcome to The Real News Network, folks. I’m Marc Steiner. Good to have you all with us.
Donald Trump announced that he wants a new branch of the military. He wants a Space Force. He wants America to dominate outer space militarily. The United States already has a Space Force under the U.S. Air Force. Do we need a Space Force? There’s a treaty called the Outer Space Treaty of 1967. It’s supposed to ban the militarization of space. But is it working? What does it mean to militarize space? And has the military always been at the center and root of our space program? What dangers lurk ahead as Trump wants to make Luke Skywalker into a real human being?
Well, we’re joined by Karl Grossman, who is professor of journalism at the State University of New York College of Old Westbury. He’s been writing books and producing films on the military in space ever since Ronald Reagan’s Star Wars proposal to weaponize space in the 1980s. He’s the author of several books, including Weapons in Space and The Wrong Stuff, and has written and presented documentaries like Nukes in Space: The Nuclearization and Weaponization of the Heavens, and Star Wars Returns. And Karl Grossman, welcome. Good to have you with us here on The Real News.
KARL GROSSMAN: Pleasure to be with you.
MARC STEINER: Before we turn to Karl we’re going to hear this clip from the man himself, Donald Trump, about dominating space.
DONALD TRUMP: Very importantly, I’m hereby directing the Department of Defense and Pentagon to immediately begin the process necessary to establish a Space Force as the sixth branch of the armed forces. That’s a big statement. We are going to have the Air Force and we are going to have the Space Force. Separate but equal. It is going to be something.
MARC STEINER: So Karl, let’s jump right into this thing. So he doesn’t just want a program like Star Wars that Ronald Reagan wants. Donald Trump wants to dominate space.
KARL GROSSMAN: He wants to seize the ultimate high ground. And from that ultimate-. And a lot of the military documents on space, they’re talking about space being the ultimate high ground. And that’s what Trump wants to take, that high ground. And from space being able to- well, he said it. To not just have a presence in space, but to dominate space.
MARC STEINER: So let’s go back in time for a while. Let’s go back to the moment when you broke these stories about, in 1986 about the shuttle mission carrying nuclear devices on the shuttle mission; and also when you began to write about the question of the Star Wars defense that Ronald Reagan wanted to set up. So this is not a new idea. And even in your article that you just published in Counterpunch, you take us back to the 1940s and ’50s when some of the Nazi generals and scientists came over to work on this very same program the United States. This is not something that just bubbled up.
KARL GROSSMAN: There was something called Project Paperclip after World War II. And what the U.S. did was bring these Nazi space scientists over to this country, Wernher Von Braun and others. And they had them work at the Redstone Arsenal down in Alabama, and to otherwise be involved in space planning for the U.S. And they had big plans for space warfare. It picks up again with Ronald Reagan and Edward Teller, the father of the hydrogen bomb. And when Reagan was the governor of California, he made a visit to Lawrence Livermore Laboratory in California. The director of it was Edward Teller, who was the original Dr. Strangelove.
MARC STEINER: It’s true, right.
KARL GROSSMAN: Well, he was. And he told the Reagan he had this concept of orbiting battle platforms with hydrogen bombs on them. And the hydrogen bombs would be set off, and that would provide the energy for lasers, which would shoot down at the earth. And so Reagan thought this was a great idea. And out of that comes, in the ’80s, Star Wars. The architecture, if you want to call it that, was changed from hydrogen bombs up over our heads to orbiting battle platforms with nuclear reactors on them and super plutonium systems, and they would provide the energy for hyper-velocity guns, laser weapons, and other space weaponry. It’s a very close relationship between nuclear and space weapons. In fact, at one point General Abramson, James Abramson, who was the director of the Strategic Defense Initiative, said unless we have nuclear reactors up there in space on these battle platforms, we’re going to need a long extension cord coming down to earth providing electricity.
Now, I got into this issue back actually in ’85, and I had read about two shuttles. One being the Challenger, which would have been launched in ’86, and on them would be plutonium systems. Space probes with plutonium power packs. And, well, I filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the government asking-.
MARC STEINER: Let me ask you this question, Karl, why did that- why did that pique your interest? Why did that make you question what was going on at that moment in ’86?
KARL GROSSMAN: Well, I knew about nuclear, because I’m living and speaking today from Long Island. And at one point the plan was to have seven to eleven nuclear power plants sited on Long Island. And I did investigative reporting, I still do it, on Long Island, as well as being a professor. And I got into what would occur if you’d have an accident at one of these many nuclear power plants. I mean, in the end, there’s no nuclear power plants on Long Island, even though one, Shoreham, was built. I think some of it had to do with the journalism I did on the issue. It gave me a lot of knowledge about the dangers of nuclear. And here you have plutonium, which has been described over and over again as the the most lethal substance in the universe, the strongest radioactive poison, on these two shuttles. And then I thought, what would happen if one of the shuttles blew up on launch, or it exploded up in the lower atmosphere, or didn’t get into orbit, and so forth?
And I wrote a Freedom of Information Act request to NASA, the Department of Energy and the National Laboratories; Oak Ridge, Los Alamos, the others involved in these two nuclear shots. And then I realized that I had stepped into something, I didn’t realize how hot it was. Because even though they’re supposed to respond to you in a matter of weeks, the government, under the Freedom of Information Act, they weren’t going to give me anything. And the months wore on the months wore on.
Finally, in late ’85 I did get documents, after I carried on for four months. And then I didn’t know what to do, because it said in these Department of Energy documents the likelihood of a catastrophic shuttle accident was one in 100,000. And those are not bad odds. You know, I mean, I’m not technophobic. I love taking airplane rides. I always ask for the window seat. So, and I also- I’m very concerned about ethics in journalism. As a journalism professor I teach my students ethics. And you don’t want to get people crazy over something which might not be a real problem. Then in January ’86- actually, I was on my way to teaching an investigative reporting course, which I’ve been teaching now for 40 years- and I hear on the on the radio that the Challenger had blown up. This is January ’86. Its next mission, May of ’86, was to be one of these nuclear missions.
From a- we had payphones in those days. This is before cell phones. I called the NASA magazine. I said, you guys know that the next mission of the Challenger involved plutonium? No, they didn’t. So they had me put together an editorial, The Lethal Shuttle. And there I was, writing about the dangers of nuclear power in space. In fact, as it turned out, there had been accidents through the years in a number of nuclear missions. And then I also got to wonder, why use nuclear in space? For example, the two shots in ’86; one was to go to the sun, and one was to go to Jupiter. And even far-off Jupiter it was reached two years ago by a space probe called Juno, a NASA space probe which was powered by photovoltaic cells. Why use plutonium?
And as I got further along, I got into Star Wars, and this whole issue of Star Wars being predicated on orbiting battle platforms with the super plutonium systems and actual nuclear reactors. And then I got into the politics of energy and space. And it turned out that, it turns out that NASA, even though it was set up to be a civilian agency in ’58, it knew where the money is and was in Washington: the Pentagon. So it began working closely, and still does, with the Pentagon, with dual missions. And one of the attractions of NASA was and is to use nuclear in space, because they partnered with the Pentagon in that regard.
And just let me incidentally mention that a couple of months after the Challenger blew up, the odds of a catastrophic shuttle accident were changed precipitously by NASA from one in 100,000 to one in 86. One in 86. So there was a high likelihood of, all along, of a catastrophe.
MARC STEINER: So let me hurtle us through space for a moment and bring us to 2018, and look at where we are now and what all this means for where we are at this moment politically, and in terms of our technology and where space is taking us. So I mean, there are in reality these kind of hypersonic weapons, which is part of what the space thing is about; the argument around space weapons are about. So the question I have is- there are a number of things here.
So to start with, as you alluded to a moment ago, the military has always been deeply involved in the space program. So this is nothing new, that the military should be involved in this. So the question is- and also, it seems, at least from the establishment press and everything I’ve read in the last few days, that China, which took out a a satellite with its own missile, that Russia that even North Korea Iran other countries are experimenting in this arena as well. So what should be an American response. I mean, given the fact that the military has always been involved in space program; I mean, it literally is a military program. It’s never really been a civilian program.
KARL GROSSMAN: But in terms of weapons in space, I mean actual weapons, Star Wars weapons in space, that really flies in the face of an international treaty put together by the United States, the Soviet Union, and the United Kingdom back in the ’60s, and it was put into action in 1967, the Outer Space Treaty. And what it says is that no nation should place weapons of mass destruction, nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction, in space. And that’s held for 50 years, it’s held. So Star Wars didn’t happen. We, the Chinese, the Russians, and other nations have until now, until now, not gone into space with weaponry.
MARC STEINER: I’m sorry to interrupt, but Karl, let me ask you this question just about that. I mean, so that’s true. And both Russia- the Soviet Union then, Russia now, China, the United States, have never ceased to develop ideas and programs or develop the technology. They’ve been working on this ever since. Northrop Grumman is investing 100 million dollars with federal contracts to develop this whole program about weaponry in space and the militarization of space.
So even though there was a treaty in ’67, I mean, all the parties are still playing with this. I mean, so it’s not exactly we’ve gotten to a point of peace where nobody’s working on this. You know, right?
KARL GROSSMAN: Well, no, the treaty has held. I mean, there’s been ups and downs. Reagan, gung-ho Star Wars. George Bush and his son, gung-ho Star Wars. But not Clinton, not Carter, not Barack Obama. He was very explicit, Obama. No weapons in space. And in recent years, the last 20 years, 25 years, there’s been an effort to expand the Outer Space Treaty to have not just no weapons of mass destruction or nuclear weapons in space, but no weapons, period, in space. And guess who has led that effort? Canada. Our neighbor Canada joined with Russia and China, and they’ve they’ve all- it’s called the PAROS Treaty. Prevention of an Arms Race in Outer Space. And I’ve been at the United Nations when there’s been votes on PAROS, and country after country, including Russia and China, voted yes, PAROS, let’s have no weapons. That space under the Outer Space Treaty is supposed to be a global commons for peaceful uses. The one country that has voted against the Prevention of an Arms Race in Outer Space Treaty has been the United States, I’m sad to say.
MARC STEINER: So the question I ask though, and I’m really interested in this aspect of it, that- I, look, I think we need that treaty, and we need to demilitarize space. I mean, that is critically important to the future of the planet and human beings, and the world. But the question I have is that while Russia and China were saying that they wanted to have this treaty signed, they were also developing systems just like the United States is developing systems. So I’m saying- what I’m saying is, how do you get to a point-. Let me take a step backwards. Donald Trump’s Star Wars idea is insane, I think. And you know, he, he mutters words he doesn’t even understand. I think many of us believe that. That’s not the issue. The issue is that this is happening beyond our borders, plus it’s happening within our borders, politically. And so, I mean, so what is-. How do you proceed when that’s the reality?
KARL GROSSMAN: Well, a couple of things. One, you mentioned, and this is what the Trump administration is hanging its claim that our adversaries are already militarizing space on, and that the Chinese in 2007 did a stupid thing. They used one of their rockets to disintegrate, to break up one of their, it was an outmoded, obsolete weather satellite. The Chinese said, we told the U.S., we told Japan, we told others that we were going to do this. And in fact, the next year, the U.S. used one of our rockets to destroy one of our satellites that wasn’t necessary. In both cases, whether it had to do with the U.S. or China, this is a stupid way to get rid of a satellite, because you’re going to end up with all kinds of debris coming down. Again, it made no sense.
Meanwhile, there’s really been- and I’ve made trips to Russia, several trips to Russia. I’ve been to China. And for two basic reasons, they do not want to go up there and deploy space weapons. One is the Outer Space Treaty and its ideal that space should be set aside for peaceful purposes. And the other is the expense. If you’re going to put orbiting battle platforms up there with plutonium systems, which is what would have to be done, it’s going to cost billions and billions of dollars. It’s not like financing a bunch of Bradley fighting vehicles for $3 million apiece. And in Russia, I’ve been told, I’ve been told by Chinese officials- and again, I’ve gotten into a lot of research on this- we don’t want to expend our national treasuries. We don’t want to waste billions and billions of rubles or yuans on space warfare. We want this PAROS Treaty. We want- I go back to Reagan here in terms of his quote, trust but verify. This all would have to be verified. They have told me, because of the Outer Space Treaty and because of the expense of space warfare, they don’t want to go up into space.
But if the U.S. does this, if Trump with his Space Force goes up there with space weaponry, all bets are off. The Russians are going to move up there with weapons. The Chinese are going to move up there with weapons. And both countries are very space proficient. And consider the consequences of a shooting war in space. All that radioactivity as the satellites, the battle platforms, end up being shot upon by the, raining down on the earth. That radioactive rain would last for, that fallout, for centuries. And for those who are Trekkies, my son loves Star Trek, there’s going to be no way up and out there’s going to be so much debris.
MARC STEINER: So Karl, let me ask you the question to close out, I’m just curious where you think this debate and discussion goes now. I mean, clearly, he put Pence in charge of this. Some folks in the U.S. Air Force don’t want this to happen because they don’t want their glory taken away. There’s debates will take place in Congress. So where does this, where do you think this leads us? I mean, given the present political situation.
KARL GROSSMAN: I think from the grassroots that needs to be opposition. And there is an important organization called the Global Network Against Weapons and Nuclear Power in space. And folks can just go to their website, Space4Peace.org. They’ve been very active. They were formed in 1992. This year in October there’s going to be a Peace in Space Week and there’s going to be protests to this Space Force, and other actions all over the world.
I think the people of the world have to stand up. The entire world. We here in the United States, folks in Russia and China, and in every country, and say we do not want space, our heavens, to become a war zone. The consequences would be so horrific. And there’s only, frankly, a short time, a short period, to stop this madness. Because if we, if Trump and Pence, these characters that now are in Washington, D.C. have their way, and they move up into space with weaponry in violation of the intent of the Outer Space Treaty, you’re going to see other countries, beginning with Russia and China, and then India and Pakistan, and you make the list, up there in space. And this is no- this is not a future to leave for our children and grandchildren.
MARC STEINER: Well, Karl Grossman, this is really interesting. If you want to read more about Karl Grossman is talking about, he has a new article in Counterpunch called- am I getting this right? Turning Space Into a War Zone. It’s an excellent piece historically, and about where we are now. And I encourage you all to look at and read that piece. And we are looking forward to having Karl back for much longer, more ranging discussion of all this, because this really is a very critical issue about our future as human beings on this planet, and where people like Donald Trump would like to take us. Karl Grossman, thank you so much for joining us. It’s been great to talk to you. Really enjoyed it a great deal.
And I’m Marc Steiner here for The Real News Network. Thank you so much for watching. We’ll be talking together soon. Take care.