Trashing the Moon

The RORSAT Soviet satellite, reactor-powered and several of which crashed back to Earth. (Image: Defense Intelligence Agency/Wikimedia Commons)

Russia just crash-landed on the moon. India’s lunar rover is trundling across its surface. Are their intentions purely benign? Just about science? Or something more?

There are no such doubts lingering over US lunar plans, however. The mistakes made on Planet Earth will now be repeated on the moon.

In his fascinating and frightening 2012 book — A Short History of Nuclear Folly — that I somehow maddeningly missed on publication, Rudolph Herzog writes: “There are places where radioactive substances have no business being. One of them is space.”

Herzog, son of the famous film director Werner, and whose book, written in German, was translated into English in 2013, details a whole panoply of terrifying nuclear accidents and near-misses, including disasters that could have befallen us in and from space.

But no lessons have been learned and no such warnings heeded.

Consequently, we now learn that NASA and the US Defense Department have awarded nuclear weapons company, Lockheed Martin, a contract to build a nuclear powered rocket to speed humans on their way to Mars.

“Higher thrust propulsion” is what Lockheed Martin is seeking to develop, but is travel speed to Mars really the only motivation? Of course not. The Pentagon admits it is also keen to develop nuclear reactor technology that will power satellites with more “fuel-efficient fuel sources” so that they can maneuver in space in such a way as to “make them more difficult for adversaries to target” reported the Washington Post.

As Herzog recounts in his book, we have been here before, and the outcome could have been catastrophic. In his chapter, Flying Reactors, he recounts how in the 1960s, the then Soviet Union developed miniature nuclear reactors to power their RORSAT military surveillance satellites. At the end of their life they were simply blasted into deeper space where their radioactive load would decay far from human exposure risk. Or, at least, that is what was supposed to happen.

This first appeared on Beyond Nuclear International.

Linda Pentz Gunter is the editor and curator of BeyondNuclearInternational.org and the international specialist at Beyond Nuclear.