Make Space for Cooperation: SGR statement

SGR Statement, April 2001

Summary: As an organisation of scientists committed to the ethical use of science and technology, SGR calls for continued vigilance in protecting existing treaties and norms which defend space from selfish and warlike exploitation in the (misconceived) interests of special sections of humanity. Existing worldwide cooperative agreements should be extended, not rolled back.

Some recent proposals, if put into effect, would increase conflict between nations, and between rich and poor. Efforts to dominate the world, either commercially or militarily, by means of a monopoly of near-earth space, are in no-one's real interest. Those who seek such domination need to understand that, in a world that is tight-knit - economically, militarily, culturally and morally - such efforts will be counterproductive.

US National Missile Defence programme: SGR opposes the proposed programme on political, economic and technical grounds ...

  • it creates a grave risk of re-igniting the global nuclear arms race, undermining international security
  • it wastes resources which could be used to the benefit of the world's people and the environment. More would be gained by spending the money on, for example, renewable energy technologies (to reduce climate change and local air pollution) or on primary health care (in industrial and developing countries)
  • its intended effectiveness against missile attacks is very questionable, especially considering how easy and cheap it would be to develop countermeasures
  • it would not guard against other military and terrorist threats.

Nuclear-powered spacecraft: Advocacy of nuclear reactors as the primary power source for spacecraft is being revived [2]. SGR considers the dangers of such programmes far outweigh the possible benefits.

Pu238: A disturbing feature of Reichhhart's article [2] is the claim that "Protests against the small amounts of onboard plutonium at the launch of NASA's Galileo mission to Jupiter in 1989 and the Cassini Saturn mission in 1997 have turned 'nuclear' into a forbidden word." This claim is also summarised in the caption to a photograph.

SGR is concerned at what looks like a deceptive attempt to represent the protests as ill-founded and nuclear-powered spacecraft as marginalised by an unreasoned taboo. It is not explained that the plutonium referred to here is Pu238, whose activity per kilogram is approximately 270 times greater than that of the more generally known Pu 239. A comparison with depleted uranium (whose radioactivity is admittedly very small) is even more startling. The activity per kilogram of Pu238 is more than ten million times greater than that of DU.

Therefore, while the Pu238 onboard the Cassini craft is indeed "a small amount" in terms of mass - it is 23 kilograms - its radioactivity, which is the real focus of concern, is by no means a small amount. Its activity is over ten million billion Becquerels (nearly 400,000 Curies). This is the activity of more than six tonnes of Pu239, or of about 400,000 tonnes of DU.

The Current Trend of Ever Greater Militarisation and Commercialisation of Space, as exposed in, for example, a recent survey by Grossman [3], is not in the general interest. This trend is threatening even those treaties and agreements - such as the Outer Space Treaty, the Moon Agreement and the Convention on International Liability for Damage Caused by Space Objects - which exist and protect the general interest. Instead of allowing such 'global interest' agreements to be eroded, civil society should work for their reinforcement and extension.

Ethics and Space: SGR welcomes the fact that attention is given to this area by ESA (European Space Agency) and UNESCO. Short articles about the report 'The Ethics of Space Policy' have been published by Hoyle [4] and Castel [5]. The full ESA/UNESCO report will available on the internet in the summer, at .

Notes and References:

[1] Scientists for Global Responsibility (SGR) is an independent UK organisation of scientists committed to the ethical use of science and technology. SGR, PO Box 473, Folkestone, CT20 1GS, UK. Tel 07771 883696 begin_of_the_skype_highlighting              07771 883696      end_of_the_skype_highlighting. Email: Web Site:

[2] Tony Reichhardt, Breaking the Nuclear Taboo. Nature, vol 410, 5 April 2001, p 626

[3] Karl Grossman, DisgRace into Space. The Ecologist, vol 31, March 2001, pp 34 - 9

[4] Emma Hoyle, Physics World, vol 13, August 2000, p 6

[5] Frederic Castel, European Space Agency Report Raises Ethical Questions About Space Exploration