The Columbia ‘Disaster’

The spectacular demolition of the space shuttle Columbia captured the attention of millions of people around the world. The corporate media played up the human element, but largely ignored the shuttle’s critical military role, particularly for deploying intelligence and weapons systems in space. The loss of the Columbia, one of only four shuttles, represents a significant setback for the U.S. military as no replacements are available, nor are there any alternative systems.

The 2001 report of the U.S. Department of Defense Space Commission (chaired by Donald Rumsfeld, until his appointment as Secretary of Defense) characterized space as a "top national security priority" which presented "burgeoning opportunities." It also noted:

"U.S. national security space programs are vital to peace and stability, and the two officials primarily responsible and accountable for those programs are the Secretary of Defense and the Director of Central Intelligence. Their relationship is critical to the development and deployment of the space capabilities needed to support the President in war…."

In its coverage of the Columbia’s mishap, the American media invariably described the astronauts as pilots, scientists and doctors, but rarely mentioned that all but one of them were military officers. Kalpana Chawla, an aerospace engineer from India, was the only civilian. Captain David M. Brown, Commander William C. McCool and Commander Laurel Clark held commissions in the U.S. Navy, while Lt. Col. Michael Anderson (the only black) and Col. Rick Husband were officers in the U.S. Air Force. Ilan Ramon, the seventh crew member, was an Israeli airforce officer, who:

"logged thousands of hours of flight time and was part of the first Israeli squad to pilot American-made F-16 fighter jets in 1980. He fought in the Yom Kippur War in 1973 and in the 1982 war in Lebanon.

"Ramon was one of the fighter pilots who destroyed an unfinished nuclear reactor in Iraq in 1981.

"The attack, in which eight F-16 warplanes obliterated the French-built Osirak reactor near Baghdad, was a milestone for Israeli aviation because the planes flew over enemy Arab territory for hours without detection. The pilots flew in a tight formation to send off a radar signal resembling that of a large commercial airliner."
--CBS News, 1 February

Ramon was involved in an Israeli satellite surveillance program:

"On Columbia, Ramon was in charge of experiments that comprised the Mediterranean Israeli Dust Experiment, a camera to image and measure small dust particles in the atmosphere over the Mediterranean Sea and the Saharan coast of the Atlantic."
--Washington Times, 1 February

Prior to the fiery destruction of the Challenger space shuttle in 1986, NASA set the odds of losing a shuttle at 1 in 100,000. Patrick Smith noted in (1 February) that two shuttles have now been destroyed in only 113 launches. Future space mishaps could be vastly more serious, as the Bush administration revives a nuclear rocket program that was abandoned in the 1960s because of the potentially devastating effects of a launch accident. The development of nuclear rocketry may well be accompanied by the deployment of space-based nuclear reactors to power Star Wars laser weapons.

Dr. Michio Kaku, a theoretical physicist at the City University of New York, is a prominent critic of NASA’s dangerous practice of putting payloads of highly toxic plutonium in orbit. In "A Scientific Critique of the Accident Risks from the Cassini Space Mission," Kaku estimated that in the event of a catastrophic failure of the 1997 Cassini space probe (which carried 72 pounds of plutonium) the "true casualty figures for a maximum accident might number over 200,000." NASA had provided a worst-case estimate of 2,300.

Marxists find no satisfaction in the personal tragedies resulting from military mishaps like the Challenger or Columbia. At the same time, setbacks for the imperialist drive to militarize space are, from the standpoint of humanity, far less dangerous than steps forward. This might seem elementary for Marxists, but the 14 February 1986 issue of Workers Vanguard, publication of the Spartacist League (SL), echoed the bourgeois media’s treatment of the victims aboard the Challenger (whose mission had been to deploy a major spy satellite for the U.S. military): "What we feel toward the astronauts is no more and no less than for any people who die in tragic circumstances, such as the nine poor Salvadorans who were killed by a fire in a Washington, D.C. basement apartment two days before" (see 1917 No. 2).

Those "nine poor Salvadorans" were refugees from desperate poverty and rightist death squads in a U.S. neo-colony. The willingness of the "revolutionary" SL to blithely equate them with the six U.S. military cadres who perished aboard the Challenger was clearly motivated by a desire to avoid displeasing the Reagan White House. This cowardly flinch is defended to this day by both the SL and the former SLers of the Internationalist Group.

The U.S. space program is driven primarily by imperialist militarism, and secondarily by the search for profitable investment opportunities. While many of the research projects on the Columbia apparently did not have a directly military character, the NASA press kit for the flight (STS-107) reported that one of the "payloads" was a Miniature Satellite Threat Reporting System (MSTRS). "This payload is a communications technology demonstration developed by the Air Force Research Laboratory in Albuquerque, N.M. STS-107 is the first flight of MSTRS." Another payload, dubbed "RAMBO" (Ram Burn Observations), was described as "a Department of Defense experiment that observes shuttle Orbital Maneuvering System engine burns for the purpose of improving plume models. On STS-107 the appropriate sensors will observe selected rendezvous and orbit adjust burns." Sean O’Keefe, the former Secretary of the Navy who currently heads NASA, was recently quoted as saying:

"I think it’s imperative we have a more direct association between the Defense Department and NASA.…You can’t differentiate between…military application and those capabilities which are civil and commercial in nature."
--Synthesis/Regeneration 30, Winter 2003

The destruction of the Columbia appears to be linked to cost-cutting and privatization of maintenance contracts, as well as NASA management’s repeated refusal to act on warnings by scientists and engineers of serious safety problems with the shuttles. Under capitalism, a fundamentally irrational social system, scientific inquiry will always be subordinated to profit maximization and the pursuit of military supremacy. Only under socialism will scientific research in general, and space exploration in particular, be conducted in the interests of humanity, instead of for the benefit of a tiny minority of plutocrats.

--International Bolshevik Tendency
8 February 2003

Posted: 10 February 2003