Accessory to War, Review by Katherine Avakian

Accessory to War, (W.W.Norton, $30.00) by Neil deGrasse Tyson, astrophysicist and director of the Hayden Planetarium, American Museum of Natural History, and Avis Lang, research associate at the museum, is a timely and important book. It examines the relationship of the scientist to the military at a time when the President of the United States has stated his intention to greatly increase the military might of this country, as well as to withdraw the United States from several established arms treaties.

The authors say space is “shared by both space scientists and space warriors. It is a laboratory for one and a battleground for the other. The explorer wants to understand it; the soldier wants to dominate it.” But the two groups do interact as both use similar methods and tools in working with systems such as multi-spectral detection, tracking, imaging, nuclear fusion, etc.

Tyson got a closer look at this relationship when, as a member of the board of the Space Foundation, he attended its 2003 annual conference in Colorado Springs. The charter of this not-for-profit advocacy group aims “to foster, develop, and promote . . . a greater understanding . . . of the practical and theoretical utilization of space . . . for the benefit of civilization and the fostering of a peaceful and prosperous world.”

He was struck, however, by the “stunning battery of military entities” in this mid-size city. He listed nineteen, including Peterson Air Force Base, the North American Aerospace Defense (NORAD), Fort Carson, the US Air Force Academy, and the National Security Space Institute. Also located there were the offices or headquarters of more than a hundred aerospace and defense contractors, including Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and Raytheon, these last all heavily contracted with the government.

Tyson states, “It has long been clear to me that the space research my colleagues and I conduct plugs firmly and fundamentally into the nation’s military might.”  Contracts could be awarded by NASA, which funds much research in universities, defense organizations like the Air Force Research Laboratory or the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, as well as from private firms like SpaceX.

Currently, the US Department of Energy is in charge of seventeen national science laboratories, many connected with universities, and some having particle accelerators where high-energy particle physicists work “hunting for the fundamental structure of matter.” Charged particles are accelerated to “stupendously high speeds . . . .” When the particles slam into one another from opposite directions, “brand new particles are birthed . . . .”

But the particle physicist does not do research just for its own sake. Tyson notes, “Most American accelerators were built during the Cold War, when the particle physicist was a vital resource for increasing the lethality of nuclear weapons.”

Tyson explains how the work of the scientist aids that of the military. When astrophysicists calculate how stars self-destruct through thermonuclear explosions, military people could find these calculations helpful in making thermonuclear bombs. In tracking orbits and trajectories, scientists provide the military with the information needed to launch spacecraft and space weapons. And in understanding reflectivity and absorptivity, the astrophysicist provides the military with the groundwork for the development of stealth weapons and materials.

Perhaps working to make weapons more lethal is an easier task than working to make the world more peaceful. In the Spring of 1953, President Dwight D. Eisenhower, a five-star general, who was Supreme Allied Commander in Europe during WWII, said these astonishing words to the American Society of Newspaper Editors:  “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed . . . .  We pay for a single fighter plane with a half million bushels of wheat . . . . This is not a way of life, in any true sense.”

While making this fervent plea for peace, Eisenhower was also listening to the National Security Council’s demands for “preparedness.” So, Eisenhower, along with succeeding presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, followed the “dual-track approach of regularly calling for peace while intensively preparing for war.”

Nevertheless, on January 27, 1967, the Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies (Outer Space Treaty), was signed by representatives of the United States, Great Britain and the Soviet Union, and then by 57 other nations.  As of early 2017, the treaty has been signed by 130 of the UN’S 193-member states.

However, present-day events have not shown success in honoring established treaties and agreements. President Donald Trump has withdrawn the United States from the 2015 multilateral Iran nuclear deal. In addition, he has announced he was withdrawing the US from the 1987 INF Treaty between the US and the Soviet Union, which called for eliminating all nuclear and conventional short-range and intermediate-range missiles and their launchers. He has also said he will not agree to a five-year extension of the 2010 START treaty between the US and Russia. It will expire in 2021 if not extended. And, he has stated his intention to form a new division of the Armed Forces – the Space Force — which Tyson believes would be more appropriate as a part of the Air Force. Does all this mean that conflict is inevitable?

Tyson states, “Nobody can certainly win a space war, just as nobody can certainly win a war fought with nuclear weapons.” However, space may provide some helpful answers. Scarcity of natural resources and rare earth metals are a source of strife on Earth. Space is replete with them. Water is plentiful in comets, some holding as much water as the Indian Ocean. And selected asteroids can be mined for metals and minerals, something that can eventually grow into a trillion-dollar industry.

Tyson believes that space exploration can offer opportunities for joint cooperation and endeavor. But in order to be successful in these ventures, human beings will need to spend time “mastering the intricacies of calm coexistence . . . .” He points out a small but flourishing example of this. High overhead, orbiting Earth almost sixteen times a day, are “spacefarers from many nations, living, talking, and investigating biology and chemistry and medical research and astrophysics – on the International Space Station for months at a time — a test case for peace through cohabitation and collaboration.”


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