North Korea’s December 11 launch of its first satellite has justifiably drawn an enormous degree of criticism due to the clear military rationale behind the program, as well as the sad contrast of resources placed into it at the same time the economic failures of the totalitarian regime keep much of the population at a starvation level, perhaps intentionally. Whether we like or not, North Korea has entered the club of space capable nations, even as South Korea continues to struggle with achieving its first successful launch, despite the high level of assistance, including a complete first stage, provided by charter member Russia.
The fact that the relatively isolated North Korean regime was able to field a minimally capable launch vehicle, and surprise the rest of the world regarding the timing of the launch, has clear national security implications, but it also raises more questions regarding the effectiveness of continued U.S. adherence to the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) where launch vehicles are concerned. Almost no nation holds international pariah status as much as the DPRK, but in spite of ITAR it was still able to develop a basic launch capability, reportedly in close cooperation with fellow member of the former “axis of evil” Iran in a two way exchange of information between the very similar Shahab-3 and Nodong-A rocket programs. Fortunately both nations appear to be quite some distance from converting their respective rockets into militarily effective ICBMS, but the harder issue may be producing a sufficiently compact nuclear weapon and mastering the re-entry and guidance technology.
Any way you look at it however, the world is continuing to become a more, not less dangerous place in terms of the proliferation of nuclear weapons, and it is all the more unfortunate that space launch vehicles, which ultimately have the power to expand life out into the solar system, have another, darker role in human affairs as well. Nevertheless, despite perhaps well intentioned efforts, such as ITAR, to put the genie back in the bottle, the evidence seems to clearly indicate that at best, all it can do is delay the inevitable.
It seems regrettable that although we can talk freely and often about the very real dangers made greater by launch technology, and spend hundreds of billions defending against it, including deploying far more lethal systems of our own, we rarely speak so directly about the very different capability to extend human life and civilization into the solar system, and the ultimate reasons for doing so, to protect us from ourselves, as well as from the vagaries of fate. While individuals and organizations hold no such reservations, witness Elon Musk’s very public positions on the need to establish a second branch of human civilization on Mars, the government itself, and NASA in particular has very little to say directly on the subject. We can talk about reasons to explore, even if we cannot agree on a path for doing so, or celebrate the remarkable discoveries of robotic missions, but at least on an official level, we never treat the topic of actual colonization or settlement as though it were worthy of consideration.
Whether it is the danger of nuclear weapons, or close encounters with asteroids, captured ironically enough by China last week, whose impressive space capability is an even clearer indication that some ITAR applications need a serious re-examination, why is that the taxpayer is asked to spend hundreds of billions in a military capacity to eradicate human life from the planet, yet cannot even be presented with an honest presentation of the reasons for expanding life as quickly and as far and wide as possible?