Nuclear Testing in Deep Space

March 15, 1994|By ROBERT BURRUSS

KENSINGTON — Kensington. -- Brent Scowcroft, the former national-security adviser to George Bush, said recently that the chances of a global nuclear war are now near zero, but that the use of a nuclear weapon against a city within the next few years is more likely than at any time during the Cold War.

When I was young I wanted to see, first hand, a nuclear explosion. Now I'm older, but my childhood's ignorant fascination with energy and physical power has not diminished. I'd still like to see a nuclear explosion, and I think many other people would, too -- but not to kill people.

The billion-dollar gamble that won the Promethean knowledge of nuclear energy also brought fiery pain and death. But now the initial high price has been paid, and despite the desire of many that it go away, nuclear knowledge is here to stay. It is impossible to unlearn the knowledge that comes from experience; knowledge is the most valuable and burdensome commodity in life.

Nuclear energy is also attractive to many people -- fascinating even. More than anything in human experience, nuclear knowledge offers power greater than that of any god in history. It is the knowledge of life and death for us creatures of innate divine pretention. The magnitude of the energy available through nuclear energy is obscene in its scale; it is embarrassing to us that suddenly we are so strong.

Our knowledge is waiting to be used. But to what end? Electric power generation is one possibility, but while we dither about that, there is a more immediate benefit that nuclear energy could give: It has the power to wrap our collective mind around a larger view of the universe.

In the late 1950s, the Soviets set off a series of high-altitude nuclear bombs in remote parts of Asia. Why did they do that? And what exactly was the American motive in the high-altitude test of a hydrogen bomb over the Pacific a year before the Limited Test Ban went into effect in 1963? The answers seem always comes down to the standard rationales of ''basic research,'' or ''to study the properties of a nuclear fireball outside the atmosphere.''

More to the point and more honest, though, is the reason of simply being able ''to see what a nuclear explosion looks like in space.''

Curiosity is a core instinct of humanness -- especially male humanness for whom the childish mentality toward such things as explosions does not age. Even the word ''curiosity'' does not measure up to -- or down to, make your choice -- the short word that says it all. It's fun. I don't have the market cornered on childish ignorance.

The Limited Test Ban Treaty of 1963 and the Threshold Test Ban Treaty of 1967 both proscribe nuclear testing ''in the atmosphere, in the seas, or in space.'' As a result, we have, as a species, literally buried our talent.

In the early 1980s, a young woman from SANE came to my door soliciting funds to stop all nuclear testing. I said that nuclear testing in space might be a good idea. She was, of course, appalled and asked whether I believed other creatures might live Out There, creatures who could be hurt by our dirty activities. I gave her a few bucks and wished her luck. The sun radiates 5 million times as much radiation each second as is in all our nuclear arsenals.

Space is the only sane place for nuclear testing. The test-ban treaties were written the opposite from what they should have been: We need to ban all nuclear tests from the earth. Testing -- which inevitably will continue for many reasons, not the least being our inability to resist our instinctual fascination with our divine potential -- should be allowed only in deep space, at least a million miles out, four times the distance of the moon, but still close enough to light the whole night side of the earth so that everyone can see both what we have and, in a crude way, get a perspective on the largeness of space and the smallness of ourselves as we wallow in our hubris at the bottom of this damned gravity well.

If a nuclear explosion were set off a million miles from the earth, only about a millionth of the debris from the bomb would hit the earth -- compared to a hundred percent of the stuff that now hammers the earth when a bomb gets tested.

The light from a deep-space explosion a million miles from the earth would take five seconds to get here. The ''gamma-flash'' that accompanies the bomb's initial fission and fusion reactions, might make the upper atmosphere fluoresce with bright color for a few seconds -- perhaps longer than the brilliant visible flash of the bomb itself. And about 90 seconds after the light and gamma rays arrived, high-speed charged particles would enter the earth's magnetic field and spiral to the north and south poles, maybe creating a short-lived but frighteningly beautiful artificial aurora extending for a few moments all the way to the equator.

Maybe some 4th of July, or any old time that the major nuclear powers could agree on when to do it and how far out to send the first one, we could do it. It would be a true scientific experiment -- that is, just to see what it looks like. Also, it would give us a perspective on the current size of our growing physical power, the smallness of the earth, and the limitless volume of space in which we could safely continue our technological enterprise forever.

Robert Burruss is an engineer who writes about science and society.

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