Skip navigation
Electronic Design
What’s All This Rocket Science Stuff, Anyhow?

What’s All This Rocket Science Stuff, Anyhow?

Sometimes I agree that President Obama says reasonable things. But I recognize that politicians sometimes have to say things to please particular audiences, whether they make sense or not. In this case, Obama said that we and the Russians are going to decrease our nuclear warheads by about 3 dB, starting from our 5113 warheads (which had been up as high as 30,000, just several years ago).

I’m pleased the Americans and the Russians won’t have so many missiles aimed and ready to fire at each other. I don’t think we need that anymore. But I am uncomfortable about how we will do it. I’ve seen pictures of a big Russian tractor just bashing and crunching a big old missile to make sure it can’t be fired. What a waste!


I remember reading, a dozen odd years ago, that NASA was going to test a new rocket by putting a couple tons of sand into orbit. Maybe that was one way to run a test. Maybe they were trying to avoid sloshing. Maybe they anticipated having to throw sand on an icy hill on Mars so their rovers wouldn’t skid. But I got a better idea.

To avoid sloshing, they could have sent up ice, or they could have sent up rocket fuel, or oxygen, or K rations—things that may be useful in case of an emergency. Or miscellaneous supplies and tools and equipment. In fact, the old rockets that are going to be decommissioned in the next few years could bring up any and all of those items to some parking orbit.

These payloads could be parked together in rafts so they can be easily found in the future. Park the raft over 10 or 20 miles from the main Space Station, which is not too far to go over and grab some supplies, but far enough that if it springs a leak, it won’t foul up the neighborhood.

I know that an ICBM is not necessarily designed to push a heavy load into orbit. It’s designed to throw a nuclear bomb as a big hook shot up into low space, at well below orbital speeds, which then comes down near a target. So it might not be able, after its payload and re-entry cone are removed, to carry a lot of weight even into low Earth orbit (LEO).

Some of the smaller rockets probably can’t carry up a useful load. But some of the bigger ones can. After all, much of our older rocketry was accomplished by using old ICBMs such as the Saturn IV. Maybe the smaller rockets can just be used for pure science experiments, but the Russians have lots of medium-large rockets that can be used for this heavy lifting. This is a task for real rocket scientists, to plan which rockets can be used for what.

Even after these useful loads are put into LEO, NASA will have to send out a space taxi to drag them to a higher orbit where they will be stable for years, or a space cowboy with a magnetic lariat to corral them.


What are we going to do with the warheads? Oh, I’m sure the experts have plans for that: sell the gyros as surplus and recycle the nuclear material. Except we always hear about plans to send up a nuke to push an asteroid off course if its orbit gets too close to earth. Okay, maybe we can take a dozen of the most reliable assorted warheads, big and little, and hand them over to the United Nations, and let them supervise putting these atomic bombs into space alongside the raft of useful materials.

Oh, heavens! Somebody is putting atomic weapons into space! Some evil group will be able to rain them down on the Earth! Terrible! What if Al Qaeda snuck up and stole a few?

We don’t have to worry about that. These nuclear explosives, up in a high orbit, have no re-entry vehicles or nose cones. They couldn’t survive if you sent them toward Earth. They would burn up in the atmosphere. Rather, these “bombs” will just have a light frame to couple them to a simple bare-bones rocket, with no nose cone. In fact, these bombs could be set up to be 100 feet wide in every direction so nobody could ever try to put them in a re-entry vehicle. A bomb that’s 100 feet wide could never re-enter the atmosphere.

In space, bulk of that sort would do no harm. A nuclear explosive could be sent out from the raft, with a small rocket motor, at 0.05 g to get close to an asteroid and then, as required, either nudge it off course or blast the heck out of it. If a dangerous asteroid is suddenly found, we might be in a hurry to go out and blast it. Having the rocket and nuclear blaster already up in orbit will save a lot of time and energy compared to launching from Earth.

So, here’s a new proposal to turn spears into plowshares. I’m not going to guarantee that I thought of it first, but I haven’t seen anybody else talking sense about what to do with old missiles compared to carrying sand into space or crushing them with tractors. I have talked to a few people at NASA, and they agreed, in an offhand way, that some of these ideas might be useful. After some real rocket scientists have studied this, to estimate which old rockets could carry a useful load, we would have time to start to do this right.

Comments invited! [email protected] —or:
R.A. Pease, 682 Miramar Avenue
San Francisco, CA 94112-1232

Hide comments


  • Allowed HTML tags: <em> <strong> <blockquote> <br> <p>

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.