NASA is not simply a civilian space agency devoted to the high-minded cause of scientific discovery. The agency that originated as an extension of the Air Force has persisted in its often-disguised mission of military research. Columbia's tragic last mission was no exception, and was watched keenly by much of the world precisely because of its geopolitical and military significance.
Columbia's countdown to launch saw unprecedented security measures that included machine gun-toting guards eyeballing and body-searching NASA engineers and visiting dignitaries. NASA acknowledged that such measures where more than post-9/11 caution and were due to the presence of astronaut and Israeli Air Force pilot Col. Ilan Ramon.
Ramon was a living symbol of Israeli-American aerospace cooperation, which has included the Arrow interception technology incorporated into Patriot missiles (used in the Gulf War) and the sale of U.S.-built F-16s and helicopter gunships sent by the Ariel Sharon government to attack Palestinian villages in the West Bank.
Ramon was no bystander in the Mideast conflict. He received flight training at a U.S. Air Force base in Utah in the 1970s, became a pilot in the Israeli Air Force and was part of an Israeli bombing mission that destroyed an Iraqi nuclear power plant in 1986.
His military role aboard Columbia went beyond symbolic value. Ramon's research mission involved dual-use technology, an Israeli-built multi-spectral camera that probes the effect of sandstorms on climate change. The all-weather camera is also a key technology for military spy satellites and unmanned drones searching for targets obscured by dust, smoke and clouds. These murky atmospheric conditions exactly fit the scenario of the looming war against Iraq.
Israel is midway through a drive to establish a space program, much of it devoted to military purposes. So is India, the birthplace of the other "international" astronaut, Kalpana Chowla. Her research background in robotics and aerodynamics are also of direct interest to weapons designers. Her notable achievement was to design systems to control air turbulence during landing, a serious problem for vertical-landing aircraft such as the Harrier fighter or the accident-prone Osprey hybrid helicopter.
Images of an Israeli pilot and an Indian-born civilian engineer drifting weightlessly alongside the other crewmembers from the U.S. military were interpreted as a threat across much of South Asia and the Middle East. In Kashmir, torn by a Muslim insurgency against Indian rule since 1947, the three partner countries -- India, Israel and the U.S. -- are referred to as "The Nexus." The connection goes back to Israeli instructors who have been training Indian troops to suppress the Muslim majority population in Kashmir using the brutal methods tested in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Israel provides intelligence and military training in exchange for covert Israeli Air Force use of airfields in Srinagar and Jammu, the twin capitals of Kashmir. These airfields are within close striking range of Pakistan's nuclear facilities, the production centers of the so-called "Islamic bomb." Not by coincidence, India is also building a military-oriented space program to gain the upper hand against its regional rival Pakistan.
The United States joined The Nexus in the late 1990s, when the Clinton administration promised to lift sanctions on weapons sales to India, a nuclear power that refuses to sign on to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. The Bush White House has been shifting U.S. space research toward the overarching goal of national missile defense, a plan that critics including Russia and China say will lead to an arms race in space throughout the 21st century. The Bush proposal to load high-powered lasers, signal-jamming devices and electromagnetic-pulse weapons aboard orbiting platforms has met with resistance inside the United Nations because existing international treaties forbid the militarization of outer space.
The Nexus' ambitions to militarize space converged aboard the Columbia.
In the near future, the Nexus' drive to achieve dominance over outer space means that NASA flights and satellite launches could soon become fair game for counterattacks by victimized communities and neighboring countries living under the threat of space weaponry. A line of code slipped past software firewalls or a jammed radio signal can take down these sensitive spacecraft. As science fiction tells us, technology-rich powers can't always win the star wars.
Yoichi Clark Shimatsu, a former editor of The Japan Times Weekly in Tokyo, has reported on the Kashmir crisis.
Yoichi Clark Shimatsu