War in Heaven

By Helen Caldicott and Craig Eisendrath. The New Press, 166 pp, $29.95, hardcover

In 1982, a Cessna crashed in the northeastern reaches of British Columbia. Given the terrain, there was little hope for the three men aboard, yet a Soviet satellite intercepted and relayed the plane's emergency beacon. At the time, their rescue was seen as a high-tech miracle, and as a model for international cooperation.

Yet a mere six months later, then–U.S. president Ronald Reagan delivered his famous “star wars” speech, asking the American public: “What if free people could live secure in the knowledge that their security did not rest upon the threat of instant U.S. retaliation to deter a Soviet attack, that we could intercept and destroy strategic ballistic missiles before they reached our own soil?” The cooperation side of space tech, which rescued the Cessna, was already being eclipsed by the quest to weaponize space.

Helen Caldicott (If You Love This Planet) has teamed up with former U.S. Foreign Service diplomat Craig Eisendrath to write the impassioned War in Heaven: The Arms Race in Outer Space, and if much of the material is familiar to Canadians wary of U.S. imperialism beyond the stratosphere (thanks in no small part to Mel Hurtig's 2004 book Rushing to Armageddon), its call for peace among the stars is still depressingly unheard south of the 49th.

The book is compelling, and its authors well-versed in the complexities of rocketry, missile-defence theory, and multilateral treaty making. (Caldicott wrote Missile Envy way back in 1984; Eisendrath was an author of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty.) Its basic argument—that U.S. antimissile and antisatellite technology will beget an arms race “disastrous for the human race”—receives support from one authority after another. The authors also weigh space tech's many benefits (such as the way worldwide communication can end-run totalitarianism) against the terrible costs of missile defence: Washington has spent almost US$150 billion on research to date (it accounts for 95 percent of all military spending in space)—“with virtually nothing to show for it”.

Looking at the waste, and the inherent provocation for nuclear-ready countries like Iran, North Korea, and China, the authors beg that citizens exercise their right to move the debate out of the shadows of the Department of Defense and into the light of public scrutiny; otherwise, “a catastrophic nuclear war can easily ensue.” Whether or not the American people can sway their government, offset lobbying from corporations like Boeing and Lockheed Martin, and hold their own country to UN oversight remains questionable at best, yet peace is never impossible. After all, the cold war on Earth once seemed as unstoppable as the Brylcreemed president whose championing of it was just one more indication of his growing dementia.