The Media’s Latest Hoplophobia-mongering

Internet Broadcasting Systems has a new breathless article warning of the latest danger to government space travelers making the rounds of the internet:

Astronauts aboard the International Space Station apparently have access to a gun.

Oh the horror! Then comes the letdown:

Russian Cosmonauts carry a gun on their Soyuz space capsule, which is attached to the space station.

Every spacecraft carries survival gear for crash landings, and the Russian Soyuz has a kit that includes the gun.

The weapon they are referring to is a gun designed for the Soviet space program that can fire a shotgun shell, a solid round and a flare, and which can be converted into a shovel and a machete. The Soviets included this weapon in the inventory for the Soyuz because the capsule lands in the wilderness of south-western Russia and could be out of reach of rescue crews for hours or even days. The Soviets began including the guns after wolves were seen in the vicinity of a capsule during one recovery effort.

Of course, this is too substantive for this authors, who decided to stick to their core competency of yellow journalism:

Experts said the idea of an astronaut losing control was unthinkable until one year ago, when Lisa Nowak shattered the myth.
Her own attorney said she was insane when arrested for hunting down another woman, and prosecutors said she was heavily armed.
Nowak had flown in space just seven months earlier.

The article is substantially lifted1 from an article written by journalist James Oberg who is primarily focused on writing about space travel. His much more substantive article may be found here:

In fact, Moscow’s latest diplomatic offensive to get a treaty banning weapons in space may be shot down by one of the proposed pact’s little-noticed provisions: Nobody else should get to put weapons in space, but Russia gets to keep the ones it already has.

Cosmonauts regularly carry handguns on their Soyuz spacecraft — and actually, that’s not unreasonable. There are practical and historical justifications.

But wait! Apparently the survival gun is being phased out and replaced with conventional side-arms

Just before last October’s Soyuz launch, a British news report said that the gun, manufactured by a factory that is now in an independent country, was being phased out because all the in-stock ammunition had exceeded its certified shelf life. In its place, a standard Russian army sidearm was now to be carried.

Guns were never carried aboard U.S. spacecraft. Instead, a sharp machete served as the most serious armament for a jungle landing. Besides, with a worldwide U.S. network of bases and existing air-sea rescue forces, odds were that any downed astronauts would be found and rescued pretty quickly. The same now goes for Soyuz spacecraft supporting the international space station and usually carrying an U.S. crewmember at launch and landing — any off-course vehicle would have the entire U.S. rescue team at their disposal almost immediately. But the legend of the hungry wolves trumps current realities, so the guns have remained.

Then Oberg too engages in some hoplophobic advocacy of his own:

And here’s the safety issue that nobody seems to want to talk about. As the space station crew size increases, with a much wider range of crew members (including paying passengers, either tourists or representatives of national research groups from Malaysia, Chile, Venezuela or elsewhere), everyone on board will have access to the gun in the Soyuz. By 2009 there will always be two Soyuzes attached, so two guns will be available.

The next Soyuz launch is set for April 8. The handgun is probably already packed. If Moscow wants to show it is really serious about keeping space “weapons-free,” and keeping orbiting astronauts and cosmonauts free of too-easy access to lethal weapons, the gun ought to be removed. Carry a machete, carry a Taser — but stop carrying guns into space.

Mr Oberg’s point is quite interesting. It isn’t weapons per se that are dangerous, but guns themselves. Why a crazed crewmember with a pellet shooting gun is unacceptably dangerous while a crazed crewmember armed with a stun-gun is not, I am not sure, since any thing that can be done with a gun – incapacitate humans, wreck equipment, open the pressure hull to space – can also be done by a malevolent crewman armed with a stun-gun.

The fact is, prohibition never works. It never will work, even in space. Where humans go, conflict follows. Even in prisons, which should be a hoplophobe’s dream since the guards work diligently to keep anything that can be used as a weapon out of the inmates’ hands, stabbings and shootings with improvised weapons are quite common.

If prison guards can’t keep prisoners from smuggling weapons or constructing them, how do the administrators of government space programs propose to keep arms out of the hands of intelligent, free people who have a knack for engineering?

Twenty years ago, a fellow named Grant Callin penned a wonderful pair of books, Saturnalia and its sequel A Lion on Tharthree. I highly recommend them since it is some of the best ‘hard’ science ficition written in the 1980’s. Both books are focused on the discovery of alien artifacts on Saturn and the conflict between various consortia as they vie to control access to the alien technology.

In A Lion on Tharthree, the Captain of humanity’s first interstellar spacecraft takes Mr Oberg’s precautions. Getting wind of a potential mutinous act on the part of one unstable crewmember, he locks the only weapon in his safe. When the mutiny does occur, spearheaded by the executive officer and the representative of one of the consortia, the captain finds himself facing mutineers armed with guns constructed from the kinetic sculptures they had brought on board quite openly. The price the Captain and his crew pay for this willful disarmament are the life-threatening bullet wounds they suffer as they are forced to make a human wave assault in a desperate attempt to preserve their lives.

Mr Oberg’s recommendations, if adopted, would ensure that the first time a weapon is used in space it will be a disaster.


1 I find the warning at the bottom of the IBS article, “This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed,” kind of funny in that what they really did was rewrite Mr Oberg’s article, and that badly.

I am an anarcho-capitalist living just west of Boston Massachussetts. I am married, have two children, and am trying to start my own computer consulting company.