Supporters of NASA’s heavy lift Space Launch System accused of ‘missile envy’

Missile EnvyWhile the development of NASA’s Space Launch System, the heavy lift rocket upon which hopes of human space exploration beyond low Earth orbit rest, with an expected first test launch sometime in 2018, opposition in some quarters still persists.

In a Thursday post, space blogger Rand Simberg, noting a great deal of supporting posts on social media, suggested (perhaps tongue in cheek) that supporters of the big rocket suffer from a form of “missile envy” referring to a 1985 book by left-wing political activist Helen Caldicott that posited a Freudian explanation of the nuclear arms race.

Simberg tweeted, “Never believed that loon Helen Caldicott’s phallic-compensation theory of rocketry until I ran into the SLS crowd. Even the women have it.” Caldicott’s theory was that the building of nuclear tipped missiles, at least on the American side, was driven more by male ego, compensating for sexual deficiencies on the part of military officers and politicians than by sound strategy or even engineering. She noted terms used by nuclear war experts like “deep penetration” and “multiple reentry” to buttress her argument.

Simberg seems to be suggesting that supporters of heavy lift rockets (even the women) are moved by the same psychosexual disorders that Caldicott noted, though he later claimed that he was being satirical. The Space Launch System will certainly be big and impressive, once it is built and is launched. It will be able to put 70 tons into low Earth orbit in its first iteration and 130 tons in its final form.

Simberg then advances a perhaps more serious argument against building a heavy lift rocket by suggesting that a better alternative would involve launching many smaller rockets per mission to the moon or an asteroid to replenish a fuel depot in low Earth orbit. The plan, advanced by some commercial space advocates, suffers from the fact that current commercial rockets are not likely to achieve the launch rate to support more than three or four missions per decade. A Mars mission using this approach would be well-nigh impossible.

Caldicott’s Freudian theory of the nuclear arms race was controversial when it was first advanced about 30 years ago. Since the Cold War was won more or less peacefully, largely thanks to the strategy pursued by President Reagan. One suspects that a similar fate awaits for the Freudian theory of heavy lift rockets.

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