Scientist Calls for Curb on Harmful Rocket Launches

Russia and other countries that send rockets into space should protect the environment by adopting international regulations limiting the number of launches, a former presidential science adviser said Tuesday.

Alexei Yablokov, head of the Center for Environmental Policy, said that pollution from rocket fuel was a major cause of damage to the earth's ozone layer, and that launches also threatened the health of people living under rocket flight paths.

"In 20 or 30 years there will be a catastrophe," said Yablokov, a biologist who served as President Boris Yeltsin's science adviser from 1992-93. "We've got about three years to come up with international norms regulating the space activity."

He admitted such proposals were likely to face resistance from governments and companies that depend on rocket launches for space exploration and to put commercial satellites in orbit. But something should be done, he said.

Yablokov spoke at a news conference in Moscow devoted to a book co-authored by a group of independent space and environmental experts, titled "Environmental Dangers of Space Exploration." Yablokov is the editor.

Chief among the dangers, Yablokov said, are the clouds of hydrogen and carbon dioxide left hanging in the atmosphere for weeks after launches. He attributed 50 percent of the shrinking of the earth's ozone layer to rocket launches. Ozone protects the earth's surface from potentially harmful radiation.

In addition, toxic rocket fuel showers the earth as spent rocket stages fall in Siberian forests downrange from Russia's chief launch sites, at Plesetsk in the north and Baikonur in Kazakhstan. Russia routinely tests ballistic missiles by launching them across Siberia to Kamchatka in the Far East.

Yablokov said 30 million hectares in 16 regions of Russia - about 2 percent of the country's territory - are routinely subjected to rocket fuel pollution. For people living around launch sites and under the most frequently used rocket flight paths in the Altai, Yakutia, Tuva and Arkhangelsk regions, the effects are at first invisible and cause long-term damage, much as radiation can, the environmentalists said.

Even small amounts can build up in body tissues and cause long-term damage, they said.

Exposure of one-third of the Altai region territory to rocket fuel pollution has lead to higher mortality rates, cancer and birth defects, said physician Vladimir Lupandin, who studied the problem for the Center for Independent Environmental Programs. Other regions are affected too, he said: "Millions of people suffer the effects of space exploration."

Yablokov and the book's authors said that spacefaring nations could agree to limit the number of total launches, to monitor pollution and clean up fuel-polluted areas at the expense of the space industry.