Thursday, July 16, 2009


I’m going after the DOD money.

My field of space physics is related to national security because the things that humans do and the technology we rely on is influenced by the “weather” of outer space. Specifically, we are influenced by the electric currents that flow through near-Earth space and by relativistic particles that get close to Earth. Up until now, I have only used this connection as a “relevance” argument in proposals to science-oriented funding agencies like NASA and NSF. This helps to get me funding to do research on the natural space environment.

Occasionally, however, there is a military agency that solicits proposals from academics to study something about the space environment that is related to national security. The Department of Defense is different than NASA in that most of their funding agencies ask for short white papers first, and they make the big down-select at this stage. The proposers are told yes or no on submitting a full proposal (usually without much feedback), and those lucky enough to hear “yes” usually then have a better than 50% chance of getting selected for funding. I have made it past the white paper stage once. No funding from DOD yet.

In May I submitted another white paper to a DOD agency, and I just heard that it was selected for full proposal submission. I now get to spend the next month learning about high-altitude nuclear explosions and how they create artificial radiation belts in near-Earth outer space. I know a bit about the natural radiation belt environment, but this will be a new direction for me.

I am still trying to convince myself that I want to do this work. The proposal solicitation is written from a counterterrorism standpoint, and in fact it comes from the Defense Threat Reduction Agency. However, I could easily see how it could be used from an offensive standpoint. If the US has accurate simulation tools describing the resulting radiation belts from a high-altitude nuclear explosion (and therefore the threat to space-based assets), then we can perhaps plan how to use such explosions to our strategic advantage. It is nowhere near the dilemma that scientists faced in the 1940s during the development of nuclear weapons, but it is an indirect usage of peaceful scientific advancements for potential destruction. I tell myself that writing this proposal and going after this money is patriotic and good for America. Something keeps nagging me in the back of my mind, though, that I am whoring my expertise for a few extra dollars of research funding, and there will be unintended negative consequences down the line.

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