Making A Living From Space Junk

In an unusual act of generosity, the Soviet space program has been showering valuable metal scraps on the villages surrounding the Plesetsk Cosmodrome for more than forty years. Over the years, more than 1500 launches have been performed with a success rate of over 98%. The cosmodrome includes 9 launch pads for Soyuz, Molniya, Cosmos-3M, Cyclone-3, Rockot launch vehicles, as well as a variety of assembly/testing facilities, telemetry and tracking stations.


(From Plesetsk Cosmodrome layout)

Tons of "cosmic garbage" - mostly first stages jettisoned from Soyuz carrier rockets - have provided a vital economic boost to the impoverished villages surrounding the cosmodrome, including the main local town Mirny ("Peaceful"). As a suspected ICBM site, Plesetsk was a primary surveillance target on the flight plan for Gary Power's ill-fated reconnaissance flight on May 1, 1960.

Local adminstrators notify the citizenry several days prior to each launch; all "hunters, mushroom pickers, fishermen and reindeer breeders" are strongly advised to leave the dangerous area (yes, that's a quote). Within days, however, scores of local residents go looking for valuable spoils, including "little-damaged Soyuz first stages. Souyz carrier rockets are propelled by kerosene and oxygen, and their parts have a reputation for safety. Older Tsiklon and Rokot carriers propelled by poisonous heptyl leave scraps that people avoid for the time being. 'Self-cleaning', as locals put it, is just a matter of years for them, after which the metals are considered safe to extract."

Less damaged parts may be put to use in households; electric batteries are connected to lamps, sheets of stainless alloys are used to build basements, garages, and even long canoe-like boats.

Science fiction authors have long used the space junk idea. In his 1956 masterpiece The Stars My Destination, Alfred Bester writes about the Sargasso Asteroid, an artificial planetoid built from space debris and abandoned space ships:

In rapid succession, Foyle was borne through an ancient Ganymede scow, a Lassell ice borer, a captain's barge, a Calisto heavy cruiser, a twenty-second-century fuel transport with glass tanks still filled with smoky rocket fuel...
(Read more about the Sargasso Asteroid)

In Footfall, Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle make good use of scrap rockets right here on Earth. Ray Bradbury wrote a very touching short story about a father who cobbles together a "space ship" from junk to give his children the vacation of a lifetime.


("I'm Toydarian - Jedi mind tricks don't work on me... only money")

And of course, one of my favorite Star Wars characters, Watto, is also a space junk dealer, offering robots and assorted second-hand space craft parts.

Read the press release at RIA Novosti. You might also be interested in this SF in the News story - Terminator Tether - EDT Solution to Space Debris - regarding space junk that makes it all the way up to orbit.

Scroll down for more stories in the same category. (Story submitted 5/18/2005)

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