Wednesday, October 18, 2006

America wants it all - life, the Universe and everything

The Times

SPACE: no longer the final frontier but the 51st state of the United States. The new National Space Policy that President Bush has signed is comically proprietory in tone about the US’s right to control access to the rest of the solar system.

The document makes a serious point about our growing dependence on satellites, the military threats to them and ways of protecting them. But America has rejected the desire by 160 other countries to have United Nations talks about banning an arms race in space, an extravagantly unilateral approach whose appeal you might have thought would have been tarnished by its experience in Iraq.

Its vision of the space programme, military more than scientific, is also undermined by its taste for manned missions — and the breathtaking cost.

Bush signed the document on August 31, and the White House released the text this month in the late afternoon of the Friday of a holiday weekend. So the first full revision of space policy for ten years has provoked controversy abroad as much as at home. The eyecatching declaration is that the US asserts the right to deny access to space to anyone “hostile to US interests”, although it gives no basis for that right. It also rejects arms control talks that would limit future US actions in space.

Military, commercial and personal communication has become more dependent on satellites. The US fears that its satellites are vulnerable to attack.

It does not name its potential enemies, but China and Russia clearly have the capability and even Iran has its own satellite and plans for a launch vehicle, while there are about 40 countries with a presence in space.

This focus on defence springs from the American strategy for space, which exchanged President Clinton’s goals of understanding the Universe for ones of security. But in scrapping Clinton’s plans for unmanned probes in favour of manned missions to the Moon and Mars, it drew attacks that it would discover little and spend too much.

When the US last year dismissed other countries’ wish to talk about banning weapons in space (the UN vote was 160-1), it presumably intended to keep its options open, even though it says that it has no intention of putting up space weapons. But instead it may have missed the chance of securing a ban when countries were willing to sign it — at the very least, a cheaper option than eventually putting its own weapons in space.

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