25 October 2006
It was issued quietly: 5 p.m. on the Friday before the long Columbus Day weekend, a release seemingly designed to get little notice. But what it involved deserves
major attention: a new U.S. National Space Policy that could set the stage for the heavens being turned into a battleground.
For decades, the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 has shaped how nations approach space. Developed by the United States, United Kingdom and Soviet Unionand now ratified essentially by all the world’s countriesthe landmark agreement sets space aside for peaceful purposes.
But the United States became uncomfortable with the treaty in the 1980s during President Ronald Reagan’s “Star Wars” program. That discomfort was marked in the 1990s by U.S. opposition to efforts (still ongoing) led by Canadaand including Russia and Chinato ban all weapons in space; the treaty only bans weapons of mass destruction.
There were bellicose declarations in the 1990s, too, from the U.S. Space Command speaking of “dominating the space dimension of military operations to protest U.S. interests and investment.”
Moreover, as George W. Bush took office, a commission chaired by his defense secretary-to-
Then the Bush administration began revising the U.S. National Space Policy as issued by President Bill Clinton. A front-page, lead article in “The New York Times” last year reported that the U.S. Air Force was “seeking President Bush’s approval of a national-security directive that could move the United States closer to fielding offensive and defense space weapons.” It told of how one “Air Force space program, nicknamed Rods from God, aims to hurl cylinders of tungsten, titanium or uranium from the edge of space to destroy targets on the ground striking at speeds of about 7,200 miles an hour with the force of a small nuclear weapon.”
The new policy does not explicitly declare the United States will now move ahead with such space weapons but it opens the door.
“Freedom of action in space is as important to the United States as air power and sea power,” it asserts in its introduction. Under “National Security Space Guidelines,” it says, “United States national security is critically dependent upon space capabilities, and this dependence will grow.” So the United States will “develop and deploy space capabilities that sustain U.S. advantage.”
Also, the 10-page policy says the United States “will oppose the development of new legal regimes or other restrictions that seek to prohibit or limit U.S. access to or use of space.”
Further, the policy authorizes the use of nuclear power overhead to “enhance space exploration or operational capabilities…
Bruce Gagnon, coordinator of the Global Network Against Weapons & Nuclear Power in Space, speaks of the document’s “very provocative language…This is the kind of talk that will create a new arms race in space, clearly just what the military-industrial complex wants.” And, he says, “Bush's new space policy enshrines the rejection of an international treaty to ban weapons in space.”
The vision of the Outer Space Treatyto set aside space as a global commons and to prevent the armed conflict that has marked human history on Earth from extending into the heavenswould be altered by the new U.S. policy.
The United States sees its potential military supremacy in spaceand seeks to take advantage of this. But that’s similar to the U.S. attitude in 1945 when we had the atomic bomb and no one else did. It will not take long if space is opened up to war for other nations, notably Russia and China, to meet the United States in kind. We still have an opportunity now to adhere to and strengthen the Outer Space Treaty and, with verification, continue to keep space for peaceful purposes.
Or we can turn the heavens into a war zone and a place for nuclear activity. We are at a crossroads. The policy must not be slipped through quietly. The people of the United States must have a voice and there should be wide public discussion on this fateful decision.
Karl Grossman, journalism professor at the State University of New York/College at Old Westbury, wrote and narrated the award-winning TV documentary: “Weapons in Space: The Nuclearization and Weaponization of the Heavens” (www.envirovideo.