Sunday, December 28, 2008

Extraterrestrial Real Estate: Unreal Real Estate?

The business model behind extraterrestrial real estate development seems sound. But will it be doomed to failure due to unenforceable legal issues?

By: Vanessa Uy

If you think space exploration is a very, very difficult endeavor given the current state of spacecraft technology, wait till you see the problems confronting outer space / extraterrestrial real estate developers and brokers. And given our current rate of progress – whether technological, sociological, or especially of legal jurisprudence – a space colonizer’s version of the US Homestead Act of 1862 is very, very unlikely to occur within anyone’s lifetime. Even to those born on 2008! But before we can ever so much as worry over an impending extraterrestrial real estate bubble, here are some of the problems born out of the “ontological epistemology” of what is extraterrestrial real estate.

Interests in extraterrestrial real estate can probably trace it’s roots to the time of the “Golden Age of Exploration” – i.e. when Christopher Columbus was busy wooing the Spanish Royal Household to finance his “exploration scheme”. Even though the European powers at the time profited handsomely from the pioneering efforts of explorers like Columbus, their conquered lands were never seen from their palaces. Even from their tallest ramparts with the aid of the most powerful telescopes of the day. In short, their conquered lands lie over the horizon.

Given that since the time humanity acquired the capacity for sentience, the Moon was always visible and laying claim on such far-off real estate prove too tempting not to given the audacity of the human imagination. Which brings us to the two legal jurisprudence pre-requisites of claiming something – namely: corpus possidendi or physical possession and aminus possidendi or intention to possess. And given that possession has always been nine-tenths of the law – which the Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein audaciously demonstrated back in August 2, 1990 by invading defenseless Kuwait – corpus possidendi or physical possession always trumps over mere intention to possess or aminus possidendi. Especially true when it comes to claiming real estate. If real estate possession already has a well-defined legal definition, then what’s stopping the extraterrestrial real estate business from, if you excuse the pun, “getting off the ground”?

The laws of physics and the high-cost of current space travel technology aside, the biggest hurdle faced by the extraterrestrial real estate development business is a legal one – namely the 1967 Outer Space Treaty – which is also a part of the UN Peaceful Uses of Outer Space Treaty. The Article II of the Outer Space Treaty states the prohibition of national appropriation in outer space which fortunately was never violated given the current “state of the art” of our space travel abilities. Even though some persons and quasi-government agencies have tried to file lawsuits against the foremost space exploration entity – namely NASA. Back in July 1997, a group of Yemeni gentlemen filed a lawsuit against NASA for “trespassing” on their ancestral land on Mars – i.e. the Pathfinder spacecraft’s on-going scientific exploration on the Martian surface, and also Dennis Hope’s “Lunar Embassy “. These are just a few examples of the lack of a dispute mechanism when it comes to the equitable settling of extraterrestrial real estate torts.

But when it comes to the legalese that’s holding back the development of outer space real estate for colonization and other commercial activity, the 1967 Outer Space Treaty surely deserves all of the blame. Given that the UN can barely enforce the peace in conflict zones, as a quasi-governmental body it should start relegating the utilization of space to those with the know-how and resources to do it. Not make abstract unenforceable laws that can easily become an encumbrance once technology sufficiently advances. So before we worry about space pirates and other space faring criminal elements, an internationally binding agreement governing the commercial – and peaceful but it should be able to pay itself - utilization of outer space should be drawn up.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Chandrayaan 1 Lunar Probe: India’s Pride Child or Burden?

Is India’s Chandrayaan 1 Lunar probe nothing more than an ill-conceived pride-child given that a significant portion of their population is currently languishing in poverty?

By: Vanessa Uy

Sometimes I wonder why social justice campaigners unfairly target a nation’s space program as money that could be spent better on poverty alleviation programs. But isn’t space exploration a kind of poverty alleviation program in itself? I mean is anyone curious enough to find out if carbonaceous meteoric materials make excellent organic fertilizers?

Despite costing 80 million US dollars to the Indian taxpayer, Chandrayaan 1 boasts the latest in advanced digital-based optical mapping technology with a 5-meter resolution optical camera, plus the latest generation of instruments to analyze the chemical composition of the Moon. And the mission had already passed several of its intended missions with flying colors despite being sent on a fuel-saving gravitational assist trajectory that unfortunately delays the craft’s arrival to the Moon.

Critics might say that the Chandrayaan 1 Lunar mission is an extravagance that an emerging economy like India can ill afford, despite of ambitions plans by India for a manned Lunar mission 30 or 40 years from now. But Portugal didn’t became a 16th Century superpower by complaining how poor it is every time the country’s “Royal Treasury” finance yet another exploratory missions into the “New World”. An Indian space program will surely generate jobs for their local underutilized Ph.D. s, engineers and other people with technical training as opposed to sending them to more technically advanced Western nations like they do today. An Indian space program could also create a regional “fringe benefit” for the countries “poorer” neighbors like job opportunities to people from Bangladesh.

An Indian astronaut walking on the surface of the Moon could serve as an “unbiased witness” to finally dispel the “Conspiracy Theorists” belief in that the manned Lunar program of NASA back in the 1960’s and 1970’s are just nothing more than staged PR stunts. Done on some non-descript movie soundstage in Burbank, California (or is that Hollywood?).

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Should NASA’s Space Shuttle Fleet Be Retired?

With no suitable replacement before it’s much publicized retirement date of 2010. Should NASA’s aging space shuttle fleet be retired knowing that existing stopgap measures like the Soyuz spacecraft could stray into hostile territory?

By: Vanessa Uy

While the harrowing incident of the Soyuz spacecraft straying off-course by more than 400 kilometers from its planned landing site. Almost a headline story back in April 21, 2008 - now fades into obscurity. But there are some of us who still care beyond the 8.2 G pull of such an “uncomfortable” Earthbound ride. The April 21 incident highlights the Soyuz spacecraft’s inherent problem: it can’t be controlled with a reliable degree of certainty on where to land. Worst of all, replacement spacecraft of comparable controllability to NASA’s current fleet of space shuttles won’t come on line at least until March 2015.

America’s NASA developed their space shuttle fleet in the first place to meet a requirement for a spacecraft / return vehicle that can be piloted back to the Earth’s surface to a precise location. Like a paved runway commonly used by large commercial jet-powered aircraft and preferably on US soil. A feat that space capsule-type vehicles like the Soyuz spacecraft – despite their lower operating costs – can never do.

Though it never happened yet, returning astronauts from the International Space Station using an Earth return vehicle similar to Soyuz might accidentally land in a hostile territory. Like the tribal areas in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, which is technically not that far from the Russian controlled Central Asian plains which their space capsules regularly lands given the number of kilometers the Soyuz spacecraft could stray. And there are no international treaties yet that protects these astronauts from being taken hostage. Like the Taliban and Al-Qaeda militants would even respect it if preexisting ones exists. The Somali pirates who recently abducted vacationing French tourists in a luxury yacht sailing in the waters of the Horn of Africa between Somalia and Djibouti probably never even heard of the International Maritime Conference in Washington in 1899, or would give a damn if they had.

So astronauts and space tourists will have to settle to pray for luck that they don’t land in a hostile region and be taken hostage by militants. Given the extremely cramped -quarters of our current space vehicles, carrying infantry weapons like modern assault rifles could be very inconvenient for our astronauts. I just hope that computer game billionaire Richard Garriott will have the best of luck as he underwrites and personally makes Project Immortality a feasible reality.
By the way, Project Immortality is about storing digitally-sequenced human DNA on the International Space Station or ISS to avert a “Doomsday Event” – i.e. mankind won’t just go extinct if our planet ever becomes biologically uninhabitable because viable genetic material of humans are stored safely in space. Does this remind you of an episode of Star Trek about those genetically enhanced “├╝bermensch”? Richard Garriott’s bravery is admirable though, given that the Soyuz spacecraft could have him landing in front of Osama Bin Laden's cave.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space: Useless?

Labeled by some Conspiracy Theorists fortunate enough to know of its existence as the most anonymous UN committee. The question now is, is the United Nation’s Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space just another useless UN body?

By: Ringo Bones

Many science fiction enthusiasts – even Star Trek fans – don’t even know of the committee’s existence. But sometimes – in two to six second segments – the United Nation’s Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space is or will be mentioned in passing in a handful of science documentary programs. And, if luck permits, on a handful of popular TV programs. For the benefit of everyone who never knew of this somewhat secretive UN body’s existence, here’s a preview.

Also known as UNOOSA or the United Nation’s Office for Outer Space Affairs, the United Nation’s Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space was set up by the UN General Assembly in 1959 (resolution 1472 (XIV)) to review the extent of international cooperation in peaceful uses of outer space. And also to devise programmes in this field to be undertaken under United Nations auspices, to encourage continued research and the dissemination of information on outer space matters, and to study legal problems arising from the exploration of outer space.

Currently, the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space has 69 member states. The committee’s set up was expedited when the need of a Public Registry of Launchings (resolution 1721 (XVI)) arose in 1958, shortly after the launching of the first artificial satellite. Then the General Assembly decided to establish an ad hoc Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (resolution 1348 (XIII)) with 18 member states originally signing up.

The UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space has two standing Subcommittees as a whole. They are the Scientific and Technical Subcommittee and the Legal Subcommittee. The Committee and its two Subcommittees meet on an annual basis to consider questions put before them by the General Assembly, including reports submitted to them together with the issues raised by the Member States. The Committee and the Subcommittee only makes recommendations to the General Assembly when a consensus is reached. The Committee and the Subcommittee also makes an annual report, which contains detailed information of their work. The fifth session of the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space was held from the 6th to the 15th of June 2007 at the United Nation Office at Vienna International Center, Vienna, Austria. The UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses on Outer Space is also seriously concerned about how to deal the threat of NEO asteroids and is also an integral part of the Spaceguard Survey. Given the Committee’s lofty goals, how come it remained a complete unknown to the general public?

One aspect of the matter is that space exploration is a really expensive – I mean really expensive – undertaking. The amount of money needed to launch NASA’s space shuttle is almost a billion dollars. The ticket price for going to the International Space Station – if you’re into space tourism – will set you back in the very least 20 million dollars via the Baikanour Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, which is currently the cheapest way to go into low Earth orbit. Given the “astronomical” costs in space exploration, they won’t be any “celestial land rush” needing regulation anytime soon. Some even say that the money needed to run the UNOOSA or the UN Peaceful Uses of Outer Space is better spent on another more useful body – i.e. the UN Food Programme. But recent events in “space commerce” might prove the worth of this somewhat secretive UN Space Committee.

The European Galileo satellite navigation program, which was first criticized as a mere “White Elephant” just duplicating the function of the United State’s Global Positioning System or GPS satellite navigation system. The powers-that-be behind the Galileo satellite navigation system says their system is far more accurate than its American counterpart due to Galileo’s civilian users not offered a sytem whose precision is deliberately derated due to “National Security” concerns. Then, the rumors emerged – with varying degrees of substantiation – that the European Galileo satellite navigation system will be used by the French Government as an aiming system for their nuclear ballistic missiles. How will the UNOOSA respond?

Plus, given the near mishap that happened back in April 21, 2008 when the Soyuz capsule returning from the International Space Station landed far off course. This navigational error subjected NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson, South Korea’s first astronaut Yi So-Yeon and Russian Cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko a 9-G pull. Luckily, they still landed in friendly territory. But what if they’ve happen to land in a Taliban controlled region, what would UNOOSA do? Given that no International Treaties pertaining to these mishaps exists, they can be used as potential hostages by armed extremists. Or what if they have landed in Iran, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard could imprison them indefinitely for violating Iran’s sovereign territory or for espionage because no international treaties exist showing how such incidences might be resolved. And also, given that NASA will be retiring their space shuttle in 2010 and instead use rocket and a space capsule as a stop gap measure to access the ISS before a better cheaper controllable space shuttle type vehicle is found. The Soyuz capsule navigation error incident of April 21, 2008 could happen again. Let’s just hope our brave space explorers won’t land in a hostile territory because the UN doesn’t have the power to legislate laws to protect them from the barbarities of terrorist organizations.

Friday, May 30, 2008

The Moon Landing Hoax: Politics Over Truth?

A very, very good topic for discussion that should not only be reserved to conspiracy theory nuts with paranoid fantasies. Is an open discussion on whether the manned Moon landings are a hoax or not good for our society in general?

By: Vanessa Uy

Though there has not been a consensus yet if NASA’s manned Lunar exploration was filmed in a soundstage in Hollywood or Burbank, this story seems to acquire much stronger mythical powers with every passing year. Most of my older acquaintances – aged 30 to 60 – only knew of the “Moon Landing Hoax” story around the time when the Soviet Union fell, despite of the fact that a move was made about this hoax back in the 1970’s. But before everyone too young to remember the passing of Kurt Cobain makes their own judgement on the matter, lets review first the most often used evidence by the conspiracy buffs justifying that the manned Moon landings were a hoax.

NASA’s manned Apollo program that enabled American astronauts to land on the Moon lasted from 1969 to 1972, and yet there are a growing number of people who believe that this didn’t actually happen, and they have evidence on this. The most oft quoted evidence pointed out by conspiracy theorists is that the American flag / Old Glory billowing and rippling as if blown by a breeze in the Lunar vacuum. NASA officials explained this phenomenon is caused by Buzz Aldrin’s handling of the flag and when the upper half of the Lunar Excursion Module fired it’s escape rockets for the return trip to Earth, its exhaust did billow the flag then toppled it. And also the rocket’s exhaust didn’t produce a flame-like jet is because there’s no air on the Moon for the exhaust to heat-up.

The camera crosshairs being obscured by distant Lunar features is due to the quirks of old style chemical-based photography that allowed these features to bleed over like overexposed film, unlike our present digital photographic technology. Probably the cheapest way, and the easiest for the general public, to test the consensus of NASA officials whether the Moon landings are actually faked.

Why are the stars not visible? This is because Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin’s landing on the Moon happened during the daylight ours in the Sea of Tranquility region, so the camera’s shutters are adjusted accordingly. The stars are there but they are just overpowered by the Sun. And since the Moon has no atmosphere, the sky over there appears black even when the Sun is 12 o’clock high. This also made the astronaut’s shadows on the Lunar surface appear strange because it is only sunlight reflected from the astronaut's space suits, gear and Lunar surface that’s illuminating them. Sunlight was not scattered by an existing Lunar atmosphere unlike here on Earth in daytime, making them appear as if a limelight / stage lighting is shining on them.

The more esoteric and recondite topics on the Moon landing hoax is about regarding on the hundreds of pounds of Moon rocks. Only a few people who believe that the Moon landings are a hoax say that the Lunar rock samples obtained by NASA are gathered by robotic Lunar probes as opposed to the Apollo astronauts. But noting the state of robotic technology that’s available to NASA – never mind the US Defense Department – back in the 1960’s, you’ll now have an inkling on what the Moon landing hoax believers are up against.

Then there’s this one little piece of esoteric data that moon landing hoax advocates cherish very much is the levels of radiation found in the Van Allen Radiation Belts can be unhealthy – if not lethal – to America’s Moon-bound astronauts. But NASA officials explained this away by the fact that the Moon-bound spacecraft’s structure – plus the speed that it travels through the Van Allen Belts - is sufficient enough to shield the astronauts against radiation that exists there. This fact about space travel will continue to be debated due to the dearth of data pertaining to the levels of radiation that exists in outer space especially when one goes beyond the influence of Earth’s magnetic field.

Now that the “science leaning” evidence parts pertaining to the Moon landing hoax has been rationally explained away, the rest are more of a political nature. When you look back at the political climate that existed back in the 1960’s when President John F. Kennedy plans to send a man to the Moon before the decade is out, it’s not much worse when compared to George W. Bush / Neo-Conservative ruled America. There was the unpopularity of a war supposedly to halt the spread of communism in Southeast Asia, the less-than-forthcoming investigations on the assassination of President Kennedy to name but a few. Plus the aerospace industry arm of the Military-Industrial Complex being run like a political economy only makes the existence of more far out reasons for faking the Moon landings like evidence of extraterrestrial civilizations being left on the Moon seem more plausible. The bad news is, it will probably take billions of dollars to prove if there was malfeasance or not in late 1960's NASA. Should we wait for something "improbable" to happen, like Chinese or Indian astronauts walking on the Moon a few years from now to see if astronaut’s Armstrong and Aldrin’s footprints that they left back in July 1969 are actually there?

Friday, April 25, 2008

An International Law Protecting Astronauts?

Ever since the recent incident of the Russian-owned Soyuz spacecraft veering hundreds of miles off course as it returns from the ISS, will returning astronauts soon be a target of terrorists and militants?

By: Vanessa Uy

Imagine this scenario: Astronauts returning from their duties on the International Space Station facing technical problems of their guidance system suddenly find themselves doing an emergency landing on hostile territory. Due to lack of special forces-type evasion training, the astronauts are soon captured and taken hostage by militants / terrorists. Worse still, the astronauts are executed for the world to see via an Internet broadcast. A mere myth or something the International Community will be forced to confront sooner rather than later?

Scare mongering aside, space travel via existing technology is still very much a dangerous endeavor. From the early days of the Apollo Lunar Program were three astronauts died while a fire gutted their spacecraft while still in a launch pad at Cape Kennedy. To the Challenger disaster of 1986, then came the 2003 fatal reentry mishap of the Columbia space shuttle – space travel really is a risky business. But like the rest of us, astronauts’ are a resilient breed. The harrowing ordeal of the Apollo 13 crew only highlights our drive to tackle dangerous challenges and survive. So far, no astronaut has ever perished while still in space. The question now is, should every astronaut’s training regimen be augmented by anti-terrorism tactics and counter insurgency, given the increasing possibility they could land in a hostile territory, like Taliban controlled regions of Afghanistan and Pakistan? Not to mention countries like Iraq, Iran, North Korea and parts of the Balkan Region not very friendly to Western Powers.

As more and more nations pursue their own space programs like the European Union’s ESA plus Japan, China and to a smaller extent, South Korea. NASA is no longer the sole monopoly when it comes to space exploration. Given that in the near future when space-based industries might become a technical and financial reality. Blue collar / working class astronauts might now commute to and from Earth orbit just as easily as we ferry oil rig workers to and from North Sea oil platforms at present. Given this frequency there’s bound to be an incident when these workers might do an emergency landing in hostile territory. Will the astronauts’ / workers’ respective companies “private security contractors” mount a rescue operation similar to that performed on US Air Force Captain Scott O’Grady as he landed behind enemy lines when his F-16 was shot down over Bosnia-Herzegovina back in June 1995?

In the long history of Western pop culture, incidents like the one mentioned before are not only a staple of science fiction literature and films but also of the action adventure genre. Though not often enough to make our legal experts to legislate laws to protect our astronauts from being used as bargaining chips by terrorist organizations. There is not even one to protect space-based assets like satellites and space probes from being “unlawfully sequestered” on the sovereign territory they accidentally crashed into. Though these satellites are a cheap and easy source of weapons grade fissionable materials.

Should all of us – especially the International Community – just wishfully hope that our brave astronauts manage to avoid landing on hostile territory? Or should we pursue a more proactive solution like legislating laws protecting our astronauts from being taken hostage. A law that makes it obligatory for all seagoing vessels to assist anyone in distress on the high seas already exists. A similar one for astronauts is badly needed. Or should astronauts practice saying: “Get your paws off me you damn dirty ape!” in Farsi, Pashto, Korean, Arabic, Serbo-Croat and / or any other language in use by the local terrorists?