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?