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.