Science and Technology, Part 6

Exploring the framework for a “Balanced Development” model

 

Ramses Rashidi

©2008 Center for Balanced Development (www.cbdus.org)

 

In the last five articles we talked about the role of science and technology in the development of civilizations and the need for proper utilization of new technologies. Here, we’re going to explore the many facets of the space technology and their impact on the development process.

 

Space Technology

The initiative to enter and utilize outer space has made significant progress since the 2nd half of the 20th century. The development of spaceflight and space technology has had a huge impact on our lives on earth. The invention, development, and perfection of satellite technology has opened up new applications for communication, broadcasting, observation, Global Positioning Systems (GPS) and weather forecasting as well as a number of questionable and potentially disastrous applications and uses. Space research programs have propelled the advancement of computer and information processing technologies and scientific research with applications in a variety of fields ranging from new materials to artificial intelligence. There is much to be done in terms of identifying and tapping into resources in space and the exploration of other planets. For example, we know of the existence of Helium 3 on the moon, and we can be certain that it will eventually be utilized.

 

Even though the United States and Russia have been the leaders of space exploration programs since the 50’s, a number of other countries have been actively pursuing space research and exploration programs as well, and the list keeps growing. This includes The European Union, Canada, China, Japan, Israel, Brazil, India, Australia and several additional countries in Asia, South America and Africa. There are also international organizations and NGOs that monitor space programs such as the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs. In this regard it is important to mention that there are also opponents of space programs who feel that the money could be better spent on many social issues that face us on earth, including the need to combat or address the debilitating conditions of poverty, hunger and illiteracy.

 

Military Use of Space and Weapons of Mass Destruction

Space, quite obviously, is the most vast frontier with seemingly infinite possibilities. It is also a resource that needs to be preserved and utilized properly for the benefit of all of humanity. However, we have already embarked on ever-expanding military use of space, and several countries have devised major programs of developing weapons to be used in space with the main focus on ground-to-space or air-to-space anti-satellite weapons as well as anti-missiles, deterrents, surveillance and nuclear weapons. The U.S., Russia and China are among the major developers of space weaponry. In early 60’s, the U.S. tested ground-launched nuclear weapons in space that caused disruption in the functioning of satellites in orbit and created radiation belts around the earth as well as other detrimental effects.

 

Several international treaties governing the regulation of weapons and conflicts in space have been devised. In 1967, the Outer Space Treaty or the Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, banned the use, testing and storage of conventional and nuclear weapons outside the earth’s atmosphere, and this agreement was signed by the United States, United Kingdom (England) and the Soviet Union. As of January 2007, some 98 countries have committed to the treaty, while 27 other countries have signed the treaty but have not yet completed ratification process. Under the treaty, space belongs to all nations and all people, much in the same way that we treat international waters. The SALT II (Strategic Arms Limitation Talks) treaty which was signed between the U.S. and Soviets in 1979 is another document that prohibits the weapons of mass destruction from being placed in space. However, the treaty does not ban Kinetic bombardment (shooting objects in space at high velocity). Some governments and groups have proposed a Space Preservation Treaty which would ban the placement of any weapons in outer space. So far, the involvement of human beings in space warfare is not part of the agenda (at least as far as we know).

 

Concerns over Space Debris and Waste

The use of space for satellites, launch vehicles and research stations over the years has created a great deal of space debris and waste. This consists of rocket parts, dysfunctional satellites, explosion fragments, waste from the research stations, coolant released by nuclear-powered satellites and other small particles. Although some of these debris re-enter the earth’s atmosphere and disintegrate, most of it continues to drift in space. Some sources estimate that there are more than 600,000 separate objects, each being larger than 1 cm in orbit. The US Strategic Command keeps track of some 13,000 objects that otherwise could be mistaken for hostile weapons. So far about 100 tons of fragments generated in 200 explosions in space are still in orbit and most are concentrated in the low earth orbit while some extend to higher orbits as well. Currently, there are more than 8500 objects in low orbit circling around the earth.

 

Space debris have become a growing concern since collisions with functioning satellites and space vehicles can be highly damaging, while making space exploration and the use of satellites extremely difficult and dangerous. Some spacecrafts like the International Space Station have actually a shield mechanism. The floating obsolete objects in space range from a camera lost during a skywalk or a large satellite which was launched some 50 years ago. In the recent years there have been instances where a space shuttle had to maneuver to avoid collision with debris from a floating Cosmos satellite. At times, debris re-entering earth could pose serious potential dangers to aircraft, buildings and people in their path. In 2006 wreckage from a Russian satellite came very close to a commercial airliner carrying some 270 passengers. In 1979, the U.S. SKYLAB, a 78 ton space station, came down earlier than planned spreading debris in remote, sparcely unpopulated parts of Australia.

 

Space as an Extension of Earth

To achieve a balanced development model, we need to regard outer space as an extension of our “home” planet. What we do in space is just as important as the ways we try to preserve and protect our resources on earth. Human beings have the capacity to alter our environment. However at the same time, we are truly the sole trustees of our natural resources in space. It’s critical that we properly use this common resource for peaceful purposes and for the further development of human civilization while protecting it for future generations. Scientific research programs in space must lead to higher levels of understanding and cooperation as we explore the frontiers of the human existence.

 

In the next articles we will examine the role of the individual, communities and public institutions in the development process.

 

Ramses Rashidi (ramses@cbdus.org) is the founder and director of Center for Balanced Development.

The center is a non-profit organization dedicated to providing resources and services to foster global balance in social, personal, ecological and economic development.