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US stakes claim on space

New policy just slightly territorial

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The US has claimed "dibs" on the Universe with its new space policy. The document, signed by President Bush, was released on a Friday, just before a long weekend in the States. This, in itself has caused a bit of a stir, but not more so than the tone and content of the document.

In it, the US government allocates itself rights to access and use space without anyone else getting in its way. It also sets security at the heart of the space agenda, frequently citing its right to use space as part of its national defence.

Significantly, however, it does not commit to restrict, or even to join talks about restricting the development of space-based weapons. This is despite a UN vote last year in which 160 nations voted in favour of such talks.

The first bullet point outlining the principles of the programme sets the tone for the rest of the document:

"The United States is committed to the exploration and use of outer space by all nations for peaceful purposes, and for the benefit of all humanity. Consistent with this principle, 'peaceful purposes' allow US defence and intelligence-related activities in pursuit of national interests."

In other words: "Everyone has to use space peacefully, except us. We can do what we like, cos we were here first(*). And anyway, if you try to stop us, it won't stay peaceful for long, which would spoil the first part of our principle."

The document then warms to its military theme. The first fundamental goal of the programme is not given as being to explore the solar system or better understand the Universe, but:

"[To] strengthen the nation's space leadership and ensure that space capabilities are available in time to further US national security, homeland security, and foreign policy objectives."

In keeping with this goal, the policy also confirms the Bush administration's abandonment of robotic space exploration of the solar system, in favour of manned exploration of the moon, and Mars. This approach is much more glamorous and exciting for Joe Public, true, but critics argue quite convincingly that it is much more expensive and scientifically less valuable.

International cooperation is not overlooked, but again the emphasis is on security. The US, the document says, might be happy to cooperate internationally on "providing space surveillance information consistent with security requirements and US national security and foreign policy interests".

Oh and "space exploration" too. Phew. ®

*Yes, we know.

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