The Irish Times view on the UN Outer Space Treaty: the final frontier

TDs will vote shortly to formally approve a ‘constitution’ for space

When the US in 1969, and China 50 years later, plonked flags on the moon they were not staking ownership. It was a way of saying “we were here”. All claims to appropriation of space, the moon or other celestial bodies are prohibited by the 1967 UN Outer Space Treaty (OUT), an attempt to write a constitution for space which also bans extra-terrestrial proliferation or use of nuclear weapons and weapons of mass destruction.

Ireland, in common with 100 other states, ratified the treaty – in its case by simply placing it before the Dáil. But a more recent interpretation of ratification requirements means TDs will shortly have to vote formally to approve it.

While the OUT appears a worthy project that offers important principles to guide the activities of nations, it does not set out detailed “rules of the road”. Ambiguities remain about military use of space – it does not prohibit the use of conventional weapons in space, or the use of ground-based weapons against targets in space. And it does not address how to deal with increasingly-likely conflicts over the mineral exploitation of the moon and other planets.

But underpinning the treaty is also a piece of anthropic arrogance that deserves challenge. Reflecting attitudes of its time, Article 1 sees exploration/use of space to “… be carried out for the benefit and the interest of all countries … and shall be the province of all mankind”. Mankind, please note, not even humankind. The presumption, 500 years after Copernicus debunked the earth’s centrality to the universe and science, is that man alone is to be endowed with rights to explore, settle and appropriate the vastnesses of the universe. No place in man’s space vision even to acknowledge the rights of potential intelligent life forms.

The imperialist spirit of Cecil Rhodes lives on. “To think of these stars that you see overhead at night,” he wrote in his will, “these vast worlds which we can never reach. I would annex the planets if I could; I often think of that. It makes me sad to see them so clear and yet so far.”