Bush administration may rethink space treaty

A veteran space program observer who recently represented the Bush campaign in a policy debate said the president is considering whether to continue U.S. participation in an international treaty banning nuclear weapons in space.

Frank Sietzen, co-author of New Moon Rising (Apogee Books, July 2004), about the development of the Bush space exploration initiative, told a Washington gathering Oct. 14 that "the administration is reviewing whether or not we want to be signatory" to the 1967 United Nations Treaty on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space.

Negotiated at the height of the Cold War, the treaty preserves space for peaceful uses and prohibits any nation from declaring sovereignty over an extraterrestrial body. The treaty was ratified by all the major space powers, including the United States and dozens of other governments. The U.S. government objects to recent proposals that would change the treaty to ban all kinds of weapons in space.

Sietzen's remarks came during a space policy debate in which he represented President Bush's side. Democratic presidential challenger John Kerry was represented by a former NASA associate administrator for policy and plans, Lori Garver.

Sietzen is a journalist with United Press International, but said he has given up reporting on space to avoid a conflict of interest. He told Government Executive last week that NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe personally solicited him to represent Bush in the debate.

NASA spokesman Bob Jacobs said the Bush campaign, not O'Keefe, solicited Sietzen. He also said NASA was not aware of any discussions that would change the status of the 1967 treaty, adding, "NASA was created for the peaceful exploration of space."

A State Department official who spoke on condition of anonymity said the U.S. government does not disagree with the treaty's provisions against placing weapons of mass destruction in orbit and using celestial bodies such as the moon and Mars for non-peaceful purposes.

"If you had changes in the treaty that would represent additional prohibitions on non-WMD weapons or on other military activities that we consider legitimate under the treaty, those are actions we would not be favorable towards and we would not agree with," the official said.

In 2002, the United States withdrew from the 1972 Treaty on the Limitations of Anti-Ballistic Missile Systems, citing the need to pursue missile defense.

Answering a moderator's question about Bush's position on updating the Outer Space Treaty, Sietzen said the administration has "a number of concerns" about provisions on property rights and the militarization of space.

"Trying to restrict the military use of space is like trying to shut the barn door after the horse is out," Sietzen said. He claimed space already has been weaponized-by the former Soviet Union, with its 1967 tests of a long-range ballistic missile that was designed to evade the United States' north-pointing radars by flying over the South Pole.

The issue of private property rights in space was raised in a June report by the President's Commission on Implementation of United States Space Exploration Policy. The Moon-Mars Commission, as it is popularly known, concluded that treaty prohibitions on private ownership "could strangle a nascent space industry in its cradle." Bush's plan for the NASA to return humans to the moon by 2020 depends heavily on commercial investment.

"This [treaty] is another one of these areas that is going to be seriously reviewed by both the Commerce Department and the State Department in due time," Sietzen said.

Last week, Sietzen said the Bush administration was conducting only a general review of U.S. participation in the treaty and was not focusing on its arms control provisions. He also said he was not aware of any shift in the administration's position concerning the deployment of active weapon systems in orbit.

"The administration has no plans to do so," he said.

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