Saturday, April 4, 2009

Military Space

I was surprised to see, at a globally-inclusive space conference, that there were protesters. Though it wasn't completely clear, through the costumes and signs with angrily rhyming slogans, what their problems were. (Generally, I'm irritated by protesters, since to get their message across in a loud and splashy way, they generally have to forfeit any effort to support their cause with well-reasoned discussion or carefully thought out arguments.) These people seemed to be protesting against military use of space, which irritated me quite a bit.

I understand that some people may have an aversion to war and military activities in general, and in space, which seems like an area of peaceful exploration and activity, military activities can seem out of place. (I even recognize that some people believe in full pacifism or are "anti-war", but I think the question of whether militaries should exist in general is a different issue than military use of space. I also feel that this level of pacifism is impractical, and on some level irresponsible, but I won't get into that now...)

Anyway, I felt like giving them some facts about military use of space, but since they were so busy shouting odd things, like, "Hey murderers, space is for NASA," I felt like they might not be so interested in engaging in a reasonable intellectual discussion. So instead, I've decided to give some of my thoughts on this issue here.

First of all, I think it's important to point out that, like many other technologies, military space development was essential to creating the capabilities that NASA and commercial companies use now. It was intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) that provided the foundation of rocket technology (this is why everyone's so concerned about the North Korean launch now). Furthermore, many of the space assets the military built and operates are essential to everyday civilian life. GPS is an Air Force system - a system they have made freely available to everyone in the world, allowing development in countries around the globe. The best space situational awareness program in the world, which monitors where objects are in space, is also a military system (originally developed for missile warning). The data that the U.S. military gets from this program is shared for all human space activities, including those undertaken by China - a country with whom our military doesn't generally share sensitive data. This military program is essential to the safety of our astronauts. I wonder if the protesters were aware of this?

I imagine they're thinking more of space as it directly benefits the military, with satellite communications, surveillance satellites, and GPS-guided missiles. But even these uses, I would argue, should be welcomed by people who want to preserve innocent life and reduce damage. Good communication links help reduce mistakes or mis-communications. It allows pilots at a base in Kansas, often young people in the air force, to pilot UAVs gathering surveillance data in Iraq, keeping them out of harm's way. I know there are some mothers very happy for that technology.

Surveillance (or spy) satellites have done a lot to add to world security. Due to surveillance data, we can see that treaties are being followed and detect threats in advance. The increased transparency among nations improves understanding and even trust. This helps to avoid conflicts that could otherwise occur due to flawed data or the possibility of threats. Issues identified early can be addressed through diplomatic efforts. Generally, this trend of increased transparency allows increased peace.

In the past, militaries would have to use large bombs and take out whole areas to ensure they hit their target. As GPS-guidance systems have evolved and become more advanced, the precision with which bombs can be dropped has increased dramatically. Due to this, the U.S. military has started developing much smaller bombs. This decreases collateral damage. It allows the military to protect civilians while very specifically targeting only military targets. If war is going to happen, wouldn't you much prefer that these space technologies were used?

Maybe the protesters had other issues or arguments, but I guess I'll never know. Anyway, I hope someone finds these ideas interesting or thought-provoking.

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