Space should not be the site of Earth's next arms race

Posted: Thursday, May 10, 2001

We call it the heavens. Space, so long regarded as the ultimate repository of mystery, the place that holds the answer to who we are and what we came from. For the ancients, it was where the gods lived. For those who experienced the stunning achievements of the space program in the 20th century's last half, it was a yardstick for measuring how far we humans had come and how far we might still go. Space was and remains a sacred place for the religiously devout and the scientifically skeptical alike.

Will space now be the site of Earth's next big arms race?

This week, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld outlined a military vision for space in his first major policy address. Organiza-tionally, he advocated bringing together all current military space programs under a four-star Air Force general. And he spoke broadly of the need to defend private and military satellites from surprise attack. Though he insisted that his plans had "nothing to do" with putting weapons in space, it might be worth asking just what the plan is about, if not ultimately that.

Of course, the space program always has had close ties with American strategic concerns. We raced the Soviet Union to demonstrate the range and accuracy of our missile technology, and some insist that the entire space program, from the 1960s on, has been driven by this. But it is also true that space exploration has a power to truly inspire that has nothing to do with the military positioning of the superpowers.

To live in America during the Mercury and Apollo programs, and to cover them, as I did, was to see a nation pull together to strive for a peacetime goal with a spirit very similar to what had, in the past, only been mustered during wartime. In space, one also felt that the United States was acting as ambassadors for all of humanity. Perhaps this was only the naive, popular view ... but it held a palpable reality for rank-and-file Americans who thrilled to Neil Armstrong's words that he was taking "One small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind."

When Secretary Rumsfeld says that "More than any other country, the United States relies on space for its security and well-being," he no doubt speaks the truth. As the former chairman of a congressional commission charged with studying military issues in space, he is well-qualified to speak on the matter. But it bears recognizing that the United States has so much at stake in space because we have had the wealth and technology to exploit space's potential for profit and reconnaissance. Right now, despite European and Asian space ventures, no one comes close to our abilities there.

From the 1970s on, space has been ground for diplomacy, with enemies and allies alike. I recall the Apollo-Soyuz joint mission in 1975, as well as subsequent joint missions with the Soviets and now the Russians, culminating in today's International Space Station.

There are those who say that President Reagan's touting of the so-called Star Wars program won the Cold War by forcing the Soviet Union to spend itself into economic collapse. But that war is over, and Russia poses a strategic threat only to the degree that it feels threatened. The same could be said of much of the rest of the world. For the United States now, at the height of its power, to speak of asserting its might at the final frontier could send a threatening signal indeed ... and set in motion exactly what Secretary Rumsfeld would have us guard against.

Battlefield space? Heaven forbid.

Dan Rather works for CBS News.

BYLINE1:Dan Rather

HEAD:Space should not be site of Earth's next arms race

We call it the heavens. Space, so long regarded as the ultimate repository of mystery, the place that holds the answer to who we are and what we came from. For the ancients, it was where the gods lived. For those who experienced the stunning achievements of the space program in the 20th century's last half, it was a yardstick for measuring how far we humans had come and how far we might still go. Space was and remains a sacred place for the religiously devout and the scientifically skeptical alike.

Will space now be the site of Earth's next big arms race?

This week, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld outlined a military vision for space in his first major policy address. Organiza-tionally, he advocated bringing together all current military space programs under a four-star Air Force general. And he spoke broadly of the need to defend private and military satellites from surprise attack. Though he insisted that his plans had "nothing to do" with putting weapons in space, it might be worth asking just what the plan is about, if not ultimately that.

Of course, the space program always has had close ties with American strategic concerns. We raced the Soviet Union to demonstrate the range and accuracy of our missile technology, and some insist that the entire space program, from the 1960s on, has been driven by this. But it is also true that space exploration has a power to truly inspire that has nothing to do with the military positioning of the superpowers.

To live in America during the Mercury and Apollo programs, and to cover them, as I did, was to see a nation pull together to strive for a peacetime goal with a spirit very similar to what had, in the past, only been mustered during wartime. In space, one also felt that the United States was acting as ambassadors for all of humanity. Perhaps this was only the naive, popular view ... but it held a palpable reality for rank-and-file Americans who thrilled to Neil Armstrong's words that he was taking "One small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind."

When Secretary Rumsfeld says that "More than any other country, the United States relies on space for its security and well-being," he no doubt speaks the truth. As the former chairman of a congressional commission charged with studying military issues in space, he is well-qualified to speak on the matter. But it bears recognizing that the United States has so much at stake in space because we have had the wealth and technology to exploit space's potential for profit and reconnaissance. Right now, despite European and Asian space ventures, no one comes close to our abilities there.

From the 1970s on, space has been ground for diplomacy, with enemies and allies alike. I recall the Apollo-Soyuz joint mission in 1975, as well as subsequent joint missions with the Soviets and now the Russians, culminating in today's International Space Station.

There are those who say that President Reagan's touting of the so-called Star Wars program won the Cold War by forcing the Soviet Union to spend itself into economic collapse. But that war is over, and Russia poses a strategic threat only to the degree that it feels threatened. The same could be said of much of the rest of the world. For the United States now, at the height of its power, to speak of asserting its might at the final frontier could send a threatening signal indeed ... and set in motion exactly what Secretary Rumsfeld would have us guard against.

Battlefield space? Heaven forbid.

Dan Rather works for CBS News.



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