Far from the glare of presidential politics, a serious debate is taking place on the future of U.S. space policy.
Speaking recently in Colorado Springs, where the U.S. Air Force Space Command is headquartered, Republican Sen. Wayne Allard and Democratic Rep. Mark Udall agreed that the next president, to quote Allard, "will have to choose which direction to take."
The options are both stark and clear. Allard is among those who believe the United States needs missile defense weapons in space -- weapons that also could be turned against other nations' satellites. Udall, chairman of the congressional subcommittee that oversees NASA and a candidate to succeed the retiring Allard, opposes space weapons. "My vision would be that all nations of the world share the high ground of space," he said, not engage in a new arms race "that results in the weaponization of space."
The next president will have to choose.
Decision time is rapidly approaching. In January 2007, China destroyed an aging Chinese weather satellite in an anti-satellite weapons test, roughly replicating a 1985 U.S. test.
Do we want China to dominate space? Of course not, leading some to argue that the United States needs to lay claim to space -- and soon.
My view is that we shouldn't want anybody to dominate space; we should do whatever we can to ensure that space remains free of weapons.
Whoever becomes the next U.S. president should lead that effort by calling on the nations of the world to update the 41-year-old Outer Space Treaty.
The old treaty -- inspired by President Dwight D. Eisenhower -- took effect in October 1967. Even the Soviet Union's then ambassador to the United States, Anatoly Dobrynin, hailed the treaty as a landmark achievement, ensuring that space would be used only for "peaceful activities -- for the benefit of all mankind."
To be sure, both the United States and Soviet Union worked on a variety of space weapons and anti-satellite systems during the Cold War, but neither country deployed a comprehensive space weapons system.
Ater the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the floodgates opened in the United States and many influential "space warriors" began to argue that the time had come for U.S. space dominance. Advocates claimed that if the United States could dominate space in a time of conflict, no "peer competitor" would ever challenge us, ensuring lasting peace.
In October, former New York Gov. George Pataki, acting as a public delegate to the U.N. General Assembly, said the United States remains fully committed to the "peaceful uses of space." But, he added, "discussions regarding the merits of treaties to prevent the so-called 'weaponization' of outer space would be a pointless exercise."
Pointless to whom?
The United States has more to lose from a space-related arms race than any other country. Of the 800-plus commercial, scientific, and military-related satellites now in orbit, more than half bear the Made-in-America label. That may be what the Chinese were trying to tell us last year when they conducted their anti-satellite test.
For many years, China has attempted to get the United States to the negotiating table, without success. The Chinese test may have been a wake-up call. Its message: Let's get on with treaty talks; otherwise, we will challenge you in space.
Military space dominance is a no-win proposition. Rather than considering such ideas, the next president should push for a tough new space treaty, one that is verifiable and has teeth.
It's time for our country, which seeks to influence the world by example, to be visionary and bold. And what could be bolder and more visionary -- for a nation and a new president -- than leading the world to a treaty that would ensure that space remains free of weapons and free of conflict?
Mike More, former editor of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, is a research fellow at the Independent Institute of Oakland, and author of "Twilight War: The Folly of U.S. Space Dominance." He wrote this article for the Mercury News.
Copyright 2008 San Jose Mercury News