Obama calls for international cooperation in space

Jun 28 2010 - 8:37pm

WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama on Monday underscored his desire to turn space into a place for peace on Monday, releasing a policy paper that advocated international science missions and opened the door for future treaties that could limit space junk and weapons above Earth.

But administration officials said the push for international cooperation does not mean the U.S. necessarily would ask its allies to join Obama's proposed mission to send NASA astronauts to an asteroid by 2025, which he outlined during a visit to Kennedy Space Center in April, or immediately seek a treaty that would ban space-based weapons.

"The United States will consider proposals and concepts for arms control measures if they are equitable, effectively verifiable, and enhance the national security of the United States and its allies," wrote administration officials in the 18-page policy paper.

The new policy, Obama wrote, acknowledges that the U.S. space policy -- crafted decades ago during the Cold War with the former Soviet Union -- is no longer "racing against an adversary." Instead, he called for greater cooperation with space-faring nations, including Russia and China.

Jim Kohlenberger, chief of staff to the White House science adviser, acknowledged that "there aren't any new specific pieces in this space policy today that lay out new partnerships." But, he added, "There are going to be lots of opportunities ...for new collaboration in space as we go forward."

A key concern is the amount of space debris in orbit. More than a half million pieces of space junk larger than 1 centimeter are whipping around Earth at speeds approaching 18,000 miles per hour, and even an errant screw could destroy a satellite or endanger an astronaut.

Obama said the U.S. aims to lead the globe in developing a better system to monitor space junk while finding ways to avoid a repeat of the 2009 collision between an American and Russian satellite -- the first time that two intact satellites ever collided with one another.

"This policy recognizes that as our reliance on satellites and other space-based technologies increases, so too does our responsibility to address challenges such as debris and other hazards," wrote Obama in a statement.

Other countries weren't Obama's only target audience.

The paper also touts the benefits of using commercial rocket companies -- rather than NASA-designed spaceships -- to send crew and cargo to the International Space Station after NASA retires the space shuttle, adding that a "robust and competitive" commercial rocket sector is "vital" to the American economy and its security.

This argument is aimed at congressional critics who have opposed Obama's plan to cancel NASA's Constellation moon program and use commercial rockets to resupply the station.

Instead of sending astronauts back to the moon, Obama wants NASA to concentrate on designing futuristic new spacecraft that could take astronauts to an asteroid by 2025 in preparation for a future mission to Mars.

A symbolic test of that policy is expected today when a House spending committee with oversight of NASA's budget will debate the White House plan and its proposed funding of $19 billion next year.

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