Experts preparing for inevitable conflict in space

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

“Here men from the Planet Earth first set foot upon the Moon. July 1969, A.D. We came in peace for all mankind.”

So reads the plaque affixed to the Apollo 11 lander that still rests on the Sea of Tranquility.

Peace still reigns on the moon, but perhaps the last sentence should have been amended to include “(for now.)”

The University of Nebraska College of Law is hosting space and military law experts from Australia and the United Kingdom to work on a document to provide legal guidance once the sadly inevitable conflict occurs in space.

Jack Beard of Nebraska’s Space, Cyber and Telecommunications Law Program is working with legal experts from Australia and England to create the Woomera Manual on the International Law of Military Space Operations, to be completed in 2020.

The Woomera township is Australia’s Cape Canaveral, site of the nation’s first successful satellite launch in 1967. A “woomera” is a traditional spear-throwing device in the Dharug language of the Eora people.

“Conflict in outer space is not a case of ‘if’ but ‘when,’” said Melissa de Zwart of the University of Adelaide. “However, the legal regime that governs the use of force and actual armed conflict in outer space is currently very unclear, which is why the Woomera Manual is needed.

“The few international treaties that deal with outer space provide very little regulation of modern space activities, including both military and commercial uses of space,” she said. “Therefore, we need to cast our gaze more widely in our approach to determining what laws are applicable to space.”

War and space exploration have always been intertwined, both American and Soviet Union programs made possible by Nazi Germany’s technological advances in World War II.

The first space station designs were intended to have military uses, and the space shuttle would not have been built had it not been attractive to the military.

Still, NASA was careful to have the first person to set foot on the moon be a civilian, and military technology like the global positioning system has made life safer and more convenient for civilians.

Like any war, the history of the first space conflict will be written by the winner. Let’s hope that winner is a country that respects the rule of laws like the Woomera Manual.

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