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Common Cents

Life on the roof

Ralph Murphy

(11/2015) The "roof of the world" is often referred as the Tibetan Plateau first scaled at its highest peak of Mount Everest in 1953 by New Zealander Edmond Hillary. Man's quest to reach new heights and platforms hasn't descended since that event over six decades ago. It has, however, become more expensive as depicted by the International Space Station (ISS). The craft has been manned continuously in lower earth orbit (LEO) since November, 2000. It was first deployed as a multinational joint venture for scientific initiatives, but is now justified as a diplomacy initiative. It appears other ISS purposes have "run their course".

Astronauts, Cosmonauts and commercial travelers from 17 different nations have visited and inhabited the 14 module "pressurized" facility. It is a series of interconnected work and storage areas sent to space at different points in time and circumstance. Primarily a NASA and Russian ROSCOMOS venture at inception- Japan's JAXA, Europe's ESA and Canadian CSA have also contributed unpressurized component parts to include robotic arms, cargo cranes, and sensing instruments.

The ISS has cost about $100 billion (2010 dollars) to piece together with the Americans paying about $72.4 billion of the total. Russia, various European nations and Canada paid the rest. The American Space Shuttle program which existed from 1985 to 2010, was the primary means of accessing the ISS affording 36 flights of varied human, supply and commercial cargo. The whole program, however, has proven very costly. Total costs have been placed at about $50.4 billion with the single liftoff to ISS with two or three man crews at over $450 million each flight. The shuttle didn't have much alternate purpose to "ferrying" of travelers and goods, and was replaced by Russia's Soyuz rockets sent from the Cosmodrome launch site in Baikonur, Central Asia.

While cheaper at about $60 million a seat, the Russian program has proven embarrassing amid a downturn in relations because of earth bound concerns. Safety and cost have become issues as well. Soyuz rockets were recently launched from ESA's Guiana and America's Cape Canaveral to supply the ship.

The craft serves to support various scientific experiments to include life and physical sciences. Studies in microbiology and such experiments as human endurance at zero gravity, but include other undocumented efforts. It was envisioned as an "observatory station, factory and staging area for deep space." Almost all the lab studies can more affordably be addressed through alternate means and the Americans have signaled a desire to end the program after 2024.

The Russians may continue their five module segment with the proposed OPSEK (Orbital Piloted Assembly and Experiment Complex)- a joint venture between NASA and ROSCOSMOS. The remainder of the station would presumably remain attached but be used for storage if any space activity takes place as it's paid for and in place. That was before relations cooled with the west and the Russian economy fell into deep recession amid a related sanction retaliation and a drop in commodity prices vital to their export earnings.

An Outer Space Treaty of 1967 was the first substantive document for international law in space but was broad in its description of rights and restrictions. Signed by 103 nations over time it has been updated and revised, but affords "privileges on and (was) implemented in a series of subsequent international treaties and national laws". There are 9 key points to the original treaty to include outer space (LEO starting at 160 kilometers or higher orbits above earth to known universe height) as void of national sovereignty, no weapons of mass destruction can be deployed to space, area is to be used for "peaceful purposes", states retain jurisdiction over their space objects (inanimate or animate), and contamination shall be avoided. The key legal resolve is that individual governments are responsible to settle space injury of their domestic provision- whether public or private. Few of the actual liabilities or court processes have been worked out though the United Nations International Court of Justice (ICJ).

As of this past year, the Goddard Space Center listed 2,271 satellites, many linked to the ISS operating in LEO. There has been conflict to include an attack element by the Chinese program that destroyed one of their own satellites, and sent troubling space particles flying and indicated an attack capacity targeting similar structures. At present there is little defense or legal resolve to earth bound redress were an incident to take place.

Space laws relevant to the ISS which haven't been fully developed include human travel, debris, flags of convenience, using cheaper flight sourcing (e.g. the American FAA's safety standards are more stringent and costly than others), property rights questions broadly applied have to be developed. Many answers may be obtained from the High Seas or Admiralty Laws, but there are, of course, varied challenges specific to space which haven't been broached or crossed and legal resolve has not yet been codified as to events. ISS problems have been solved at an intergovernmental level. . China's space debris is still contentious as NASA counts each particle of the approximately 19,000 currently in orbit as dangerous to impacts and if sourced would lead to state liability through damage payment.

If a serious issue like an act of war were to occur, and it could as the six person crews at present are often from conflicting governments- the result could draw a passionate response on earth. Legal issues not withstanding, the ISS is just too enormously expensive. The Shuttle fleet was closed years ago as it couldn't be afforded nor seen as needed. At $60 million a seat, the Soyuz supply and travel craft being provided by Russia, is almost extortion and bands the law abiding on earth with the pariah Russians. Whatever the objective at inception, the gains from the ISS appear illusory and the objective to terminate the program after 2024 is likely- given the cost and mission alternatives.

Ralph Murphy is a former member of the CIA Headquarters Staff in Langley, VA.

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