The View From Here

Expanding the Suez Canal, and other Peaceful Uses of Outer Space

Written by: developer

If you don’t live in North Africa or the Mediterranean, you’re likely not aware that one of the biggest, oldest and largest man-made features on the planet — the Suez Canal — recently underwent an immense transformation. Even if you were aware of the amazing, one-year, $8 billion expansion of one of the planet’s most important shipping lanes, only if you work in the space industry are you likely cognizant of the crucial role that space played in the project. Egypt, after all, is hardly on the tip of most people’s tongue as a spacefaring nation.

Space advocates, like you and me, can probably construct the scenario in our own mind. Remote sensing and imaging satellites of various capabilities are used to survey the area and map out the best pathways for expanding the canal. Radar satellites probe the water, sand and shore to understand the geological structures in play and determine the proper engineering solutions. Surveyors plot the massive project using the pinpoint accuracy of GPS. Construction is carried out, to exacting specifications, again using the accuracy of GPS to guide both people and machines in the mammoth undertaking. Instantaneous communications from any point in the 164-kilometer long construction zone, to any other point on earth, are made possible by telecommunication satellites.

In the end, the canal is expanded — from one lane to two in the 35 kilometer section between Ballah and the Great Bitter Lake, and with expansive new holding and staging areas. It can handle larger ships than any other canal on the planet. And daily traffic capacity is increased from 49 ships per day to 97. Naturally, all these ships will be guided by GPS, will use mobile satellite telecommunication systems for daily operations, and will be equipped with the COSPAS-SARSAT international satellite search and rescue system.

I did not learn about this important, space-enabled development of critical infrastructure from any U.S. news media outlet, nor even from the English language international media that I follow. I saw no social media posts about it. I learned about it from Mr. Khaled Shamaa, Ambassador, Permanent Representative, Permanent Mission to the United Nations, Vienna — Egypt’s head-of-delegation to the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space, who spoke proudly of his country’s progress in utilizing space technology at the recent UN COPUOS meeting in Vienna.

Mr. Shamaa was not the only delegate to speak proudly of his country’s progress in the development and application of space technology. At 83 member nations, COPUOS is one of the largest standing committees of the UN, and it continues to admit new members. The most recent “class” admitted, in 2015, included El Salvador, Israel, Oman, Qatar, Sri Lanka and the United Arab Emirates. New Zealand applied for membership this session and was approved.

The Space Foundation has been proud to support the work of the committee (and, by extension, the United Nations Office of Outer Space Affairs), both directly and through our role as a private sector advisor to the U.S. State Department, for more than a dozen years. Normally, the heavy lifting is done by two sub-committees — the Scientific & Technical Subcommittee and the Legal Subcommittee. Often, special working groups are formed. It is a very roll-up-your-sleeves approach to developing real work products that can be brought to the full committee for action each spring. Key provisions adopted are then elevated to the General Assembly.

Important accomplishments this session included agreement on international measures that can be taken to mitigate space debris and protect the low Earth orbit environment, and agreement between the UN and China to enable broad international participation in China’s space station program, among others. For more of the nitty-gritty, see Steve Eisenhart’s report here.

Attending one of these meetings gives you a tremendous appreciation for the skills and knowledge of the diplomats who look after space issues in the international, intergovernmental arena. In particular, the U.S. team, ably led by the State Department, has remarkable “corporate knowledge” of what has gone on in COPUOS since its inception, and its members have amazing insight into all the various proposals, discussions, points-of-order, intricacies of language and translation, and so on. While the Space Foundation is able to bring its knowledge of the industry, education, space policy and the global space economy to the table, our contributions form but a small part of the vast, global, political discussions that take place. These tireless public servants generally labor in anonymity, and also, generally, like it that way. So I won’t single them out for “high fives” here, but Ken, Dick, Amber, Julie and team, you know who you are!

Of course, one of the main benefits of participating in this kind of forum is that, like at our annual Space Symposium, key senior space leaders from around the world are present. Much of the real work and real progress happens in the margins of the meeting, and at both formal and informal networking events — like the United States reception, which was jointly hosted by the Space Foundation and AIAA. We were able to make important progress on work with Germany, China, Japan and the International Astronautical Federation, as well as solidify a half-dozen very senior international speakers for next April’s 33rd Space Symposium.

Naturally a gathering of 83 nations, where each is allowed to freely express its views and any actual measure that moves forward must do so with 100 percent consensus, is full of woe and intrigue. Someday, someone will write a book on all the diplomatic maneuvering that goes on, but not today, and not me! Suffice to say that the statements made under the banner of “General Exchange of Views” run the gamut from the sublime to the ridiculous.

But, if you listen carefully, what you’ll find is 83 nations that each have a notion of why space is important to them, and to their people. The View from Here is that whether it is expanding the Suez Canal, or something else entirely, the world is a better place because of the work of the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space.

This article is part of Space Watch: July 2016 (Volume: 15, Issue: 7).