Iran this week took a big step towards joining the ranks of space-faring nations. They claim to have successfully launched a monkey to an altitude of 120 km using a Iranian-built rocket. This follows their first satellite launch in 2009 and a successful mission involving smaller animals in 2010. They reportedly failed to launch a monkey in 2011.
This launch comes on the heels of North Korea's first satellite launch last December. Although the supposed weather satellite appears to have since become unstable, this was a marked improvement from a failure earlier that year. Both these countries seem destined to join the third wave of nations entering space. Among the more notable entries in the category are China and India, both of which have their eyes on the Moon. North Korea and Iran, however, present world leaders with a decidedly more difficult situation.
North Korea has successfully tested a nuclear weapon and appears to be on track for a repeat performance. Although Iran claims its nuclear program is aimed at the peaceful generation of power, many western leaders are skeptical (to put it mildly). Iran's program has been widely condemned by the west, while North Korea's has been denounced by virtually every nation. Even China, Pyongyang's closest ally, has opposed their recent actions.
Rockets capable of reaching low-Earth orbit share much of their technology with the intercontinental ballistic missiles used to deliver nuclear weapons. Both Iran and North Korea have expressed hostile intent against countries (particularly the United States) far enough away to require such delivery systems. On the other hand, the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 expressly permits the free exploration of space by all nations, prohibiting only the placement of nuclear weapons in orbit or on the Moon.
How do we reconcile these issues? Can we in good conscience allow these nations to use space exploration as a cover for weapons development? And if we don't allow it, are we hypocrites? After all, the US and the Soviet Union first went to space in a desperate race to gain advantage during the deepest part of the Cold War. With space access becoming an increasingly valuable resource, we would be disadvantaging the citizens of these nations in their everyday lives. Access to GPS, satellite communication, and advanced weather prediction has profoundly changed our lives. Shouldn't it change theirs, too?
In the end, I think that both sides are going to have to give a little. If Iran and countries like it are truly pursuing a peaceful exploration of space, a little openness would go a long way towards pacifying their critics. And the US and its allies would do well to remember their own first stumbles into space. We might not have been doing it for the purest of reasons, but we sure have generated a lot of progress from the experience.
I'm glad I don't have to make the decision.