Valedictory Address at an International Conference on Space Law

International Conference on Space law at the Kerala Law Academy. Valedictory Address by Former Ambassador T.P.Sreenivasan (April 11, 2015)

I am delighted to be invited to deliver the Valedictory Address of the International Conference on Space Law organized by the Kerala Law Academy. I owe this invitation to the Principal, Dr. Lekshmi Nair, who visited Vienna during the days when I represented India in the Committee on Peaceful Uses of Outer Space there. I am grateful to her for the invitation, though, given her reputation for her culinary skills, I would have liked to be invited to a real feast rather than a feast of words. Today, addressing space scientists and scholars, I have a sense of déjà vu and I feel nostalgic about my days in Vienna.


Since I am neither a scientist, nor a lawyer, my role in COPUOS was of a facilitator and a political negotiator. I cannot, therefore, throw much light on the laws that have been framed to regulate the use of outer space, nor can I enlighten you on the demands of science. I shall confine myself to a personal account of how the exploration of outer space has transformed human life beyond imagination. I trust that, in the process, I might stress the need for laws that make outer space truly the heritage of mankind, available for all for exploration and exploitation, without geographical claims or deployment of weapons.


Nobody thought of space laws till a Soviet satellite penetrated into space in 1957. Till then, the space odysseys were part of science fiction and the grazing ground of fertile poetic imagination. When Yuri Gagarin surveyed the outer space, the great poet of Kerala, K.Ayyappa Paniker, expressed the exasperation of poets like him, who lost the cosmos that they had built in their dreams.


“Hey Gagarin, devourer of Space, 
I come, a wayfarer, get off my tracks!
Yield today
to my moral concerns,
to my poetic fancy, 
to my creative urge.

Today the scientific mind
juggles with satellites,
and you have emerged as the leader
of the yakshas, kinnaras, devas and demons,
all of them highfliers,
turning east and west into meaningless terms,
bringing under measure what is deep and what is broad.”

Then the poet addresses his “fellow-poets that stare in stupor”:

“Grow new wings to catch up with Science
across the recesses of outer space.
The pioneers have unfurled their flags on the heights; 
break you your idols, and bless yourselves.
Nothing is empty any more, nothing is outside of us; 
the whole universe is filled with subtle sensations.
Where is our telescope, where our thermometer?
Brandish the torch, fulfil the urge to create,
cut off the barriers of time and space,
keep the spirit ablaze that will burn up
every trace of death-dealing darkness!”


The change was so fundamental that it became necessary for poets to seek new images and new instruments to embellish the new world.


Space laws were not necessary when space was irresistible, but untouchable. The need for laws, regulations and restrictions became necessary for space as man reached there with all his aspirations, ambitions, sense of competition and urge to dominate and even to destroy. And soon enough, the Magna Carta of space was born in the form of an Outer Space Treaty of 1967, a set of laws devised to ensure non- appropriation of outer space, freedom of exploration, arms control, liability for damages and safety and rescue of astronauts. Since then, the international community has been updating these laws to keep up with further scientific advances. The Moon Treaty did not attract many adherents, but even those who have planted their national flags have not claimed any territory on the moon. But now that there is talk of mining on the moon, the world may have to revisit the Moon Treaty.


I also recall as a young student how the space journeys brought in a new realization about the universality of man. One of my teachers reminded us then that space journey would break international barriers. We would need to lean to live anywhere in the world at short notice. If you flew into outer space like Gagarin, would you know where in the world you would land, he asked. What passport will you have and what visa will you show? Today, many nationalities have access to the same space station. Undoubtedly space travel has changed the way we lived, the way we travelled. The space has demanded laws not only for itself, but also for many human activities.


India blasting its way into the exclusive club of major space powers through our Chandrayaan and Mangalyaan has won us greater international recognition than our diplomacy for 67 years. The New York times cartoon which depicted India as a farmer with a bullock knocking at the doors of a palace had a telling story. The fact that India accomplished the space feats at a shoestring budget was a matter of pride for India. I was reminded of a picture that appeared of a rocket being transported to the launch pad on a bullock cart. Speed is important for the rocket, but cost is more important than speed when it is taken to the launch pad!


Another story I would recall in this context is that we had a Prime Minister, who thought that space travel was a waste of time. I am referring to the first non-Congress Prime Minister of India, Morarji Desai. I was present when the President of the Soviet Union, Leonid Brezhnev offered to send an Indian astronaut into space in 1979. To the infinite surprise of all of us present, Desai turned it down as a waste of time and money. It may have been a political point that he was making, but the first Indian astronaut, Rakesh Sharma circled the earth only after Indira Gandhi came back to power. We have come a long way and are now planning our own manned space flight to the moon.


I am afraid I have strayed away from space law, but not from space matters. Today, as space flights are getting privatized and space tourism is around the corner, more space laws may be required. Even as man conquers space, we should protect it as the common heritage of humanity and immunize it from human depravities like greed, confrontation and conflict. Outer space should remain an arena for peaceful uses.


Thank you.