Rights -- not arms -- in space
The United Nations space conference in Vienna was given little enough news coverage anyway. It is all the more unfortunate that so much of this pittance dwelt on the one topic of militarizing space - and the United States reluctance to deal with it. Urgent as this matter is, other ones of far-reaching significance should not be ignored. These include:
* Fair access to the ''geosynchronous'' or ''geostationary'' orbit where communications satellites can remain over the same spot while the earth turns. As more and more satellites are lofted by the industrial countries, the developing countries worry that no good locations will be left for them. Technical improvements permit increased ''crowding'' without communications interference. But questions remain over the developing countries' rights to technology or to control of the space above them. The outer space treaty of 1967 states that the use of space shall be free and for the benefit of all countries ''irrespective of their degree of economic or scientific development.''
* Right of prior consent to protect against technological intrusion via space. Many governments are concerned by the ability of direct-broadcast satellites to beam propaganda to their people. What kind of safeguards should there or could there be? Would they be compatible with freedom of information?
Also there are the ''remote sensing'' capabilities of scrutinizing military installations or crops, minerals, and other national resources from space. Developing countries want their share of this potentially valuable knowledge. They want access to any data developed about themselves, so it cannot be exploited by others - such as someone offering to buy ''worthless'' land when he knows oil lies under it. At the same time they want to be able to obtain remote-sensing data about themselves without having it go to others without their consent.
Such issues were aired if not resolved in the course of the Vienna conference's acceptance of a report it had been called together to consider. The final version, including recommendations to the UN, will go to the General Assembly for consideration this fall. It is to be hoped the suggestions for more study do not result in inordinate delay.
Which brings us to the small but important part of the report dealing with military activity in space. Most of the nations present were concerned not only about the futuristic weaponry that has made headlines but the conventional arms that are a more immediate threat to the peaceful uses of space. The US wanted to keep such matters out of this report and address them in the UN disarmament committee. It succeeded in eliminating references to the ''militarization'' of space.
But by the end of the parley the US did go along with revised paragraphs in the report calling for action to prevent an ''arms race'' in space - and for strict adherence to the letter and spirit of the 1967 outer space treaty. This bans nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction from space.
A mere report, alas, will not stop either Washington or Moscow from diverting resources to development of laser and other space weapons, even though their military efficacy has been seriously questioned. But the degree of agreement could be a step toward the goal backed by many in Vienna: that of outlawing the ''testing, stationing, and deployment'' of all weapons in space.
Prudence requires the free world to maintain defenses against any eventuality. But there is no reason that the inhabitants of Planet Earth cannot agree to put space off limits to arms - and thus concentrate on solving the problems of technology and equity in its marvelous peaceful uses.