Ruwantissa Abeyratne

Dr. Abeyratne is the author of Aviation and the Carbon Trade, Aviation and the Environment, and Aviation and Climate Change: In Search of a Global Market Based Option.

Can The Metaverse Lead To Smart Flight Decks And Smart Airports?

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The metaverse is best understood as the shift of computing and interaction from a device in your pocket into a virtual simulation.” ~ Matthew Ball

The word “metaverse” has been with us for decades, first introduced as a platform of dystopia in a 1992 science fiction novel titled “Snow Crash” by Neal Stephenson. Yet, it eludes definition or full comprehension in many of us.  Some have gone to the extent of calling the Metaverse a “3D Internet”. At most, the Metaverse can be described as “ a virtual-reality space in which users can interact with a computer-generated environment and other users”.  When this definition is expanded it becomes “ a hypothetical iteration of the Internet as a single, universal and immersive virtual world that is facilitated by the use of virtual reality and augmented reality”. 

This new platform has already shown compelling results  in the world of surgery where successful surgery was performed in 2021 in the Johns Hopkins Hospital by neurosurgeons in augmented reality during live surgery

Virtual reality and augmented reality are terms that we are already familiar with. The difference between augmented reality and virtual reality (AR and VR)  is that, while AR takes digital information and transforms it to a 3D physical reality, obviating the burden of the cognitive load and is used in various commercial enterprises, VR takes physical reality into an environment that is computer generated and driven, thus making it an ideal application for entertainment purposes. The difference between the two is intrinsic in that AR gives us physical reality while VR gives us virtual reality. This is what makes AR valuable for the aviation industry. Porter and Heppelman go on to say: “At Boeing, AR training has had a dramatic impact on the productivity and quality of complex aircraft manufacturing procedures. In one Boeing study, AR was used to guide trainees through the 50 steps required to assemble an aircraft wing section involving 30 parts. With the help of AR, trainees completed the work in 35% less time than trainees using traditional 2-D drawings and documentation. And the number of trainees with little or no experience who could perform the operation correctly the first time increased by 90%”.

The combination of AR and VR would be significant to both the air transport and airport industries.  We could envision a combination of AR and VR being used to simulate weather patterns; cloud formation; and turbulence in a flight path which could alert the flight crew prior to taking off. The authors of System for synthetic vision and augmented reality in future flight decks (June 2000 Proceedings of SPIE – The International Society for Optical Engineering) say: “Rockwell Science Center is investigating novel human-computer interface techniques for enhancing the situational awareness in future flight decks. One aspect is to provide intuitive displays which provide vital information and spatial awareness by augmenting the real world with an overlay of relevant information registered to the real world. Such Augmented Reality (AR) techniques can be employed during bad weather scenarios to permit flying in Visual Flight Rules (VFR) in conditions which would normally require Instrumental Flight Rules (IFR). These systems could easily be implemented on heads-up displays (HUD)”. The new vision of the flight deck includes AR in weather information, surrounding air traffic and information on terrain.

In the airport industry, this has already become a reality.  In the airport world, this platform is called “The Digital Twin”.  As an example, Hong Kong International Airport can be cited which has its own Digital Twin, where airport staff use a live 3D simulation to plan and determine where passengers, gates and planes should be located and directed. The Digital Twin is also being used at Schiphol in Amsterdam, San Francisco International and Vancouver Airport.

The Digital Twin is a virtual replica of every aspect of airport operations and performance “to maximise efficiency and increase capacity in a more timely and cost-effective way”, as an article in the magazine Passenger Terminal World reports.  Its most effective purpose is to alert airports to anticipated problems on a 24-hour basis and flag operations staff at the airport so that they can obviate the threat and operational difficulty that could ensue. It also points to problem areas that could inconvenience and delay passenger flows, thus avoiding congestion.

Another useful purpose of the Digital Twin is that it can alleviate passenger stress.  An example cited is the airport and flight experience it offers before the actual experience, thus enabling passengers who are anxious to be more prepared when undergoing the actual experience.  One category that benefits from this platform is the autistic community.

The Digital Twin can also offer insights into the future.  For example, if an airport has an aspirational goal of net zero carbon emissions by 2030, it can model the aircraft and on-ground vehicle movements as well as other activities on the airfield.  These models can be applied to machine learning that can reflect the most efficient way an airport can be run.   Even in the planning process of an airport, the Digital Twin could offer the best iteration as Schiphol has done in the application of building information management software to generate a 3D digital version of physical and functional characteristics of an airport infrastructure.

Our physical world is three-dimensional. Even though we are far advanced in the digital age, most of our work is now being done on two-dimensional vision and application. Whether we look at a computer screen or smartphone we do not have the true picture until we translate the two-dimensional information we receive into three-dimensional practicality which is the real world. This process of translation imposes a load on our mental capacity requiring time to decipher practical reality. This demand on our brain is called “cognitive load”. AR greatly diminishes the demand on our cognitive load by converting the data obtained by two-dimensional methods images and animations that instantly gives us a picture of the real world. Michael Porter and James Heppelmann in their article Why Every Organization Needs an Augmented Reality Strategy published in the Harvard Business Review say: “[T]oday, most AR applications are delivered through mobile devices, but increasingly delivery will shift to hands-free wearables such as head-mounted displays or smart glasses”.

United Kingdom: Legal Basis for The Constitutional Monarchy

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Do not be fooled by constitutional theories (the ‘paper  description’)  and  formal  institutional  continuities  (‘connected  outward  sameness’)  – concentrate  instead  on  the  real  centres  of  power  and  the  practical  working  of  the  political system (‘living reality’).  Walter Bagehot (1867)

This article commences with profound appreciation of Her Majesty the late Queen Elizabeth II and her service to the Nation and concludes with every good wish for the reign of His Majesty King Charles III.

At this turning point in the history of the United Kingdom the most fundamental truth and point of clarity is that the King reigns (as head of nation) but does not rule.  This legal profundity is founded on the philosophy of John Locke ( 1632-1704) who propounded the concept of the “Moderate Monarchy” – a new political idea – that infused certain limitations of power on the Monarchy based on the principle that laws should be enacted for the common good of the citizenry.  Having introduced this approach,  Locke advocated residual powers for the sovereign, ascribing discretion to the sovereign to change or amend laws – again for the common good -a practice  now known as the Royal Prerogative. 

It is the Parliament that rules and the King is obliged to follow the advice of Parliament. The King has meetings once a month with his Privy Council – his advisory body – and approves Orders in Council that emanate from the consultations with and advice of The Privy Council.  The King also performs, with the advice of the Parliament,  several key functions such as appointing the Prime Minister and senior judges and  receiving  incoming and outgoing ambassadors. The King also signs State papers which he receives daily and conducts weekly meetings with his Prime Minister as well as other meetings regularly  with senior officials.

Additionally, the Monarch can declare war and peace; sign treaties; dissolve Parliament; confer peerages and knighthoods.

In 1689 co-rulers of England King William III and Queen Mary II signed into law the English Bill of Rights.  For the first time in English history the bill adumbrated explicit constitutional and civic rights and it is believed by many that it was the genesis of the constitutional Monarchy (where the monarch’s discretion is limited) and Parliamentary power over the Monarchy. Arguably, The English Bill of Rights greatly influenced the draughtsmen of the U.S. Bill of Rights. The English Bill of Rights came into being after the ouster of King James II who was largely considered autocratic and was subsequently ousted.  Ineluctably therefore the document identified the misdeeds of James II.  The English Bill of Rights clearly ascribed to the king or queen the exalted position of head of State but circumscribed some of his or her powers which were considered as limited by law. Some of the rights contained and embodied in The English  Bill of Rights were: freedom to elect members of Parliament, without the king or queen’s interference; freedom of speech in Parliament; freedom from royal interference with the law; freedom to petition the king; freedom to bear arms for self-defence; freedom from cruel and unusual punishment and excessive bail; freedom from taxation by royal prerogative, without the agreement of Parliament; freedom of fines and forfeitures without a trial; freedom from armies being raised during peacetimes. The English  Bill of Rights also prohibited Catholics from becoming the Monarch and required that Parliament be convened regularly.

The Monarchy was obligated to rule under the consent of Parliament, with the recognition that the people had individual rights. Therefore, it would not be incorrect to say that in the  British constitutional Monarchy, the king (or queen)  plays a largely ceremonial role. However, the monarch stands out as the symbol and inspiration of national unity and earns the respect of the local and international community as an apolitical figure.  The famous former editor of The Economist Walter Bagehot described the monarch as the “dignified part of the Constitution”.

At law, there can be no civil or criminal proceedings against the sovereign. It’s par for the course that this exemption notwithstanding, the King or Queen (as the case may be) is careful to act within the bounds of law and tradition. The genesis of this tradition arguably lies in The Magna Carta Liberatum (Great Charter) signed between King John and a group of barons in 1215 laying out the freedoms of individuals.  The document was composed of 63 Articles, one of which said the king must follow the law and could not simply rule as he wished. The Magna Carta stands as the monument of the constitutional history of England.

One of the legacies, and indeed a blessing of the Moderate Monarchy as espoused by John Locke is that between the Monarchy and parliament, these two institutions effectively preclude the infestation of insidious and invidious autocracies in the community. A corollary to the harmonious blending of the two institutions is The Rule of Law.  One of the most significant features of the majesty of the law as the queen of humanities is the elegance of the Rule of Law as the foundation of humanity.  The Rule of Law is the hallmark of democracy.  Regrettably, at the present time, the aspirations people had of equal rights and representation by the people of the people for the people have gradually  eroded into a quagmire of ambivalent populism that is shrouded in mendacious and self-serving casuistry. A whole new phenomenon called illiberal democracy has been identified by the intelligentsia as a definition of this  phenomenon. The hallmark of illiberal democracy is the ignoring by those democratically elected by the people – in many instances those that have been re-elected or reaffirmed through referenda – of constitutional limits on their power, thereby depriving their citizens of basic rights and freedom.

The Rule of Law, which is entrenched in the unwritten British Constitution reflects the quintessence of Constitutional Monarchy. To this end Lard Bingham has attempted a definition of the Rule of Law thus: “all individuals and organizations within the State, whether public or private, are bound by, and entitled to the benefit of laws prospectively promulgated and publicly administered in the courts”.  This definition can be expanded to several corollaries. Laws should be intelligible.  They should not be couched in a plethora of pages in convoluted language and expanded to hundreds of regulations.  Nor should they be orally delivered  through speeches and pronouncements.  Any written amendment to a law should be brought to the attention of the people.  A society should be governed by law and not by discretion granted to or assumed by public officials.  Additionally, they should be equally applied.  To expand further, laws should not favour a particular category of individual.  Past examples are the depravity of slavery, servanthood  and the arbitrarily perceived  inferiority of women in some jurisdictions.

It can be argued that the sustenance of the modern-day British Monarchy and its dignified relationship with the Parliament would continue to ac as a buffer against populism, illiberalism, and autocracy.

The Role of Religion in Our Society

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We are agricultural societies that have industrialized within one or two generations…If you look at Korea, Thailand, Hong Kong, and Singapore – there’s been one remarkable phenomenon – the rise of religion…there is a quest for some higher explanations about man’s purpose. About why we are here. This is associated with periods of great stress in society. ~ Lee Kuan Yew

We live in the Anthropocene –  an era of profound social disturbance caused by man-made and natural disasters.  Both Mother Nature and Father Time are punishing us.  Never in the annals of human history have we given ourselves deadlines to avert disaster.  Yet, we believe that we’ll find some way to get out of the  mess. This could well be our natural inclination toward religion – in our faith and belief.

Religion is fundamentally a matter of faith and belief which, although not mutually exclusive, represent two different aspects of one’s religious persuasion. While faith represents trust or dependence in one sense, it also represents “strong belief in God or in the doctrines of a religion, based on spiritual apprehension rather than proof”. Belief on the other hand is defined as  “an acceptance that a statement is true or that something exists – a religious conviction – trust, faith, or confidence in someone or something”. In other words, faith and belief supplement each other, often confusing the literati until explained with clarity by someone (other than the writer) who might be more erudite in the scriptures of the various religions that exist in the world today.

What is even more interesting is the definition of the word “religion”.  Yuval Noah Harari in his much acclaimed and celebrated historical work “Sapiens – a Brief History of Humankind” defines religion as “ a system of human norms and values that is founded on a belief in a superhuman order”.  Harari distinguishes his statement by saying that religion differs from a sport – say professional football – on the point that whereas human beings invented the structure, rules and conduct involving football, religion is not the product of human whims or agreements. He goes on to explain that “FIFA may any moment enlarge the size of the goal or suspend the offside rule”.

It is reported that approximately 85% of the world identifies with a religion. The most popular religion is Christianity, followed by an estimated 2.38 billion people worldwide. Islam, which is practiced by more than 1.91 billion people, is second. However, population researchers predict that Islam will have nearly caught up to Christianity by 2050.

So, what caused the popularity of religion in society?  Samuel Huntington, University Professor at Harvard University in his ground-breaking book “The Clash of Civilizations and  Remaking the World Order offers an explanation, “ The most obvious, most salient, and most powerful cause of the global resurgence is precisely what was supposed to cause the death of religion: the processes of social, economic, and cultural modernization that swept across the world in the second half of the twentieth century. Long-standing sources of identity and systems of authority are disrupted. People move from the countryside to the city, become separated from their roots, and take new jobs or no jobs. They interact with large numbers of strangers and are exposed to new sets of relationships.  They need new sources of identity, new forms of a stable community and new sets of moral precepts to provide them with a sense of meaning and purpose. Religion…meets these needs”.

In other words, religion gives us a sense of identity and direction in a world in which we are struggling to survive amidst the machinations of greed, ambition, self-interest, and downright evil.  The growing social dimension of religion may have emerged as a result of the transition of society from the agricultural revolution   (which was accompanied by a religious revolution) to the industrial revolution and onwards to the knowledge revolution, which could have prompted Jean Paul Sartre to say, “Hell is other people”.

Here’s my take.

Any religion or philosophy of life (such as Buddhism) must be based on the pursuit of a good life. Michael Sandel – also a Harvard professor – put it best when he said “the common good is about how we live together in community. It’s about the ethical ideals we strive for together, the benefits and burdens we share, and the sacrifices we make for one another. It’s about the lessons we learn from one another about how to live a good and decent life”.  Our lives must be shared with one another, and to successfully accomplish this goal, there must be a fusion or extension of the holy scriptures ( The Holy Bible; The Holy Quran; or The Bhagavat Geeta, to name a few) to the wisdom of our generations, while preserving our beliefs and faiths. As the father of existentialism – Soren Kierkegaard – a devout Christian of Danish origin said, “Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards”.  Kierkegaard brought a potent mixture of discourses to bear as social critique and for the purpose of renewing Christian faith within Christendom – what he called “the leap of faith”.

Study.Com carries an interesting piece about the leap of faith: “the definition of a leap of faith is a person having trust in something despite the lack of logic, reason, and rationality. They leap, figuratively, to interact or explore this thing. The phrase is significant to understanding the stages of human existence, which comprise a transition from one stage to another through this leap.

When someone believes in God, this would require a leap of faith for Kierkegaard. It disregards any logic and reason because there is no proof that this exists. In moments of despair, confusion, or other feelings of uncertainty and doubt, faith in God is done out of volition. When a person has faith in God, there is nothing that can measure it. It is an intangible phenomenon. For example, there are no predictable stages in life, changes, or movements and actions that a person must go through to garner this conclusion that they have faith”.

There is no scientific evidence that God exists. But we humans believe and indeed know of the existence of things that are scientifically inexplicable.  Take consciousness for example. Each of us knows we have consciousness or awareness, but we cannot scientifically prove it, nor can we ascribe a reason for its existence.  It is this consciousness that enables us to gain knowledge and wisdom through communal endeavours.  We advance our global communities through our consciousness.  At the same time, we also destroy ourselves through our consciousness.

As Deepak Chopra says: “Consciousness is that thing in you that is reading and understanding these words right now. It is the awareness that has made you sentient to every thought, sensation, and feeling your entire life. It is the continuity of your life that has stayed the same while all of the details of your life change. Consciousness is your essential nature, your true self that is the silent basis of all your thoughts and actions”

Consciousness, when blended with the communal nature that religion infuses in us will ultimately help us in conquering natural and man-made disasters while humanism (belief in oneself and no other) alone will not take us through the serious business of existing on this planet.  One may well argue that if we are impelled to act in consonance with our consciousness, we may hear God speak. 

International Literacy Day – 8 September 2022

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Once you learn to read, you will be forever free. ~ Frederick Douglass

The Sri Lanka Guardian was founded as an online web portal in August 2007 “by a group of concerned Sri Lankan citizens including journalists, activists, academics and retired civil servants. This portal is currently a platform for over a hundred regular writers from around the world”.  In other words, it accommodates writers to express their ideas and views and comment on what’s going on in the world, to be shared with the literati who, it is hoped,  benefit from the intellectual exertions of the writers. In that context, it is ineluctable that the most important date of the year for both the Sri Lanka Guardian and its readership is 8 September.

International Literacy Day falls on 8 September each year and seemingly passes with the unobtrusive dignity of the message it usually carries – that books enlarge a child’s world and enrich an adult’s vision, knowledge, and wisdom.  As the saying goes, reading is to the mind what exercise is to the body.

Founded in 1966 and designated as International Literacy Day by the United Nations Educational, Social and Cultural Organization (UNESCO)  the day is meant “to remind the public of the importance of literacy as a matter of dignity and human rights. International Literacy Day brings ownership of the challenges of illiteracy back home to local communities where literacy begins, one person at a time”.

UNESCO, which has adopted the theme “Transforming Literacy Learning Spaces” for this year’s celebrations, says it will be an opportunity to rethink the fundamental importance of literacy learning spaces to build resilience and ensure quality, equitable, and inclusive education for all, while going on to say: “In the aftermath of the pandemic, nearly 24 million learners might never return to formal education, out of which, 11 million are projected to be girls and young women. To ensure no one is left behind, we need to enrich and transform the existing learning spaces through an integrated approach and enable literacy learning in the perspective of lifelong learning”.

One of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals of the United Nations is “Ensure inclusive and quality education for all and promote lifelong learning”.  Of these words, arguably the most important words are “promote lifelong learning”. Now, most of the world receives basic education in school and those of us who are more receptive and persevering receive university education. But only some of us pursue “lifelong learning”.  The Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times Columnist Thomas Friedman once said he writes his books and columns to learn about things as, in the process of writing he educates himself.  In other words, he acquires knowledge while dispensing wisdom to the world. 

Simplistically put, “literacy” means “the ability to read and write”.  However, this definitive should not be inhibitive to just reading and writing but expansive to be stretched to all the various stages and processes of our education.  Literacy should encompass the five stages of our justification for existence, particularly as literati.  They are, reading; understanding; analyzing; creating and innovating.  Creating and innovating from a literacy sense is achieved through writing, whether it involves writing books, articles, poems, short stories, novels, columns, screenplays, or theatrical plays. The ability to write is innate in all of us but we can bring it to fruition if only we try. The basic tool for writing is reading, which helps us in applying the range of our knowledge to the depths of our curiosity. It makes us realize that we can rejoice in the richness of common academic heritage and believe that imitation is suicide and creativity is the essence of wisdom. At a time when profound and powerful forces are shaking and remaking the world, and information technology brings knowledge to our doorstep, we are in a world which knows no limits to show us that, in a fast-changing world, our challenges are fearsome, but so are our strengths. The fruits of our own literacy give us the certainty of our judgments and the boldness of our convictions to serve the world and help others who might need our guidance.

As the much acclaimed and Man Booker Prize-winning author Arundhati Roy once said: “the place for literature is built by writers and readers. It’s a fragile place in some ways, but an indestructible one. When its broken, we rebuild it. Because we need shelter. I very much like the idea of literature that is needed. Literature that provides shelter. Shelter of all kinds”.

Another distinct benefit of lifelong learning is that it helps us manage ourselves and shows us the path to leadership in our own professions. Leaders who are moral and ethical would know the Greek proverb “Know thyself” and watch out for their mistakes and improve on areas where they are weak in if they continue to pursue learning. They will be able to fix their weakest parts whether they are in regulation, standardization or harmonization. Rasmus Hougaard and Jacqueline Carter, in their book The Mind of the Leader, cite four critical factors sought by today’s workforce: meaning; human connectedness; true happiness; and a desire to contribute positively to the world. Today’s leader has to be connected to herself and to those around her and have a sense of purpose. The teleological significance of life and its meaning and purpose comes from learning. A leader should lead the people towards that sense of purpose. Peter Drucker famously said: “[Y]ou cannot manage other people unless you manage yourself first”.

Literacy, if used wisely makes us antifragile, non-traditional, lateral thinkers who take existing usage and change the way things are. The mind of the true literati is not of a one-time solution provider.  It is constantly active and therefore introduces a dimension that goes beyond adaptability.  Nassim Nicholas Taleb,  the author who introduced the concept of anti-fragility says: “ Antifragility is beyond resilience or robustness. The resilient resists shocks and stays the same; the antifragile gets better”.

The literati also think laterally. Wikipedia sums up lateral thinking as “a manner of solving problems using an indirect and creative approach via reasoning that is not immediately obvious. It involves ideas that may not be obtainable using only traditional step-by-step logic”. Lateral thinking goes against the usual “vertical logic”.  Edward de Bono, widely acclaimed as the father and guru of lateral thinking, explains clearly with what he calls “the intelligence trap”: “a highly intelligent person can construct a rational and well-argued case for virtually any point of view. The more coherent this support for a particular point of view the less the thinker sees any need actually to explore the situation.  Such a person may then become trapped into a particular view simply because he can support it”.

Literacy makes us escape from this trap.

Artemis and The Hunt for The Moon

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Artemis smiled. “You have done well, my lieutenant. You have made me proud, and all those Hunters who perished in my service will never be forgotten. They will achieve Elysium, I am sure.“…Rick Riordan

Artemis, daughter of Zeus and Leto, is known in Greek mythology as the goddess of the hunt: of wilderness; and wildlife. Artemis is also the goddess of the Moon.

As the lore goes, Artemis was a virgin who only loved her hunting partner Orion.

Artemis is also the name of the gigantic rocket 37 stories in height named by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) that will be launched on 29 August 2022 on it way to the Moon.  The rocket was presumably so named also because Artemis was the twin sister of Apollo. There is a distinct link between the twins in astronautical terms as the first Moon Program was named Apollo which started in 1961 by NASA culminating in two men walking on the Moon in 1969. 

The Artemis Programme will be carried out with the advanced Space Launch System (SLS) rockets and will be in three stages: Artemis 1 will be a test flight of the SLS rocket with the Orion spacecraft with no crew; Artemis 2 will fly SLS and Orion with a crew past the Moon, then circle it and return to Earth. This trip will be the farthest any human has gone into space; Artemis 3 will send a crew with the first woman and the next man to land on the Moon.

The broad aim and objective of the Artemis Program is to learn more about the Moon, the Sun and Earth and be a steppingstone for ultimate travel to Mars.  Within this broad goal is the search for water on the Moon with a view to using it and ultimately breaking down the components of water – Hydrogen and Oxygen – and using Hydrogen to power rockets and spacecraft for distant galactic travel. Other objectives are: to study the Moon to discover its mysteries; learn how to live and work on the surface of another celestial body where astronauts are just three days from home; and test the technologies that is needed to carry out missions to Mars with astronauts, which could involve a roundtrip of three years.

The Artemis Programme involves 12 countries including the United States and more are expected to join.  It has its genesis in the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 which sets out the fundamental principle –  “the freedom principle”  – that all countries have equal rights to explore outer space without any prejudices in accordance with international law. All countries have equal rights to transparency, interoperability, emergency assistance, the release of scientific data, the use of space resources, and the management of orbital debris. Under this broad legal and regulatory astronautical umbrella, the Artemis Accords were originally signed on October 13, 2020, by the United States, Australia, Canada, Italy, Japan, Luxembourg, the United Arab Emirates, and the United Kingdom. These Accords have further opened opportunities of space diplomacy and international cooperation that were made possible by the International Space Station (ISS) Intergovernmental Agreement signed in 1998.

The United States and China have, in their policies, recognized the preeminent principle – that space exploration should be for the benefit of all humankind.  This is a good starting point. 

For over 20 years the ISS has been a beacon of outer space, bestowing much benefit to humanity through the space agencies of the United States, Russia, Japan, Canada, and the participating countries of the European Space Agency. It has been reported that the work of the ISS is coming to an end and that NASA intends to keep operating the International Space Station until the end of 2030 after which the ISS would be crashed into a remote part of the Pacific Ocean known as Point Nemo.

To get some perspective on why space exploration is a multi billion-dollar expense which seemingly bears no immediate benefit to humanity, one has to go back in history.  In 2004, in the United States, NASA released its Vision for Space Exploration. The Vision moves towards its fundamental goal – which is to advance U.S. scientific, security, and economic interests through a robust space exploration program. To achieve this goal, the United States intends to: implement a sustained and affordable human and robotic program to explore the solar system and beyond; extend human presence across the solar system, starting with a human return to the Moon by the year 2020, in preparation for human exploration of Mars and other destinations; develop the innovative technologies, knowledge, and infrastructures both to explore and to support decisions about the destinations for human exploration; and promote international and commercial participation in exploration to further U.S. scientific, security, and economic interests.  The vision prompted NASA to engage, between 2004 and 2007, with other space agencies in informal discussions on modalities, goals, possibilities, competencies and timeline for space exploration in the future. 

This vision is not unique to the United States.  The European Space Agency has its Aurora space exploration programme. China, India, Japan and Russia have ambitious national projects to explore the Moon or Mars, while future national missions are being discussed in Canada, Germany, Italy, Republic of Korea and the United Kingdom.

In 2009, the United States Human Spaceflight Plans Committee (more popularly called the Augustine Committee, named after Norman R. Augustine, Chairman) in its report recognized that space exploration has become a global enterprise and that in the face of a burgeoning commercial space industry which could be encouraged to engage in space exploration, costs incurred by the government could be vastly reduced in the implementation of its space programme. The Committee also opined that the United States could lead a bold new international effort in the human exploration of space with the involvement of international partners.

The current vision of the leadership in the United States on space exploration, was articulated by President Obama on 15 April 2010, – that eventually there would be a manned mission on Mars.  President Obama did not give  a time line for this occurrence. This is in contrast to the declaration of President Kennedy in 1961 when he said about the moon missions: “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth”.

Space exploration has always been, and will be driven by the need for political and technological one-upmanship and, as astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson in the March/April 2012 issue of Foreign Affairs said: “If the United States commits to the goal of reaching Mars, it will almost certainly do so in reaction to the progress of other nations – as was the case with NASA, the Apollo programme, and the project that became the International Space Station.   For the past decade, I have joked with colleagues that the United States would land astronauts on Mars in a year or two if only the Chinese would leak a memo that revealed plans to build military bases there”.  De Grasse Tyson went on to say that this joke should not be taken lightly as the Chinese have released an official strategy paper in which they claim that they have a five-year plan to advance their space capabilities which include the launching of space laboratories, manned spaceships and space freighters and engaging in other activities of advanced space exploration.

It is a truism that no individual country or group of countries can regulate outer space, which is governed by a patchwork of international treaties, resolutions of the United Nations and industry standards.  However, international relations and domestic policy drive a nation’s direction towards outer space exploration and reflect individual State interests. The United States, which incontrovertibly is the leader among all spacefaring nations (which include  Brazil, Russia, India and China, France, Japan, the United Kingdom, Israel the European Space Agency, Ukraine and Iran), is responsible for 75 percent of space funding worldwide and owns or operates 40 percent of all active spacecraft in orbit. 

Garold Larson, Alternate Representative to the First Committee of the 64th Session of the United Nations Assembly held on 19 October 2009, succinctly outlined the policy of the United States on space exploration.  The foremost principle outlined by Larson was that the United States will continue to uphold the principles of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which the United States recognized as providing fundamental guidelines required for the free access to and use of outer space by all nations for peaceful purposes.  He went on to say that the United States will continue to take an active role in identifying and implementing cooperative efforts with established and emerging members of the international spacefaring community to ensure the safety of the space assets of all nations and also expand cooperation with other like-minded spacefaring nations and with the private sector to identify and protect against intentional and unintentional threats to its space capabilities.

The European Union, in 2008, published a draft Code of Conduct for Outer Space Activities, which it later revised in September 2010. The fundamental postulate of this code is that member states should establish policies and procedures to minimize the possibility of accidents or any form of harmful interference with other States’ right to the peaceful exploration and use of outer space. The Code applies three basic principles in pursuance of its overall objective:  freedom of access to space for peaceful purposes; preservation of the security and integrity of space objects in orbit; and due consideration for the legitimate defense interests of states.

Here is my take.

There are two fundamental issues. Firstly, space exploration must continue for technology to progress.    Above all it will give humankind a sense of perspective, as to who we are, where we have come from, and where we are headed. Secondly, since space diplomacy is an incipient but rapidly evolving process, the key to international cooperation would lie in relations between the United States and China.  Both countries have, in their policies, recognized the preeminent principle – that space exploration should be for the benefit of all humankind.  This is a good starting point. 

A joint space programme between key players of North America, Europe and Asia could greatly stabilize Asia and very likely forge reconciliation between China and Japan and obviate burgeoning rivalry between China and India. Given the fact that both countries – The United States and China – had adopted (for what it’s worth) what they call a “constructive partnership” in world affairs, the United States could, with the association of a strong Europe and Russia, engage in inclusive discussions with China on collaborative involvement in space exploration.

Let’s All Kill Tchaikovsky

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“There is no more Swan Lake…Tchaikovsky is out”.  Olesia Vorotnyk, a Ukrainian ballerina who took up an AK 47 to defend Ukraine

I came across this intriguing story in  The Economist of July 2nd, 2022, of a dancer with Ukraine’s national ballet – 30 years old – and a professional dancer since 2009  who had lost her husband in a conflict east of Ukraine 3 years ago.  When the “new war” began in February she had to do something, and she took up the gun; gave up her ballet and took a position at a checkpoint. The Economist quotes Ms. Vorotnyk as saying: “ There was this great myth of great Russia and its great army…we see the truth: they come here to steal our toilets…I wonder if those Russians read Pushkin”.

I have every respect for Ms. Vorotnyk ’s rationale and noble intent.  Whether she intended to or not, she was adhering to Article 51 of the United Nations Charter which says inter alia: “nothing in the present Charter shall impair the inherent right of individual or collective self-defence if an armed attack occurs against a Member of the United Nations”.

But her mention of Pushkin got me first to think, and then to wonder about war, culture, and national dignity.  Alexander Pushkin, widely acknowledged as the father of Russian literature, posited that there was a compelling need for Russian cultural, economic, and political development to blend harmoniously the thinking of  “Slavophiles” and “Westernizers.” – who followed two schools of thought – the former being anchored on the unique national characteristics of Russia, and the latter being based on the global or Western approach.  Pushkin thought that the two philosophies should be symbiotic and should form one and the same approach by the Russians.

Doubtless, some Russians, particularly those who initiated and carried out the invasion, might consider Pushkin “old hat” in the modern world of ideologues, populism, and autocracy which Gideon Rachman so eloquently elaborates in his book The Age of the Strongman.  Some might even argue that it’s justified to think that Pushkin’s vision is archaic.  What causes me amazement is that even some of us “Westernizers” in the Western world think and act so.  Alarmingly, as a reprisal to the Russian invasion, some have eschewed all forms of Russian culture (particularly music, ballet, drama, and other fields of fine arts) cancelling pre-booked performers by Russian musicians, performers, and conductors in their countries.

Classic FM Digital Radio reported that “All Russian participants have been banned from Dublin Piano Competition, prompting one performer to exclaim “I’m just curious how this will help to stop the war!” In another case, 20-year-old prodigy  Alexander Malofeev had his piano recital at Vancouver Recital Society cancelled.

Prominent figures have lost their jobs because they did not make public statements against the invasion.  Conductor Valery Gergiev, chief conductor of the Munich Philharmonic, was fired for this reason as he refused to issue a statement condemning the invasion and ensuing consequences endured by  Ukraine. Yet another luminary,  Tugan Sokhiev —considered by some as Gergiev’s protege — left his post as music director of the Bolshoi Theater after feeling growing pressure to make a statement.

Thomas Sanderling, the conductor who headed the Novosibirsk Philharmonic Orchestra resigned his position in protest against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.  However, he has been vocal in protesting against a blanket boycott of Russian art and artists, saying he feels it’s unfair to impugn cultural figures who do not speak out against the Russian invasion when requested and that it is unjust to terminate their services ipso facto. Sanderling said: “It is important to have a position, but it can’t be demanded. I think it’s a matter of individual choice. I know that many artists in Russia are disturbed, that they are expected to absolutely take a stand. And I think it’s also part of our European culture to recognize the right of the individual to speak out on an issue or not.”

Asking a civilian and non-actor in a war to make a public statement under pain of termination of his services which is calculated to cause adverse effects to his career and livelihood is an asinine thing to do.  It borders on incoherent buffoonery and counter-intuitive revenge and vindictiveness based on a complete misapprehension of what war is.  The defining quality of intelligence is that it should make a point, and this attitude just doesn’t.  War is a state of armed conflict between different States or different groups within a nation or State. War is not a state of armed conflict between nations – which are the people of a State.  It is indeed regrettable that modern-day warfare targets civilians as well as States as a result of a perceived and purposely contrived misapprehension incapable of differentiating between the State and the Nation.

Such feckless thinking is the philosophical antithesis of democracy and a rules-based international order. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights – adopted for the people of the world –  which commences its Preamble with the words “Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world”, goes on to say in Article 2; “ Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status”.

Furthermore, the Declaration continues, no distinction must be made on the basis of the political, jurisdictional, or international status of the country or territory to which a person belongs, whether it be independent, trust, non-self-governing or under any other limitation of sovereignty”. While Article 6 of the Declaration gives everyone the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law, Article 23 gives everyone the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment.

History records many instances where nations have helped nations in need – a phenomenon that can be seen around the world even at the present time.  One of such moments that stands out in history is reflected in the speech made by J.R. Jayawardene, then Finance Minister of (then) Ceylon at the 1947 signing of the post-war San Francisco Treaty, who refused to accept compensation for harm caused by the Japanese, saying that Ceylon did not intend to accept compensation as the Ceylonese nation believed in the words of the Great  Teacher [Buddha] whose message has ennobled the lives of countless millions in Asia, that hatred ceases not by hatred but by love. He ended the speech by saying “We extend to Japan the hand of friendship and trust that … her people and ours may march together to enjoy the full dignity of human life in peace and prosperity”.

It was clear that Minister Jayawardene had a sage understanding of the distinction between State and Nation. Perhaps we should too.