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Keep weapons out of space

The United Nations conference on peaceful uses of outer space opening in Vienna today prompts urgent questions: Is outer space to be explored and used for the constructive purpose of improving the lives of all peoples of planet Earth? Or is it to become the dangerous battleground of military rivalry first between the superpowers and ultimately among other nations?

Many fear the latter if the United States and the Soviet Union do not soon get together not only to control the arms race on earth but to prevent it from spilling over into space. The last bilateral talks ended in l979. It is time they were resumed.

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This is not an item on the agenda of UNISPACE '82 - the second conference of its kind. Some 2,000 people from 100 countries gathering there are concerned primarily with finding ways for the developing nations to participate in space programs to improve education, communications, navigation, weather prediction, and the like. Tremendous progress is being made in the use of satellites for such peaceful purposes and the US and other Western nations are making a substantial contribution in this whole field.

But there is little doubt that alarm about the growing military competition in space will come up at conference sessions. For if the Americans and the Russians continue with their programs for putting antisatellite weapons (ASATs) in space and developing such systems as laser and particle beam weapons, international cooperation for peaceful uses of space will be set back. International law prohibits the superpowers from deploying ''weapons of mass destruction'' in space, i.e. nuclear warheads. But both are working on space-based weapons systems that could either damage satellites or electronically impede their functions. With the Russians believed considerably ahead of the US in developing such weaponry, the Reagan admini-stration has expanded its own program.

There are grave dangers in the trend. The US and the Soviet Union depend more and more on outer space for the daily operation of their military forces. Thus, satellites are used to gather strategic intelligence and for communications purposes. They are also used to verify compliance with arms control agreements, including the SALT I and the unratified SALT II treaties, and to provide instantaneous warning of the launching of enemy missiles. To deploy weapons that could interfere with these functions, therefore, would not enhance but reduce the security of each side.

Moreover, many scientists are skeptical that effective space weapons can be developed. Kosta Tsipis of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, for instance, terms proposals for a laser antiballistic missile defense in space ''little more than childlike, wishful fantasies of omnipotence.'' It would take, he says, 100 years and $100 billion just to transport enough laser fuel to space-based platforms.

Even if do-able, however, does the United States want to take the path of doing it? This year marks the 25th anniversary of the opening of the space age with the flight of Sputnik. It has been a quarter of a century of breathtaking progress in space exploration and of helpful international cooperation in the peaceful use of space. What a pity if further progress were threatened because the superpowers failed to reach an agreement to stop the madness of a space arms race.