Press Conference by Director of Office for Outer Space Affairs

14 October 2010
Press Conference
Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York

Press Conference by Director of Office for Outer Space Affairs


In a press conference at Headquarters today, Mazlan Othman, Director of the Office for Outer Space Affairs and Deputy Director-General of the United Nations Office at Vienna, gave an overview of work being done on the peaceful uses of outer space through the Fourth Committee (Special Political and Decolonization Committee).

The breadth and depth of the Committee’s work in that area was evident in the issues being tackled and the progress being made, she said.  The Committee had, in 2006, established the International Committee on Global Navigation Satellite Systems, as well as the United Nations Platform for Space-based Information for Disaster Management and Emergency Response (UN-SPIDER), which she admitted was “quite a mouthful”.  Another achievement was the development in 2007 of guidelines for space debris mitigation, a safety issue which was of great importance, as “a fleck of paint is like a bullet up there – dangerous to the International Space Station and human life”.

Just recently, she said, approval had been given for a safety framework on the use of nuclear power sources in outer space, and the Committee currently was tackling a diverse set of related issues including space applications for developing nations, near-objects to Earth, and national space legislation which looks at the international regime on space law.

When asked about the funding of her Office and the allocation of resources, specifically regarding developing nations, she observed that the Office for Outer Space Affairs had the second smallest budget in the Organization.  A third of the Office’s activities and staff came under the regular budget, for a total of some $7 million.  The rest of its budget – perhaps a few million more - was supplied by international organizations and donor Member States, among them, the United States, Germany, Austria and China.

Correspondents in the room expressed great interest in the possibility of Ms. Othman being appointed by the Committee as the “take-me-to-your-leader person” if the Earth were to be contacted by alien life forms.  Categorically denying that she had been appointed or would in the future be appointed as an ambassador for extraterritorial life forms, she stressed that the Committee was not discussing the matter.

Interest in this so-called appointment had come about from a meeting she had attended in London at the Royal Society on extraterritorial life, which was a scientific meeting with scientific experts offering their views on the subject.  Emphasizing that no recommendations resulted from the meeting, she mentioned some of the topics covered, among them “calling ET or not even answering the phone” and “what extraterrestrial life could tell us about the future of humanity”.

The debate that the British press had caught wind of had focused on a scientific approach to extraterrestrial life and had appraised political issues for the United Nations agenda.  She pointed out that the panel consisted of representatives from the United States National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the United Kingdom’s Government, and a lawyer on outer space law from the University of Nebraska and her contribution to the panel was focused on what issues might present themselves for discussion in the United Nations.

In response to an inquiry of whether or not the United Nations had in place a mechanism for such coordination, she said that the Organization had platforms for any kind of discussions that would affect humanity as a whole, including extraterrestrial life.  That included extraterrestrial intelligence and was “logically one of the many mechanisms and avenues for such discussions”.  The Committee had in 1977 discussed for a year strategies in interacting with such life or intelligence but the matter had fallen by the wayside and had not been brought up again.  When pressed on whether or not the United Nations should be doing more to prepare for such an interaction, she reminded those present that such decisions were up to Member States.

As to what role she would play and what response mechanisms were in place if an extraterrestrial contacted the Earth today, Ms. Othman stressed that she did not know what role she would play as it had not been decided.  In the possibility of discovering life in outer space, she did hope that such an important issue would be an opportunity for a meeting of minds, not just through political or scientific approaches, but because of its “profound impact on humanity, in a forum more representative of everyone”.  However, until Member States gave direction on how to deal with extraterrestrial life-form contact, she didn’t have a concrete answer on this issue.

In response to questions on the possibility of life in outer space, she said strictly speaking, from her point of view as an astrophysicist, with the billions of stars out there and with more and more solar planets being identified, even if there was “one in a trillion possibility” that one planet might host life, it would probably not be “people like you and I” or even “green aliens with large lovely eyes”.  More likely, it could be bacteria.

Addressing a question on the nuclear power sources in outer space and her Office’s cooperation with NASA and other entities, she explained that the safety framework addressing nuclear power focused on its safe use in rockets and in satellites.  The safety framework was a result of close work between the Committee, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), governmental entities and in particular Member States, notably the United States, Russian Federation, United Kingdom, Venezuela and Austria, among others.

Asked about any United Nations coordination and resources regarding meteors coming close to Earth, she said that the “near-Earth objects” issue had been discussed in the Fourth Committee since 1999.  A Working Group under the Scientific and Technical Sub-Committee, with a multi-year plan, was in the process of developing a draft resolution on how the United Nations should deal with the situation, and she emphasized that that issue was an active item on the Committee’s agenda.

The current state of space was also inquired about, and she addressed the “complex issue” of debris left behind by rockets and satellites and the lessening of use of space because of “junk up there”.  In one instance, she described how those working in the International Space Station had to take refuge in one section because of a possible impact from space debris.  In that regard, a new agenda item, “long-term sustainability of space activities” was now being explored by the Committee.  It covered a wide range of issues on what was happening in space, including whether or not there was a need for traffic management in space and what could be done to ensure space was not used for anything but peaceful means, among others.

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For information media • not an official record
For information media. Not an official record.