The Geopolitics of Space Exploration
Humans have long sought to explore beyond the reaches of the earth’s gravity. In 1957, that goal was achieved when the Soviet satellite Sputnik became the first man-made object to orbit the earth. Countless rockets, probes, and satellites have been sent into space since that day, and now some are talking of building the first permanent settlement on Mars or the moon. Either would be a daunting challenge from an engineering perspective alone, but technology is not the only barrier. The exploration and development of space is laden with geopolitical issues, which will have to eventually be resolved to ensure the stable expansion of humanity into the solar system. Most of these problems can be identified through examining the values and actions of the parties most active in outer space affairs in the present. All things considered, humanity has made significant steps towards worldwide unification since the launch of Sputnik. Nevertheless, nationalist and other self-serving goals remain a major motivator for much of human activity in space. Tensions exist between the common interest and the specific interests of nations in regards to the use and exploration of space, many of which could create legal, diplomatic, or environmental dilemmas in the future.
Since the end of the so-called “Space Race” of the 1950’s and 60’s, human activity in outer space has been characterized by peace and cooperation. International law and organizations support this attitude towards space exploration. The Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) is the branch of the United Nations that handles all international legal matters regarding outer space. The committee was founded in 1958, near the height of the Space Race, and was permanently established a year later. According to COPUOS’s official website, concern that space would develop into another battleground for the Cold War superpowers was one of the main motivations behind its formation (COPUOS History). Therefore, it is unsurprising that the foremost goal of COPUOS is to champion the values of non-aggression, equality, and mutual supportiveness in space among nations.
COPUOS’s central treaty is the Outer Space Treaty (OST), which forms the backbone of international space law and policy. An expansion of an earlier resolution made in 1963, its 17 articles establish key rights, obligations, and restrictions for its member nations. Militarization issues are dealt with explicitly in Article IV. It bans the placement of nuclear armaments and other weapons of mass destruction in outer space, and also forbids all military activity on moons and planets aside from the earth (4). Significantly, it makes no mention of military projects that are not weapons of mass destruction nor located on an extraterrestrial body, so by implication these are legal. Although this may seem counter to COPUOS’s emphasis on peace, it was probably written this way to still allow for spy satellites, which are not weapons and have uses outside of conflict.
While reconnaissance satellites are generally accepted, other national security programs have come much closer to outright aggression. One such example is the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), announced in 1983 by sitting U.S. president Ronald Reagan. According to the U.S Department of State, “The heart of the SDI program was a plan to develop a space-based missile defense system that could protect the country from large-scale nuclear attack” (“Strategic Defense Initiative”). It would utilize satellite-mounted weaponry to intercept and destroy any intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and their payloads. SDI received backlash around the world for its blatant, almost contemptuous disregard of diplomatic efforts at disarmament. James W. Chamberlin, who was working with the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency when Reagan proposed the initiative, said in an interview, “SDI was contrary to several agreements. It was a serious threat to the ABM [Antiballistic Missile] Treaty, as well as the [Outer Space Treaty]” (Kennedy). The core objective of the SDI, to place missile-destroying weapons in orbit, would have likely violated Article IV of the OST. In addition, the program’s unprecedented reveal, at a time when the United States and the Soviet Union were negotiating nuclear de-escalation, soured foreign relations and likely stalled the resolution of the Cold War.
Military conduct in outer space is not the only point of contention between international law and national interests; another is the issue of ownership of extraterrestrial objects. COPUOS expressed its stance in Article II of the OST. It simply reads, “Outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means” (4). This is the briefest article in the OST, despite the importance of the concept it addresses. Its wording is vague enough, in fact, some groups have passed legal documents manipulating the article for their own interests.
The Bogotá Declaration, an international bill authored and signed in 1976 by several nations along the equator, attempted to assert territorial rights to geostationary orbital positions. Dan St. John, a law student specializing in space, describes the essential argument used:
To get around the Outer Space Treaty’s declaration that outer space is not subject to national appropriation, the Bogotá Declaration categorized the geostationary orbit (“GEO”) as a natural resource, not a region of space. […] By categorizing this orbit as a resource, these states could call on the [indisputable] principle that states have absolute control over their natural resources.
The document also contained a rebuttal of Article II of the OST, claiming that the existing legal framework implicitly favored developed nations over developing ones. Despite the compelling points it made, the declaration was never acknowledged by the United Nations for two reasons. Since the UN operates on a basis of national consensus, the handful of countries backing the Bogotá Declaration were overshadowed by the vast majority of nations protecting their own interests. Furthermore, St. John notes that orbital positions are held by an international body and allocated based on the importance of their intended use. He writes that this should stop nations from undeservedly snatching all of the GEO slots. The Bogotá Declaration failed, because while it sought to address a perceived unfairness in international law, its proposed reform would have been even more unfair. It amounted to a power grab by the signatory states. Still, its concerns about weaknesses in existing space law were not ignored by the international community.
Recognizing the need to elaborate on ownership rights, in 1979 COPUOS drafted a treaty known as the Moon Agreement. It contains detailed provisions on topics the Outer Space Treaty only covered passingly. Article II of the OST is expanded upon in the first half of Article 11 of the Moon Agreement. One part reads, “Neither the surface nor the subsurface of the moon, nor any part thereof or natural resources in place, shall become property of any [person or group]” (31). Also, in the agreement the phrase “the moon” serves as an umbrella term for all celestial bodies in the solar system, meaning that the previous passage effectively bans ownership of any natural object in space, as well as the harvesting of any resources. This provides much stronger legal protection than any previous legislation. However, the agreement was mostly a dud; only 18 countries have formally accepted its obligations, and none of them have a major presence in space. Mark Williamson explains the treaty’s lack of support: “Whereas signatories to the OST accepted its rejection of sovereignty, the direct and specific language of the Moon Agreement seems to have been a bridge too far” (166). Unlike the OST, the Moon Agreement would have unambiguously outlawed space mining and other potential sources of wealth. Thus, many nations were adverse to it, including those trying to foster the emerging private space industry.
In 2015, the U.S. passed a bill called the Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act, also known as the SPACE act, which a few experts believe is a violation of international space law. The act aims to encourage commercial activity in space and permits companies to mine asteroids and other space objects for profit. Gbenga Oduntan, a professor of law at the University of Kent, is especially outspoken against its validity. He makes two distinct legal objections in his article, “Who owns space? US asteroid-mining act is dangerous and potentially illegal.” He writes that the SPACE act is grounded solely in national law, but, he argues, “Simply relying on US legislation and policy to justify the plans is obviously insufficient,” and “Space exploration is a universal activity and therefore requires international regulation.” Secondly, he cites Article I of the OST, which states that all activities in outer space “shall be carried out to the benefit of and the interest of all countries” (qtd in Oduntan). He claims this prohibits the corporate exploitation of asteroids, since such operations only benefit the company performing them. Oduntan’s first point, that the United States did not appropriately consult international law, is definitely valid; his other point is a little more subjective. Just as the SPACE act takes liberties in its interpretation of the OST, he presents Article I as slightly more limiting than an unbiased reading would perhaps suggest. Nonetheless, his main criticisms of the bill, namely that it is self-serving and of shaky legal status, are still accurate.
Taken together, the legal dilemmas created by the Strategic Defense Initiative, the Bogotá Declaration, and the Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act point to an underlying weakness in space law. Indeed, the problem is with international legislature as a whole. Because COPUOS is a voluntary agreement between nations, it cannot force a country to subscribe to any treaties, nor can it effectively punish members for breaking their obligations. Since nations have diverse interests, especially concerning the use of outer space, generally the only way a treaty gains widespread acceptance is if it covers utterly uncontroversial topics or if its provisions are so basic as to barely restrain states from doing what they desire. The OST is an example of the latter case; if it were written too forcefully, it most likely would have ended up like the Moon Agreement. This is not the only reason for the OST’s lack of detail, however. The treaty was written over half a century ago in 1967, during a time when spaceflight was just beginning to develop, and a few immediately pressing concerns related to the Cold War outweighed long-term considerations. Still, that it has not been updated since then shows a disconcerting lack of enthusiasm in regulating space. If a comprehensive solution is not found, irreparable damage could be done not only to international relations but also to outer space itself.
The environmental sanctity of outer space is a critical factor in all spacefaring ventures. For the purposes of preservation, the solar system can be divided into two categories: Earth’s orbital environment and the environments of nearby moons and planets. Both are associated with different risks, though the greater threat is the man-made space debris orbiting the earth. At the start of 2019, there were an estimated 34,000 objects in orbit larger than ten centimeters, and an additional 900,000 objects between one and ten centimeters (“Space Debris by the Numbers”). Because objects in orbit travel far above the speed of sound, even collisions with tiny pieces of debris can seriously damage rockets and satellites. According to the European Space Agency,
The consequences of meteoroid and debris impacts on spacecraft can range from small surface pits due to micrometre-size impactors and clear-hole penetrations for millimetre-size objects, to mission-critical damage for projectiles larger than 1 cm. […] Any impact of a 10 cm catalogue object on a spacecraft or orbital stage will most likely entail a catastrophic disintegration of the target (“Hypervelocity Impacts”).
Unfortunately, the dangers of collisions do not end there. In 1978, scientist Donald Kessler
realized that as the number of satellites in orbit increases, so does the probability of a satellite hitting another object and being smashed apart. Kessler proposed that once the earth’s orbit reaches a certain object density, any major collision will result in a domino effect where the resulting fragments from the collision destroy other large bodies, producing even more debris – the process continues until the entire orbit is reduced to a cloud of debris fragments (2637). Not only would this scenario destroy every satellite in its path, it would render the entire area inacce-ssible to spacecraft, possibly for centuries until most of the debris are worn away.
While the risk of orbital debris has long been acknowledged by the space community, the preservation of the environments of celestial bodies, particularly those of the moon and Mars, is often overlooked. As with issues of environmental preservation on Earth, debates about the merit of protecting these environments are often opinionated and contentious. For instance, while the majority of those who have written about extraterrestrial environments favor some sort of effort to preserve them, libertarian thinkers Walter Block and J. H. Huebert disagree. In a journal for University of Memphis Law Review, they denounce the application of conservationist principles to space, claiming that “there is simply no legitimate philosophical or pragmatic argument” in support of such actions (290). But while the debate on the sanctity of the moon and other planets is active, it has not reached the engineers and mission planners at the forefront of exploring outer space. In the late 2000’s, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration purposely crashed a large spacecraft into the moon so astronomers could study the resulting dust cloud for traces of water. (“Crashlanding on the Moon.”) Although it was lauded by some as a cost-efficient way to analyze the moon’s composition, others would surely find punching a crater in the moon and scattering detritus on its surface, when less destructive methods exist, to be objectionable. Mars’s environment faces similar issues, though it has not been traveled to as extensively as the moon.
There exist numerous social obstacles, stemming from diverse and sometimes conflicting ideologies, that impede the way forward for exploration and development of the solar system. One such problem is the militarization of space. It was established relatively early in the Space Age that explicit warfare or weaponization should be forbidden, and international peace should be promoted to the greatest extent feasible. Regardless, this status quo has been challenged by nations multiple times, most memorably by the Strategic Defense Initiative in the 1980’s. Another issue is about private property and ownership of objects in space. The consensus of international law appears to disallow ownership claims, but there is some confusion as to what extent. Depending on how the issue is resolved, it could make or break private entrepreneurship in outer space. Finally, there is an ongoing struggle to balance the protection of the space environment and further development of space assets. These challenges are all difficult and nuanced, and unlike technological problems involve a larger subset of people than just engineers and astronomers. For the best possible future outcome, the ethics of spacefaring organizations will have to evolve alongside their capabilities.
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