Some thoughts about the next decades in space
More than 50 years ago, NASA and humanity reached a milestone in space exploration when Neil Armstrong set the first human foot on the moon. Just like our parents and grandparents, hundreds of millions of people around the world watched the event in awe. Simultaneously, the ‘first man on the moon-moment’ showed the world that, after it had just survived two fatal wars, it was finally time to be optimistic again and believe in development and growth. Since the Apollo mission – which cost the American taxpayer more than 25 billion US-Dollars – was mainly run to show off the strength of the USA as a military power, space has been used in more functional ways. Soon after the Apollo mission, satellites were sent up for communication and broadcasting. They guide our smartphones every time we are using Google Maps.
The new race for space
Now, two things are changing. Firstly, states are competing again –for the first time since decades –to send people up. China, Russia, India, the US, and other competitors want to show again their strength, and even the German state Bavaria recently founded a space programme (‘Bavaria One’) and plans to invest several millions in it. Secondly, private companies have finally taken their seat at the table. Since 2009, approximately 15% of spending for space missions has been provided by private companies, and it will increase further. Not just mobility and space pioneer Elon Musk, whose company SpaceX has signed several contracts with NASA, is involved in space exploration, but also former Amazon boss Jeff Bezos claims his chunk with his company Blue Origin. The private companies’ involvement with NASA and other state space agencies is interesting for the governments as the private entrepreneurs, besides capital and ideas, can provide much more efficiency. And also, the age of space travel has finally begun. Very recently, SpaceX has sent three space tourists to the ISS in April. For 55 million US-Dollar each, the three businessmen have joined the astronauts on the ISS for eight days. For now, trips to space are a funny, but very costly endeavor, which only a few people in the world are able to afford. That might change in the future.
A reason to be optimistic?
As conflicts and tensions on earth are worrying us, and climate change is increasingly threatening our planet, the notion of growing possibilities for traveling (and maybe, at some point also living?) in space provide us with a reason to be optimistic. But the space ambitions are also creating new problems. By far the biggest problem is developing the rule of law, or to be more precise, developing a rule of law that fits the ambitions of everyone involved up there. The Outer Space Treaty of 1967, which 111 countries are currently party to and which has been signed but not ratified by another 23 countries, is still in force. It declares space to be ‘the province of all mankind’ and forbids claims of sovereignty. That leaves plenty of room for interpretation –and at the same time many unresolved questions. Should settlers on Mars be allowed to do as they please to the environment and to each other? Who is liable for satellite collisions (of which there are ever and ever more)? Space, right now, is already very crowded, with more than 2,000 satellites and more than 500,000 pieces of debris flying around according to NASA.
Another, potentially even more problematic dimension is the extension of war on earth into space. Modern warfare does not work without satellites. States are, of course, aware of that and have built anti-satellite weapons, which they can use without much hesitation as there is no law in place to prevent it. Nations like the US, China and India are currently increasing their capabilities in this area, including blinding satellites with lasers or destroying them right away, producing debris that might cause even more destruction unintendedly. But will national armies also fight each other in space?
A new battlefield
Michael Schmitt, professor of public international law and a space war expert at the University of Exeter in the UK says that ‘it is absolutely inevitable that we will see conflict move into space’. According to Schmitt, the history of space warfare already began during the Cold War, when Russia and the US had many ideas about how they could use it to kill and weaken their respective enemy. One was called kinetic bombardement weapon, an unmanned space bomber that carried small projectiles which gathered so much speed that they reached the explosive power of a nuclear bomb. High costs and the fact that the satellites carrying these weapons can be shot down easily have prevented states from using them. In the last two decades, both Russia and China have shown their capabilities by running tests, including shooting down their own satellites, as the Chinese government did in 2007 when they destroyed one of their own weather satellites at an 865 km distance to earth. Schmitt however also reckons that it is unlikely they would start warfare like that. According to him, it can be done much cheaper and more hidden: ‘The immediate form would be cyber-attacks, either against the satellites or the ground stations that control them.’ But of course, nothing is impossible, and states pulling their heavy arms in space could happen sooner rather than later.
Jan Wörner, director-general of the European Space Agency (ESA), which is mandated to pursue peaceful space exploration, is worried about that. He calls for new legal restrictions and is working on a proposal together with his colleagues. He is also part of an international consortium of law, military and space experts who are working out the Woomera Manual on the International Law of Military Space Operations. The project tries to find solutions for problems that might occur in the future.
As the possibilities are growing, tourism and war are slowly but surely coming to space. Whilst space tourism is only affordable for the super rich (yet), it might, in some decades and with more productivity become more affordable. Space warfare is increasingly worrying the experts, as there is no law in place to regulate the lust for destruction in space.