Do we really want a nationalistic future in space?

The annals of science fiction are full of visions of the future. Some are techno-utopian like “Star Trek” in which humanity has joined together in peace to explore the cosmos. Others are dystopian, like the World State in “Brave New World.” But many of these stories share one thing in common – they envision a time in which humanity has moved past narrow ideas of tribe and nationalism. That assumption might be wrong.

Leonard Nimoy and William Shatner as Mr. Spock and Captain Kirk from the television program ‘Star Trek.’ NBC Television/Wikimedia Commons
This can be seen in Trump’s calls for a unified U.S. Space Command. Or, in China’s expansive view of sovereignty and increasingly active space program as seen in its recent lunar landing. These examples suggest that the notion of outer space as a final frontier free from national appropriation is questionable. Active debate is ongoing as of this writing as to the consistency of the 2015 Space Act with international space law, which permitted private firms to own natural resources mined from asteroids. Some factions in Congress would like to go further still with one bill, the American Space Commerce Free Enterprise Act. This states, “Notwithstanding any other provision of law, outer space shall not be considered a global commons.” This trend, especially among the space powers, is important since it not only will create precedents that could resonate for decades to come, but also because it hinders our ability to address common challenges – like removing the debris orbiting the planet.

End of the golden age

In 1959, then-Sen. Lyndon Johnson stated, “Men who have worked together to reach the stars are not likely to descend together into the depths of war and desolation.” In this spirit, between 1962 and 1979 the United States and the former Soviet Union worked together and through the U.N. Committee for the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space to enact five major international treaties and numerous bilateral and multilateral agreements concerning outer space.

These accords covered everything from the return of rescued astronauts and liability for damage from space objects to the peaceful use of outer space. They did not, though, address space weaponization outside of the weapons of mass destruction context, or put into place mechanisms for managing an increasingly crowded final frontier.

Progress ground to a halt when it came time to decide on the legal status of the moon. The Reagan administration objected to the Moon Treaty, which stated that the moon was the “common heritage of mankind” like the deep seabed, in part because of lobbying from groups opposed to the treaty’s provisions. Because no organized effort arose in support of the treaty, it died in the U.S. Senate, and with it the golden age of space law. Today, nearly 30 years after it was first proposed, only 18 nations have ratified the accord.

Rise of collective action problems

Since the breakup of the Soviet Union space governance has only gotten more complicated due to an increasing number of space powers, both public and private. National and commercial interests are increasingly tied to space in political, economic and military arenas. Beyond fanciful notions of solar energy satellites, fusion energy and orbiting hotels, contemporary political issues such as nuclear nonproliferation, economic development, cybersecurity and human rights are also intimately tied to outer space.

International Space Station crew members Alexander Gerst of Germany and Sergey Prokopyev of Russia, dressed in Kazakh national costumes, shake hands during a news conference at the airport of Zhezkazgan, Kazakhstan, Dec. 20, 2018. In the foreground are traditional Russian Matryoshka wooden dolls, depicting ISS crew members Serena Aunon-Chancellor of the U.S., Alexander Gerst of Germany and Sergey Prokopyev of Russia. REUTERS/Shamil Zhumatov
The list of leading space powers has expanded beyond the U.S. and Russia to include China, India, Japan and members of the European Space Agency – especially France, Germany and Italy. Each regularly spends over US$1 billion on their space programs, with estimates of China’s space spending surpassing $8 billion in 2017, though the U.S. continues to spend more than all other nations combined on space related efforts. But space has become important to every nation that relies on everything from weather forecasting to satellite telecommunications. By 2015, the global space industry was worth more than $320 billion, a figure that is expected to grow to $1.1 trillion by 2040.

Private companies, such as SpaceX, are working to dramatically lower the cost of launching payloads into low Earth orbit, which has long stood at approximately $10,000 per pound. Such innovation holds the promise of opening up space to new development. It also raises concerns over the sustainability of space operations.