The Fault in Our Stars: Modern Threats to International Space Law

The year is 2420. It is now not only achievable, but also cost-effective to leave the pale blue dot that is Earth. But rather than enter a solar system of wonder and exploration, instead, you are met with an American military base covering the surface of the Moon. China has chosen Mars as its personal property. India has claimed Jupiter, Japan, its moons, while Russia has expanded to include Venus. At first glance, this may seem far-fetched and even fantastical, but the roots of this hypothetical exist in our world as we speak. On September 19 of 2020, the Director-General of the Russian space association Roscosmos stated in a conference with reporters in Moscow that Venus is a “Russian Planet.” This rhetoric regarding outer space and celestial bodies as something to be controlled or influenced by national interests is not unique to the Kremlin. We see it in the United States as well, where President Trump has openly espoused his belief that outer space “is the world’s newest warfighting domain” and that “American superiority in space is absolutely vital.” These statements are examples of a general degradation of rhetoric around outer space that has existed since the end of the Cold War. This degradation presents a problem not only for citizens now but also in the future. There are significant ramifications for both international space law and for territories beyond that field. This deterioration has to stop now. The basis of international space law—the idea that outer space is for peace and belongs to all of us—must be maintained. How Did We Get Here? In 1967, at the height of the Cold War, dignitaries from around the world convened in Moscow, London, and New York City to sign the “Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies.” More commonly known as the “Outer Space Treaty,” this document forms the basis for international law regarding outer space and, as of 2020, 110 recognized states are party to it, including nations representing every space agency in the “Big Six” (the United States of America, the Russian Federation, the People’s Republic of China, members of the European Space Agency, India, and Japan). In 17 articles, the Outer Space Treaty lays out the idea that we should only use the cosmos for peaceful purposes. Key points of the treaty include Article IV, which both reaffirms a previous UN resolution that bans placing weapons of mass destruction into orbit or on celestial bodies and expands it by stating that nations should only use outer space for peaceful action, and Article II, which declares in no uncertain terms that outer space is not subject to national claims. These principles have formed the basis for how the world acts in outer space for the past half-century. Outer space is also usually considered to be covered under the concept of the “common heritage of mankind.” The idea essentially follows the same principles of the Outer Space Treaty: these areas are for all humanity to use, should be preserved for future generations, and are not subject to national control. The Gravity of the Issue It is not very difficult to see where the Kremlin and the White House’s comments conflict with the Outer Space Treaty’s text and spirit. The Roscosmos Director-General’s statement regarding Russian sovereignty over Venus contradicts Article II of the treaty—that no celestial body should be subjected to national appropriation. While not in direct opposition to the text of the treaty, President Trump’s remarks represent a shift in rhetoric and policy away from the ideas on which the Outer Space Treaty is built and towards an attitude that sees space as nationalistic, militaristic, and not inherently peaceful. This presents a problem. With the United States’ propensity to leave or threaten to leave international agreements, it is not inconceivable to imagine a situation in which our reality reflects this rhetoric. The Outer Space Treaty may be figuratively ripped up and replaced with a militaristic and nationalistic attitude toward the cosmos, which could threaten scientific progress and transnational transfers of knowledge in favor of a “this is ours, back off” mentality. The basis of modern space research is a dialogue between nations. Yes, nationalist interests do play a role to some extent. Still, there remains a belief that the continued progression into the last frontier requires all significant parties to work together to understand that frontier, as the resulting understanding benefits everyone. A world in which the Outer Space Treaty is no longer heeded and national interest is held as supreme could undo much of the progress we have made in the past couple of decades and hinder current development involving space research. The ramifications of this future would also affect us on Earth. A nationalistic approach to space would be detrimental to space programs that are not already fully advanced, and a world in which military might can be exercised in orbit, especially with regards to weapons of mass destruction, puts everyone at risk, regardless of nationality. Moreover, it would further the very divide between nations that so much of international law is dedicated to minimizing. A new view of outer space as a military entity could signal a return to the kind of unease and uncertainty that surrounded much of the culture around outer space during the Cold War era. One might be reminded of the Sputnik launch in 1957, which caused widespread fear and anxiety within the United States and across the western world. Even after the Soviet Union’s insistence on the satellite’s purpose as a research unit, the combination of outer space’s unknown factor and the militaristic actions between the U.S. and U.S.S.R. generated a sense of incredible unease for a significant portion of the American population, and we are at risk of developing these same conditions soon if this trend of rhetoric continues. Such degradation also presents significant problems for other territories. The legal principle that protects outer space—the common heritage of mankind—is not unique to the void above. This legal concept also includes other extra-national territories, namely international airspace, international waters, and, to some extent, Antarctica. Thus, a collective international decision to effectively ignore the idea of common heritage may eliminate the protections around these areas. Of particular interest are the Arctic and Antarctic regions, where much of the effects of climate change are most acutely observed. Antarctica is often considered part of the common heritage, as is the seabed underneath the Arctic ice. Thus, if this principle of common heritage is ignored, the impetus to protect and aid these regions, as well as other places affected by climate change, may be reduced. In a time where environmental protection and advocacy is more important than ever, the last thing we need is a world in which we only protect our own sovereign land and leave everything else to metaphorically go to hell. As a collective human race, we must end the practice of using rhetoric that forwards nationalistic and militaristic attitudes towards outer space. This must stop now, lest we turn words into thoughts, thoughts into actions, and actions into danger. The stakes are too high to let this go. Peace is there. Let us keep it that way. Image Credit: “NASA Television to Air Space Station” NASA is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 .

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