The Future of Space: Trouble on the Final Frontier
Nearly one hundred countries, including the world’s spacefaring nations, have formally agreed upon the principles set out in the 1967 “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 UN Outer Space Treaty. This document represents our global consensus on the fate and disposition of the rest of our solar system, of our galaxy’s one hundred billion other stars (and their solar systems), and of the one hundred billion additional galaxies in the universe; it was all decided before the first moon landing.
It is not unusual for the diplomatic community to indulge in grandiose overreach with treaty agreements about potentially contested territory. Nor is it unusual for international diplomats to express outrage when a state violates international or treaty norms, as happened with China’s 2007 surprise anti-satellite weapons test. But it does seem to be quite odd that so many countries have come together to show such interest in a domain that is so difficult to get to, has been populated for only a few decades, and has a regular settlement of a half-dozen people.
What is often ignored in the linguistic pieties about the peaceful use of space is that it is the principal thoroughfare for delivering on the ugly threats of mutual assured destruction. Space is also home to numerous tools indispensible to any modern military fighting a conventional war. What makes this distant and inclement real estate so valuable is that it has—tactically and strategically—the best view in the world.
By the time the space race began in earnest, the world’s superpowers were keenly aware of the many different potential uses of that ne plus ultra of military high grounds. The Eisenhower administration recognized early on that the Soviet launch of Sputnik would establish, by precedent, the right of satellites to overfly national territory, effectively altering terrestrial laws about sovereignty and airspace. The US and USSR agreed to treaties declaring that space should not be an arena for military rivalry but should be reserved exclusively for peaceful scientific efforts, preferably of the international variety. This is the same reasoning that drove much of the Cold War treaty framework governing (mis)behavior in Antarctica and on the world’s seabed