Is Space Our Second Chance for Human Cooperation?

‘Per aspera ad Astra’ – through hardship, toward the stars

On February 18, 2021, the world united in a rare moment of joy, as NASA successfully landed the Perseverance Rover on Mars. This achievement was special, not only for its scientific brilliance, but because it turned warring heads away from daily grievances, and toward the stars. In a particularly difficult year, Space exploration transported us from the solitude of lockdown, and placed us in the front-row seats of the Final Frontier.

Geopolitics and diplomacy are, and always will be, of paramount importance and concern. Every day, there are crises that require immediate response and analysis, global issues that must be confronted, and milestones that deserve celebration. Boredom is seldom, given an endless possibility of news headlines, but keeping current on diplomatic affairs can, at times, induce a sense of claustrophobia. On a daily basis, we hear about the dangerous trend of US-Russia escalations, or yet another natural disaster caused by global warming. We are subject to the 24-hour news cycle, so it may be wise for us to develop a taste for escapism, to look up and consider ‘What’s next?’.

Social interactions can seem like relics of a by-gone era, but COVID-19 restrictions have not blocked our progress into the Space age. Elon Musk’s Space X has completed 10 space launches in 2021 alone. He has sent over 1,000 satellites into Earth’s orbit, pioneering a universal high-speed internet network called Starlink . On April 19, 2021, NASA launched the Ingenuity Mars helicopter, a stirring feat. Given growing human interest in Space, it’s undeniable that technology will continue, and perhaps accelerate, in its development. But, as we record more and more of these wonderous milestones into our chapter of history, it is inevitable, and imperative, that laws and practices develop alongside our technology. This is arguably the most challenging aspect to Space exploration: not ‘how do we get there?’, but ‘what do we do once we get there?’ Can humans avoid repeating the same mistakes that we have made for our entire earthbound history? Are we prisoners to our natural condition, doomed by our susceptibility to conflict and selfishness? In short, can we create a Space diplomatic framework which is immune to the plights of Realism, national interests, and paranoia?

Space stakeholders are swelling in numbers. There are 40 countries that have Space programmes listed on the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs website. Equally as pertinent are private endeavours championed by tech billionaires, such as Jeff Bezos with ‘Blue Origin’, and Elon Musk with his aforementioned ‘Space X’. From this trend, a number of issues arise. First, if left unchecked, the increasingly non-polar framework of our world order is likely to be projected onto Space. Elite businesspeople, using the power afforded to them by their wealth, can literally launch their own interests with very little restriction. Our world, even with its advanced legal frameworks, struggles to regulate markets and bridge the chasm of inequality. This sets a worrying precedent for Space: such a deregulated realm may intensify these geo-trends. If we continue to devote insufficient attention and effort to the answering these questions, Space could very easily become a domain for the few. Ironically, by the time Space-accessibility has become widespread, it may not be accessible at all. In order to prevent Space from becoming a playground for the rich, we must form a universal Space framework.

This task is hugely problematic, because it requires consideration of scientific limitations, ethical obligations, questions of basic morality and purpose. Who has the power to declare regulations? Who should, and can, enforce this framework? Scientifically, the sheer hostility of Space restricts our ability to govern ourselves. Consider an extreme example: if a US astronaut were to kill their other crew members, all hailing from different nationalities, and perform a mutiny on the spacecraft, what procedures would follow? The fact that humans in Space are so ‘unreachable’ makes law enforcement nigh-on impossible. A number of ‘geo-penalties’ would likely incur, but this ignores the fact that there is now a rogue spacecraft largely unlimited in its capabilities to cause potential harm. It is increasingly obvious that we must abandon our paranoia, and trust our representatives in Space, regardless of nationality, to act in the ‘human interest’.

As unsatisfactory and problematic as this answer is, so far it is the reality we face.

Other legal concepts central to our societies, such as territory, borders, and property, will also require serious consideration. Michael Collins, the third member of the 1969 Apollo 11 Moon Landings, has described his experience of the 'Overview Effect' , a phenomenon whereby one looks down upon our world and anguishes at the frivolity of our conflicts. If we were to imagine this experience, considering the vastness of Space, and then look upon our geo-affairs, we would probably possess similar sentiments. However, that feeling isn’t easily induced into billions of people. Humans have contested territories and borders for their entire existence. Whilst Michael Collins relishes his unique ‘Overview’ experience, his crew still planted the American flag on The Moon. If and when manned missions to more celestial objects take place, what’s to stop countries from enacting the same behaviours?

One central matter underpins all of these questions - we do not possess the adequate knowledge of Space to begin forming an effective framework. Thus, diplomacy and actions that serve the ‘human interest’ are, for the moment, what we must act on. This is undoubtedly problematic. How can diplomacy be conducted with little-to-zero bargaining power? How can diplomats ever possess the means to persuade other astronauts not to do something?

The 1967 Outer Space Treaty prohibits the use and stationing of weaponry, but this framework is outdated, and most likely irrelevant as humans continue their space exploration. We simply cannot act based-off our usual framework, defined by international relations theories. Geo-diplomacy strategies and brinkmanship, such as increased troop presence or the threat of chemical weapons, do not apply to Space.

And so, for many readers, we arrive at a perhaps unsatisfying conclusion. In its attempt to find answers, this article poses even more complex questions. But there is one key takeaway: we must reject the instinct to revert to our behaviours on Earth. This is not said from a perspective of naivety, or an assumption that we can instil an artificial ‘Overview Effect’ into our nations’ politics. Rather, for two reasons, this conclusion is a reflection of sincere pragmatism. The impracticalities of Space travel render conflict, borders, territory, and possession, essentially moot. We are far better co-operating in our endeavour for knowledge, than we are succumbing to paranoia and nationalism. This leads to this article’s central message - that Space really is a unique opportunity for us, as a race, to set a new precedent for how we interact. It may be unsettling to abandon the behavioural norms that govern geo-diplomacy, the rules that enable us to anticipate reactions. As its base ethos, Space diplomacy must focus on what serves the ‘human interest’. A positive first step will be defining what this is. Conflict, misinformation tactics, and mistrust should be universally condemned as pointless and dangerous. Concepts such as property and territory should be avoided. Whether they can be remains an ambitious, and perhaps impossible, task.

We are yet many years, perhaps millennia, from frequent human-activity in Space. Our transportation abilities are limited. Our knowledge of science requires vast expansion and consolidation. However, humans have a habit of making rapid technological change. In anticipation of this trait of excellence, this innate ability to exceed expectations, now is the moment to prepare and debate a universal Space diplomatic framework, lest we are doomed to repeat the same mistakes as we have on Earth.

Written by Hector McKechnie

Hector McKechnie is a columnist at DecipherGrey