While the idea of the quaint and peaceful Sputnik 1 as the first man-made object launched into space, representing our Roddenberry-esque harmonious nature, is a nice historical narrative, the sad truth is that mankind’s first journey to “boldly go” was undertaken by Nazis building rockets to murder civilians en masse during World War II. As such, outer space has long been used by the military not only for non-space-centered operations (as in militarized) but also as a weapons platform and as an arena of war (as in weaponized).
Humans carrying the tumult of war into the silence of the final frontier is a legacy that lingers to this day. However, the emergence of private entities such as Elon Musk’s Space Exploration Technologies Corp. as major players in the arena of space development represents a force that could either accelerate these militaristic trends or nullify them.
We cannot change the history of space warfare inherent in our first small steps among the stars, but with the help of these private entities, mankind could make giant leaps in creating a new historical narrative worthy of the idealistic humanism of “Star Trek” creator Gene Roddenberry.
Since the launch of the privately owned Telstar 1 communications satellite in 1962, human involvement in space has become increasingly privatized. The two trends of militarization and privatization have coalesced with the military use of private satellites, typified in modern times by the U.S. military’s use of the Ikonos satellite for operations in Afghanistan.
However, this coalescing trend has become a two-way street recently with the private sector actively seeking to promote and establish itself in the militarization of outer space.
SpaceX, in a bid to oust its military intelligence satellite launching competition, United Launch Alliance (an amalgamation of public companies), won a preliminary injunction against ULA for breaching the recent sanctions imposed on Russian officials and firms. This obstructionist and opportunistic act of crisis exploitation was quickly foiled, but still represents a move for the worst in the conduct, aims and consequences of private firms in the near-future of space development.
To put it melodramatically, Earth’s orbital lanes have been invaded by militarized privateers and wannabe Han Solos. (Musk’s Falcon rockets are named after the “Star Wars” smuggler-turned-hero’s spaceship, the Millennium Falcon.) Fortunately, these privatized “space pirates” have yet to weaponize and become Earth’s first true militaires sans frontières.
Throughout the Cold War, weaponized ground- and air-based anti-satellite missile systems were developed, and many remain to this day. The Soviet Union even launched what is supposedly mankind’s first armed Star Destroyer. However, no private firms controlled any of these assets, and it is extremely unlikely that these firms will become weaponized in the foreseeable future.
With that in mind, it is easy to see that the safe and secure privatization of outer space development has been a force for good in the world. Unlike the “Star Wars” bounty hunter Boba Fett, these commercial-centered and internationalized entities have a vested interest in peace, stability and cooperation in Earth’s orbital lanes. Increased investment of private firms in outer space development also boosts international interdependency and mutual vulnerability as well as nonmilitary incentives therein, all of which encourage international cooperation and stability. Additionally, SpaceX in particular has exemplified the efficient and (relatively) affordable promise of privatizing space ventures.
But as nation-states have made much progress in loosening their monopolizing grip on outer space development, progress has not been made on solidifying the international legal regime governing outer space. The slipshod amalgamation of international and national laws on conduct in outer space still lacks comprehensiveness and universality. There are serious gaps and loopholes regarding the conduct of nonstate entities as well as their liability. Additionally, the 1967 Outer Space Treaty prohibits the deployment and use of nuclear weapons in space and forbids the use of space for things other than “peaceful,” but still allows for the weaponized “self-defense” by use of non-nuclear weapons.
When superpower flexing is in order, this self-defense clause empowers states to weaponize faster than statesmen can cry “Havoc!” While realists will espouse the necessity of weapons in space to deny an enemy beneficial access, realistic pragmatists know this has little value on a planet where a belligerent can simply shop for new imagery from private sources or allied states.
This uselessness is doubly apparent in a confrontation that in the end denies the victor access to the advantage of accessing space. Considering that a small weapons exchange in Earth orbit would create a destructive cloud of deadly space trash capable of destroying much more than Russian research satellites, and said trash cloud could multiply many times over, the weaponization of space is in the interest of no one.
As such, deweaponization legislation is sorely needed for outer space and is in the interest of all parties. Comprehensive international legislation on the deweaponization of outer space has been attempted before in the Space Preservation Treaty, but still lacks sufficient support.
Recently, the situation has become worse. With the standoff between the United States and Russia over events in Ukraine going from refrigerator-note-writing passive aggressiveness to disinterested and misplaced effigy-burning, the only real casualty outside Ukraine has been U.S.-Russian space cooperation. Relations have soured to the point of Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin telling NASA that its astronauts can take a trampoline to the international space station instead of the Russian Soyuz spacecraft, while also initiating a withdrawal from space cooperation in general. But this crisis within a crisis has presented a unique opportunity for SpaceX and Musk.
Instead of engaging in obstructionist opportunism and short-term profiteering, Musk could use this occasion to secure the position of all private space firms to conduct operations free of danger, to show that private firms in space will not resort to bounty-hunting unscrupulousness, and to secure his name in history as the leader of the movement to quarantine space from the plague of human warfare.
The denizens of our planet need to unite to push for a barrel roll in the stonewalling space policies of the great powers. We can end this destructive conflict and bring order to the galaxy — and Elon Musk is just the man for the job.
As the spokesman for the deweaponization of outer space and the movement to empower the Space Preservation Treaty, Musk could not only secure his current popularity worldwide from his recent faux pas, but also enhance it greatly in the years to come.
As an emergent entrepreneur Musk was quick to grasp a fantastic opportunity for benevolent work, but as an established authority on the interplanetary stage he must be cautious, measured and calculating in securing long-term development. Flashy showmanship must make way for doing the right thing.
Einar Engvig is a graduate student in Nonproliferation and Terrorism Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies in California.