Astropolitics has recently become a focal point in discussions regarding the future of humanity, as this concept is believed to be a potential solution to our planet’s environmental deterioration. However, astropolitics isn’t a newfound concept in international politics, and we can track its relevance all the way to the beginning of the Space Race in 1955. This competition was a fundamental event during the Cold War since leading spatial exploration was linked with technological development, which was needed for these countries to establish themselves as world powers. After several landmark achievements from both parties, including the Roscosmos Sputnik mission and NASA’s Apollo 11, tensions were finally resolved in 1998 with the creation of the International Space Station (ISS).
The ISS’s role in international politics
On one hand, it became an ideological tool that showed the technological superiority of capitalism against communism and bonded the United States’ sphere of influence into a common undertaking. On the other hand, it also linked the space programs of various nations to promote the common goal of scientific study, turning it into a symbol of international cooperation. Nonetheless, government agendas have continually undermined its operation because when conflict arises, governments utilize the ISS as leverage between themselves, raising questions about the real significance of this base in global politics.
Many people view the ISS as an essential “check and balance” mechanism. It not only integrates the interests of world powers to prevent large-scale wars but also employs collaboration to prevent the abuse of power in space. The station’s operation demonstrates reliance because, so as to properly function, the United States relies on Russian rockets since Roscosmos is the only government-owned program with the means to send astronauts to the base. Additionally, the fact that Russia needs aid to keep the facility operating highlights the dependency between the two nations. However, due to rising political unrest, the ISS’s impending expiration date, and the rapid technological advancement of both nations’ space programs, each side is now vying for control of its own space station, which jeopardizes this interdependency.
The earliest significant disruption to the accord occurred in 2014 when Russia annexed Crimea. In response, NASA prohibited most of its contracts with its Russian counterparts. Further cooperation has been called into question considering the recent rise in hostilities between Washington and Moscow, particularly in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. And whereas NASA has announced its continuation of operations at the ISS until 2030, Russia has kept quiet. This could be understood as a foreshadowing that the partnership could end, especially with the ascent of American company SpaceX. Even while the alliance’s demise may be uncertain, it has sparked worries about the future dynamics between these two nations and the potential effects on other countries such as Ukraine.
The Space Law and new major players in the field
It is no secret that many formerly uninvolved nations have grown interested in spatial exploration. China, for instance, launched its Tiangong Space Station in 2021. Besides the alliance shift that introducing new players may cause, more concerns are brought up by regulating these missions. Currently, countries’ behavior in space is determined by the Space Law, a document created by the UN’S Office for Outer Space Affairs in 1984. It addresses topics such as the non-appropriation of outer space by any nation, arms control, and freedom of exploration. Until now, there has been no significant worry about the treaty’s compliance. However, experts have raised the possibility of it being updated, pointing to its interpretative openness as a potential cause of conflict.
The Space Law does not consider the new players in outer space. The private sector is one huge example, as it has benefited from recent commercial space flights. This legislative gap is dangerous considering the treaty only prohibits the national appropriation of outer space but does not address the open possibility of an individual or private body doing so. On top of that, as operations between nations become more and more autonomous, the accountability system becomes all the more challenging, posing issues with the unlawful militarization of space. For instance, the US deployed a group of satellites, called the Global Positioning System, to acquire information such as reconnaissance, position, timing, communications, and weather information during the Gulf War, greatly improving its capability to execute attacks with accuracy and timing otherwise unseen in all of human history. However, the issue with these technologies is that they are only accessible to countries with greater financial means and better-developed space technology programs, which ultimately contributes to unbalancing the playing field.
Lastly, regardless of the challenges astropolitics currently faces, it is essential to highlight the technological development that can result from it. For instance, the James Webb Space Telescope, a joint venture of NASA, ESA, and CSA, discovered carbon dioxide for the first time in a planet’s atmosphere outside of our solar system in August 2022. The discovery’s importance relies on the fact that nations need to find alternatives to global warming, meaning places in which humans can survive if the Earth’s resources are finished.
In conclusion, astropolitics is an unknown field in which there is still much to figure out. To ensure the continuation of space exploration and its benefit to humanity, nations must continue to collaborate, not only among themselves but also with the private sector. Furthermore, a change to the existing space laws is required for these coalitions to function, ensuring that space is kept as a safe place for scientific development and not a political front line.
Featured cover image by: NASA/Wikipedia