Unclenching the Handshake in Space

Human exploration of outer space is currently being upended in a fashion unheard of during the last more than forty years. Russia’s declaration a few weeks ago that it will leave the International Space Station in 2025 and the successful launch of the core module of a new Chinese space station (Tianhe, Harmony of the Heavens) a week later are gauntlets thrown at the feet of NASA and the West. As space activities are a bellwether of international relations in general there is reason to worry what these developments mean in the long run and for peaceful relations on Earth. As if to underscore the putative challenge, China this week became the second nation to successfully land a rover on Mars. 

The close link between what happens in outer space and what happens on Earth is well documented. The iconic meeting of an Apollo and a Soyuz capsule 200 kilometers above Earth in 1975 allowed cosmonaut Alexei Leonov and astronaut Thomas Stafford to make the handshake that demonstrated in a most powerful way that terrestrial détente was a reality.

Ever since, human spaceflight has, with ups and downs, been a domain for cooperation between the US and Russia/the Soviet Union. It signalled that, although there was frequent tension on Earth, cooperation between the two was still possible in the right circumstances.

The pinnacle of cooperation in outer space has for more than 20 years been the International Space Station (ISS), which joins together not only the US and Russia, but also the European Space Agency with its 22 member states, Japan and Canada. The ISS is admittedly becoming long in the tooth and very expensive to operate, but has been kept alive not only because no replacement was forthcoming, but also because of its strong international symbolism.

The decision of Russia to abandon its part of the ISS in 2025 and its intention to build its own national space station are momentous news, demonstrating not only how strained relations between the US and Russia have become, but also the evergreen adage that my enemy’s enemy is my friend. This is so, because China is waiting in the wings as an attractive partner for Russia.

The US and Russia are the traditional superpowers in outer space, of course, but have been joined by a China that has a wildly ambitious and highly successful space programme of it own. Thus China wants to put humans back on the Moon, allegedly in the first half of the 2030ies. 

The Chinese leadership clearly sees successful space exploration as important not only for its standing vis-á-vis the Chinese people, but for pressing its claims for a seat at the top table of the international system.

In pursuit of international recognition, for a long time China wanted to cooperate with the five partners of the ISS on space stations, only to have the door slammed in its face time after time, mainly by the US. In the end, China gave up on pursuing such cooperation. and hence China is now well on its way to create a space station of its own, and will likely succeed within the next couple years, and long before Russia. The launch of Tianhe provides China with the centrepiece around which its station will be built.

The plans of the West, promulgated by NASA, are to create a new space station orbiting not the Earth but the Moon. This station is an integral part of NASA’s project for reconquering the Moon. The highly tenuous schedule is for a launch of ‘Gateway’ in 2024. China is, as always, not part of the endeavour, and Russia declined last year.

All this sets the scene for a new space race! Russia and China are not natural friends but are forced into the arms of each other by the ‘my enemy’s enemy’ logic. Russia and China have already signed a Memorandum of Understanding to cooperate on a future lunar base, and given the recent Russian history of being unable to fund grand space ambitions it would hardly be surprising if also space stations would become part of the equation.

In other words, a tragedy is taking form. As a stripped-down illustration of how international relations work, human exploration of outer space shows that fronts are hardening even in an area that withstood the tragic shadow-boxing in Syria and the confrontations in Crimea and Ukraine. What outer space as a bellwether makes clear is that our world is fragmenting – differently than in the past that is true – yet perhaps as fundamentally as during the Cold War. Sadly, there is no assurance that the war will remain cold this time around. Hence, we must demand true statesmanship of our leaders. One first step in that direction would be for them to figure out a way to reintroduce broad-based cooperation in the exploration of outer space. That must include China! Going to the Moon again, and from there to Mars, should be humanity’s challenge, not that of competing states.

In September 1963, President Kennedy suggested in a remarkable and daring speech to the UN General Assembly that the race to the Moon be turned into a joint effort of humankind. Two months later he was killed and with him, so it seemed, his dream. Yet, Apollo and Soyuz and thereafter the ISS ultimately made Kennedy’s vision come true. It is in the strong interest of us all to make sure that this vision is kept alive even now so that hands can continue to be shaken in outer space!

Star Wars Are Coming to a Theatre Not Near You!

Another piece on the weaponisation of outer space:

Fantasy films often stay fantasy. Not so with the Star War series. For a long time, military men and military-orientated politicians have striven to let reality catch up with imagination. Conflicts on Earth should also play out in space is the thinking.

 It started in earnest with Ronald Reagan and his ultimately aborted Star Defence Initiative, and was revived by President Trump with all his talk of outer space as just another war fighting domain and his subsequent creation of a Space Force as a separate arm of the US armed forces. Recently, Russia entered the game in a most serious fashion when it tested a space-to-space weapon, that is, a weapon placed in space and targeting satellites. These days we hear a lot about the race to Mars, but the emerging arms race in outer space is of far greater import.

 It is, in fact, hard to overstate the significance of Russia’s move. There will be no stopping Trump trying to trump Russia, and China will then follow. Unless something is done, space will soon be brimming with weapons, and ultimately war in outer space will become inevitable. Because war in space will create masses of debris, moving at a speed of up to 18,000 miles an hour, many of the best orbits for human activity will become useless because satellites will be hit by these objects moving at higher than bullet speed. Elon Musk’s upcoming Starlink telecoms constellation providing connectivity across the globe will bleed and we can forget other symbols of human imagination come true, such as the International Space Station. Many satellites helping us to understand the climate of Earth will be threatened. Space activities are also a 400 billion dollars business, and both weaponisation and actual war in outer space will have a highly negative effect.

 It is not that space has been entirely untouched by weapons until now. Anti-satellite weapons fired from Earth or an aircraft exist and have been tested – with much debris created. This is bad enough, but weapons in outer space itself will take conflict to a completely new level.

 Perhaps we should not be concerned if those with weapons ambitions would only mess up outer space for themselves, but outer space is the province of all humankind according to the Outer Space Treaty, and as outer space has no borders any war there will ruin space for all nations. Debris will go everywhere.

It is probably not too late to stop the weaponisation of outer space. But stopping it will require determined opposition from citizens across the world. Civil society must demand from governments that they take forceful steps to avoid an arms race in outer space. At a time with so many other crises this will not be easy. Yet, when it is done citizens will find that many nations have absolutely no short- or long-term interest in the weaponisation of outer space. Only, leaders must be woken from their Sleeping Beauty dreams. This is the challenge! But in the end you want Star Wars in a theatre near you, not star wars far away and real!

Good Heavens, the Heavens Are Under Attack

Recent news reports tell us that Russia has just tested a space-to-space weapon. So, a weapon fired from one space object against another. This is a nightmare scenario for all people cherishing outer space as a place dedicated to peaceful use. But not only that. In fact, it jeopardises the interest of all human beings, because outer space belongs to us all.

 Many discussions have taken place over the years about weapons in outer space, and fantasies like Reagan’s aborted Strategic Defence Initiative were put forward. However, discussions have intensified in the recent past, with bold and silly proclamations by President Trump about outer space as just another war-fighting domain and the creation of a ‘Space Force’ as a separate arm of the US military.

 Until now, actual weapons related to outer space were limited to anti-satellite weapons launched from Earth or from an aircraft but targeting satellites in outer space. This is bad enough – and they were only tested. But space-to space weapons are an enormous escalation. Weapons in outer space itself will ensure that, indeed, outer space becomes a battlefield, with the consequence that the resulting masses of debris will make a number of important orbits useless for telecom and Earth Observation satellites.  When the shooting starts, Elon Musk’s upcoming Starlink telecoms constellation will bleed and we can wave goodbye to the International Space Station or a possible successor.

 Now, you could argue that as long as warring nations only make outer space useless for themselves then it is essentially the normal terrestrial war mode. However, because the destruction of just one satellite creates thousands of pieces of debris moving at up to 18,000 miles an hour, large parts of space will become unavailable to all nations when war in space breaks out. And there will be long-term detriment as well because debris stays in space for many years. All this runs counter to outer space being a province of all humankind as defined by the generally accepted Outer Space Treaty of 1967.  Hence, war in outer space must be avoided. Placing weapons there in best Star Wars fashion will achieve the opposite.

 That the Russian test has opened a fast track to make the province of all humankind an illusion is not only folly but means that transactional cost will go up now. Because space operators will try even more to harden their space hardware to mitigate the consequences of ultimate space warfare. We then enter the ‘screw-without-an-end’ scenario that we know all too well from arms races on Earth. Destructive ability will be sought countered by protective measures, only to trigger new destructive abilities, and so forth.  All the while, those nations with no military ambitions in outer space will suffer and be sucked in.

 It is easy to be cynical and conclude that the world will just take its evil turn, and that there is nothing we can do about it. But such defeatism is not warranted. As citizens we must protest what are in reality attacks on the shared province of humankind and insist that our governments resist the weaponisation of outer space. The lack of popular and political attention to the issue is the greatest ally of those wanting to mess up space.

 When we speak up against the weaponisation of outer space, we will find that there is far more support for keeping outer space as a domain for peaceful use than meets the eye. A large number of nations has absolutely no interest in conflicts in outer space, but they must be woken from their Sleeping Beauty dreams! They must be brought to realise what a mortal threat to their short and long term interests the latest developments portend. That is our task as citizens!

War in the Heavens Poem

On the occasion of the recent Russian test of a space-to-space weapon:

There is a poetry to outer space……

There is a poetry to outer space

that often is forgotten in busy lives,

that’s crowded out by many crises here on Earth,

that is ignored, with cosmos milked for money.

Yet, outer space is first of all a place of wonder,

a place where peace and co-existence rule.

Minerva’s realm is now in danger – with Mars ascending!

The endless void so full of freedom is turning into one where power governs,

where Darwin’s ‘eat or being eaten’ can reign with utter arrogance –

a place of dreams transformed to tragedy.

Where outer space was free of arms till now,

there is a rush towards destruction,

a vain attempt to scare the other.

As always, all will lose when guns hold sway.

To yearn for Eden that we lost is not the time–

to shield the heavens that we’ve got is what we owe posterity!