By Jessica West
Published in The Ploughshares Monitor Volume 40 Issue 1 Spring 2019
A new space race is on. Symbolized by the historic landing of China’s robotic explorer on the far side of the Moon, the goal this time is to create a permanent human presence on the Moon and beyond. Let’s hope that, as the race heats up, we don’t forget the lessons of the past that can help to preserve peace in outer space.
Racing to the Moon: Then and now
Sparked by the Soviet Union’s launch of the first artificial satellite in 1957 and culminating in the lunar footprints by U.S. astronaut Neil Armstrong in 1969, the first space race showcased the military, economic, and cultural competition between two superpowers.
The goal of today’s space race is more than flags and footprints. According to the United States, the intent is to establish a permanent presence on the Moon as “a foundation for an eventual mission to Mars and, perhaps someday, to many worlds beyond.” This is a marathon, not a sprint.
This new lunar race involves not only the United States and Russia, but China and other ascending powers. India’s second robotic mission to the Moon is expected to launch later this year. Japan’s lunar program includes plans for a robotic base. The European Space Agency also has a robotic lunar program and interest in resource extraction. The United Arab Emirates will participate with NASA in lunar missions that are a preamble to an ambitious journey to Mars.
Nonstate participants include Israeli nonprofit SpaceIL, which launched the first private robotic lander to the Moon in February, and will be followed by commercial company Moon Express. Others—such as ispace and Astrobotic—are setting up businesses to shuttle items between Earth and the Moon. Billionaires Elon Musk (SpaceX) and Jeff Bezos (Blue Origin) have long-term goals for the human colonizing of space.
An unclear vision of peace
The 1967 Outer Space Treaty (OST) was established to preserve outer space as a global commons to be used by all for peaceful purposes. It stipulates that the exploration and use of outer space is to be “carried out for the benefit and in the interest of all countries.” The Moon is reserved exclusively for peaceful purposes, with the treaty prohibiting military bases, fortifications, manoeuvres, and testing of weapons.
To advance humanity’s presence in outer space and share the benefits fairly, the world’s governments must clarify and reaffirm the principle of peaceful use. Otherwise, a space race that is already marked by strategic competition, military tensions, and a growing focus on warfighting capabilities could result in unspeakable harm far beyond our planet.
This is not simply a matter of distinguishing between military and civilian uses of space, which can look alike, sometimes on purpose. Nonaggressive military use of satellites in outer space has long been considered “peaceful.” But the idea of acceptable military use is being stretched as states engage in more active uses of outer space, which can seem aggressive, or depict outer space as a warfighting domain. What this means for the Moon is not clear. Efforts to operationalize peaceful uses in the 1979 Moon Treaty failed. It is imperative to both define and restrict nonpeaceful behaviours, and to think expansively about the meaning of peace and universal benefit.
Controlling the use of weapons in outer space
The first space race coincided with a nuclear arms race, with rockets common to both. Since then, there has been no end to Doomsday-like plans for weaponizing outer space. For this reason, the OST specifically banned the stationing or orbiting of weapons of mass destruction on the Moon or elsewhere in outer space.
But the business of controlling arms in outer space isn’t done. While to the best of my knowledge, outer space remains free of weapons, there is a growing risk that, as geopolitical tensions grow and space becomes key to warfighting, military confrontation will follow.
Despite various efforts at the United Nations, there is currently no serious dialogue that might lead to arms control in space. And the risks are growing for all of us. Direct confrontation in outer space could poison the environment—in outer space and on Earth. And it could distort the goals of the current Moon race.
Cooperation is a core component of peace in outer space. Early efforts to nurture cooperation between the United States and Soviet Union were stymied by distrust and the intensity of competition. But over time, space exploration and science emerged as focal points of unprecedented collaboration.
The International Space Station is the single most expensive object ever built—and it was built by the cooperative efforts of many nations, including Canada. Today, there is evidence that this spirit of cooperation is extending to new lunar missions.
The United States and China collaborated on the Chang’e 4 lunar landing. There is growing momentum, led by NASA and supported by other national space agencies, including that of Russia, to create a new international space station in lunar orbit as a gateway to deep-space exploration. The European Space Agency is promoting a global Moon Village. Airbus heads a partnership that launched not-for-profit organization The Moon Race to involve the private sector in cooperative, sustainable lunar exploration. But we need to make sure that all cooperation remains true to the principle of universal benefit.
Messages of peace
Outer space is part of our common human heritage. Achievements on the Moon and in deep space are the achievements of all humanity. The peoples of Earth need to have a say in what future achievements should be. As the stakes become higher, it is critical to ensure that our many voices and interests are represented, and that the benefits that follow will be shared by all peoples.
All cultures on Earth value the Moon. They need to have a say in the activities that take place there and how the Moon should be protected. The Moon must not become the possession of one state or group.
The Apollo 11 astronauts, the first to visit the Moon, left behind a tiny disc inscribed with messages of peace and goodwill from 74 different nations. For the first time since the Apollo program, we are in a moment in which we could expand humanity’s presence beyond Earth. Whether or not it will change our collective destiny, it provides an opportunity for a new beginning. Let that beginning be built on peace.