Why we work for space security

Jessica West Featured, Space Security

Our dependence on outer space continues to grow as mining emerges as the next frontier of resource extraction

Recently it was announced that David Saint-Jacques will be Canada’s next astronaut aboard the International Space Station (ISS). The adventure aside, we don’t always take the time to understand the benefits of space travel and exploration. In this case, ISS crew members will be performing a variety of experiments to enhance our knowledge of medicine and the human body, engineering, and astrophysics.

Published in The Ploughshares Monitor Volume 37 Issue 2 Summer 2016 by Jessica West

They will experience and share with us the awe-inspiring view of Earth from space. Consider the very first words spoken in outer space in 1961 by Flight Major Yuri Gagarin: “I see Earth. It is so beautiful.” This vantage point gives us an entirely new perspective of our planet and our common humanity.

These astronauts will continue an honorable history of what was once unprecedented peaceful and scientific cooperation between two global enemies. Indeed, astronauts epitomize the promise and hope that outer space is supposed to offer of a global sanctuary, free from the ravages of global conflict, which can benefit all humankind. A place of peace.

Military uses of outer space

In recent decades outer space has emerged as a realm rife with military competition. During the Cold War, military space systems became central to maintaining strategic stability between the United States and the Soviet Union. Today outer space is central to war itself. It is believed, as Peter Singer says, that “he who controls the heavens will control what happens in the battles of Earth” (Dvorsky 2015).

This new reality has developed because of the more than 1,000 active satellites in orbit. And not only military satellites are involved. Civilian and commercial satellites often serve dual-use functions, providing communications, navigation, surveillance, reconnaissance, weather forecasting, missile warning, and precision guidance for drones and other weapons systems, as well as for commercial operations that keep our smartphones and media working. Space is now central to how militaries talk, see, hear, move, and strike.

But satellites are not only in the service of war. They are also critical to peace. The reduction of nuclear weapons might have been impossible without the ability to monitor compliance from space. This function continues today and is constantly being expanded. National and global governance and monitoring agencies now have the ability to monitor ceasefire agreements; document massacres and other human rights violations; and monitor criminal activity associated with illegal mining, forestry, and piracy.

A world based on satellites

Satellites are so reliable and practically invisible that we take their presence for granted. What would our world be like without them? Take a few minutes to imagine such a world (many of these ideas come from Dvorsky 2015):

  • Millions of internet, cellphone, and television connections would vanish, leaving us with blank screens and worthless hardware. In 1998 a single satellite failed and the world’s pagers stopped working. Since then we have become much more dependent on satellite-based communications.
  • GPS would fail. This would create a minor annoyance for map-illiterate drivers, but global chaos for airline travel.
  • Banking operations would freeze. Access to credit would vanish. The ability to pay bills online and access personal financial accounts would disappear. Direct deposit wouldn’t be possible.
  • The ability to view global weather trends would be lost, so we could forget about weather warnings. And we would no longer be able to identify and track natural disasters such as the wildfire near Fort McMurray.
  • Basic services such as landline phones, electricity and Internet would probably falter.

And the list could go on and on.

Our dependence on space continues to grow. Space mining is emerging as the next frontier of resource extraction, with space-mining companies now registered in both the United States and Luxembourg. China, among others, is eying the Moon for its resource potential. The Canadian government is being pressured to allow Canadian companies to get into what looks to be a veritable race for mineral and other resources beyond Earth.

Honest appraisal and historic decision

In an address to the United Nations in 1960 President Eisenhower said, “Technology is in revolution. It has brought forth terrifying weapons of destruction, which for the future of civilization, must be brought under control through a workable system of disarmament. And it has also opened up a new world of outer space—a celestial world filled with both bewildering problems and dazzling promise. This is, indeed, a moment for honest appraisal and historic decision.”

The situation remains much the same today. And this is where Project Ploughshares comes in.

International laws to govern outer space are in force and, in general, are obeyed. But the legal framework has gaps. Critically, there is no agreement banning or restricting the use of force in outer space. As far we know now, outer space remains free of weapons. Actors involved in space activities seem, so far, to understand that only peace and stability in outer space will allow them to exploit the many opportunities it offers.

But such restraint has always been strained. Today, perhaps more rapidly than ever before, the status quo is starting to unravel in the face of new technologies, renewed geopolitical tensions, and escalating fears of vulnerability.

Project Ploughshares began work on space security in 2003, at the behest of the Canadian government. In the aftermath of the withdrawal of the United States from the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty with Russia, some analysts feared that this new security environment would encourage the placement of weapons in space as part of missile defence. The Canadian government was under pressure from the United States to join its fledgling missile defence program—remember Star Wars?

Canada was eager to avoid the weaponization of space and wanted to bring together a network of civil society, government, and academic actors to promote a vision of security in outer space that precluded the need for weapons and was based on an understanding of common security shared not only across nations, but also by military, civilian, and commercial users.

Because of our previous work on nuclear disarmament and missile defence, the government believed that Ploughshares would be an appropriate partner. The outcome was the Space Security Index, which each year produces a fact-based overview of trends and events that affect the ability of the global community to freely and safely access and make use of this environment. This annual publication promotes this view of shared security in space by providing unbiased and current information that can be used to encourage dialogue on disagreements.

Vital work in a time of increasing tension

The Space Security Index project is a good example of how and why Ploughshares works. More than a decade after we began this work, it continues and remains relevant. And our job has not gotten any easier as activities in space become more complicated.

In 2007 China conducted a spectacular anti-satellite (ASAT) test—the first since an understood moratorium began in 1985. Although there have been no further ASAT tests, missile launch demonstrations into space continue. The United States completed a similar anti-satellite demonstration in 2008, using its Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense System. Russia is reviving its anti-satellite capabilities. And Canada is once again opening the door to participation in missile defence.

Under development are laser systems that could be used to temporarily disable or possibly even destroy satellites. Space-based robotics that have the ability to maneuver and conduct rendezvous and proximity operations with other satellites are rapidly advancing.

A nuclear device has not been launched into space since 1962, but we know from that experiment that even a rudimentary attack on outer space, in the form of a “dirty bomb,” would wreak havoc on the space environment and disable satellites.

The space environment itself is becoming more threatening, filled with both natural and man-made debris. And weapons only make the environment more deadly. While an accidental crash between a Russian and a U.S. satellite in 2009 caused more debris, the Chinese anti-satellite test created extensive debris and the largest debris field ever caused by a deliberate act—and in a highly crowded orbit. The fear is that additional similar actions could produce an unstoppable, cascading chain of debris. The movie Gravity creates an effective vision of the devastation to people and objects in orbit.

What we value most

Everyone agrees that the security situation in space is perilous and is getting worse as countries build space-based weapons systems to protect themselves from the threats posed by the space-based weapons programs of others. But there is no common agreement on how to remedy this situation.

Military tensions are further complicated by the prospects of deeper human exploration and settlement of space, including space mining. Like the early days of space exploration, mining is held out as a beacon of hope and prosperity for the future. Advocates predict that it will bring an abundance of things that humans value and currently fight over: minerals, energy, land.

But while these new commercial ventures will certainly mean unimaginable prosperity for some, they hardly represent a future of global peace. If anything, heightened military and commercial competition is likely to shift conflicts from Earth into space.

At Project Ploughshares, we believe that what humans value most is not resources, but peace and shared human values. And peace cannot be bought or achieved through an abundance of things. Peace is the result of committing and acting to achieve disarmament, non-violence, and justice.

On May 17, Ploughshares researchers Cesar Jaramillo, Branka Marijan, Sonal Marwah, and Jessica West presented a dialogue on working for peace at the Christ Church Cathedral in Ottawa, as part of the celebrations of the 40th anniversary of Project Ploughshares. This article is a revised version of the talk Jessica presented.


Dvorsky, George. 2015. What would happen if all our satellites were suddenly
destroyed? io9 Gizmodo, June 4.

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