‘War in space’ would be a catastrophe. A return to rules-based cooperation is the only way to keep space peaceful
In 2019, US President Donald Trump declared “space is the new war-fighting domain”. This followed the creation of the US Space Force and a commitment to “American dominance” in outer space.
Other space-faring nations, and those who fear the acceleration of an arms race in space, were greatly concerned. At the latest meeting of the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space, states noted with alarm that “preventing conflicts in outer space and preserving outer space for peaceful purposes” is more necessary than ever.
The election of Joe Biden as the next US president and Kamala Harris as vice-president suggests there is cause for hope. The future of space may look more like the recent launch of NASA’s SpaceX Crew-1 mission to the International Space Station.
Onboard were US and Japanese astronauts, who joined Russian and US crew already living aboard the ISS. As the Falcon 9 rocket soared into space, the collaborative, cooperative and commercial nature of space was once again clear for all to see.
Cooperation, not confrontation
The incoming Biden-Harris administration appears more interested in international cooperation, and much more cognisant of the challenges of climate change, pandemics and other global issues. A carefully calibrated space policy can do much to address “terrestrial” challenges, while still allowing for many positive space activities.
Since 1967, human activity in space has been guided by the universally accepted principles embedded in the Outer Space Treaty. This has ensured we have had no military conflict in space, and required the exploration and use of space “for the benefit and in the interests of all countries”.
Any alternative vision of the future of space is dreadful to consider. Rhetoric about the inevitability of “war in space” makes such conflict more likely and risks a “tragedy of the commons” in space.
Any space war would have no clear winner. In a complex, globally shared arena such as space, it is important that states abide by accepted rules and established practices.
The US has great scientific and technological advantages and a robust and competitive commercial space sector. Instead of seeking dominance, it can better serve the world (and itself) by focusing its leadership on harnessing space for the benefit of all humankind.
In a promising sign, Biden and Harris’s NASA review team is composed of an outstanding group of space scientists as well as a former astronaut.
The current administration re-established the National Space Council, which is chaired by the vice president, and this has reinvigorated American investment and leadership in space exploration. This includes an ambitious plan to return to the Moon under the terms of the Artemis Accords.