In international law, a category regarded by certain legal philosophers as non-existent (there being no overarching sovereign to police it), aspirations reign like obstinate fantasies. The 1967 Outer Space Treaty is one such example, decorated by such expressions as outer space being the “province of all mankind” (Art. 1), with the “common interest of all mankind in the progress of the exploration and use of outer space for peaceful purposes” being its animating principle.
Mightily presumptuous: the whole realm of the celestial heavens a province for all mankind; that it be explored and be exploited, garnished by such utopian hopes as “peaceful purposes”. But humankind was still bloodied from the savages of a world conflict that had taken the lives of tens of millions. It was popular, even in the shadow of the mushroom cloud, to dream.
Space was envisaged as a world where humans could play out various imaginaries. Unconquered as such, it supplied cultural, political and social rationales to human existence even as it promised a vicious competition between the United States and the Soviet Union. “It is believed,” opined the space author Vladimir Kopal in January 1967, “that the Treaty will contribute, at least to a certain degree, to diminishing the danger of a major armed conflict which would be waged in and through outer space.”
It is such fantasies that govern the workings of citizen-astronaut Namira Salim, whose work at United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs is focused on efforts to have the first Peace Summit in outer space by 2030. Delightfully optimistic, the attention seeking Salim anticipates peace before conflict, a pre-emption that might prove premature. Nonetheless, she is all booked up as a future space tourist on Virgin Galactic, Sir Richard Branson’s own contribution to the celestial cause.
Legal documents such as the Outer Space Treaty tend to intrigue far more than they should. Such a term as “peaceful purposes” should hold no mysteries, but manipulated readings were bound to happen. Legal eagles soared to find new meanings, with Edward R. Finch, Jr. suggesting that such purposes, while decidedly pointing in the direction of “nonaggressive”, might involve “the use of military personnel for outer space exploration”.
Such deductions were natural, but suggestive of an imminent tendency: that any civilian space program, while chest thumpingly noble, could just as easily creep over into the language of conflict and the military. Space, suggested Ashton B. Carter as associate director of the Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, “should be regarded merely as another medium for national security activities.”
It could hardly have creased any brow to hear of US President Donald Trump’s desire for his country to steal a lead in the space stakes with promises of a space force that would constitute the sixth branch of the US military. Human exploration is characterised by conquest and rivalries. Notions of space as the “global commons” are sweetly noble, but fall flat before national security obsessives.
The previous year, the intention of US legislators towards outer space was made clear with the introduction of the draft bill entitled the American Space Commerce Free Enterprise Act, an instrument written to regulate the newly emerging space mining industry. In April, the House approved the bill on a voice vote, with Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), chairman of the House Science Committee delighted that space exploration had been given a “booster rocket”.
The Act overturns the utopian sentiment of much space law, effectively repudiating the global commons and returning the discussion back to conventional modes of appropriation. The instrument does nothing to encourage companies to show they are compliant with international law. What matters is an adherence to the treaty obligations of the United States, thereby giving commercial companies, in Loren Grush’s words, “a lot of wiggle room to do what they want in space.”
Abiding by this new zeitgeist of exploitation, Trump expressed his wish on June 18 that a suitable military force be created to “ensure American dominance in space.” In August, he supplied a date: such a force would be created by 2020. His re-election campaign duly emailed supporters inviting votes as to which Space Force logo they would prefer. On planet earth, Trump the businessman senses a promotion, a line of merchandise.
The announcement was greeted with enthusiasm by US Vice-President Mike Pence, who was decidedly bellicose: “The next generation of Americans to confront the emerging threats in the boundless expanse of space will be wearing the uniform of the United States of America.” Where there are US commercial interests, the military is usually not far behind, the willing insurers of imperial power and US business. The “next great chapter in the history of our armed forces,” claimed Pence, was to be written; the US had to prepare for “the next battlefield”.
The enemies of Freedomland might have been extra-terrestrial, but Pence had his eyes closer to home, focusing on aggressive Russia and inscrutable China, both having used “weapons to jam, blind and disable our navigation and communication satellites via electronic attacks from the ground.” Such “adversaries have transformed space into a war fighting domain already, and the United States will not shrink from this challenge.”
Trump’s announcement sent shivers through those associated with the United Nations Committee on Peaceful Uses of Outer Space, but the logic was relentless and irresistible to agents of the National Security State: the imperative of state power is finally coming out of the closet in characteristically odious form, and space will not be spared.
Dr. Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org