In this article, we dive into the space race and the governing behind space exploration, ultimately answering a very pertinent question: who owns space?
The Space Race
Main events leading up to the moon landing
Out of everything brought about by the Cold War, the Space Race was definitely one of the plenty which left a deep impact on mankind, one which only flourished since. Space exploration has reached heights never seen before and nowadays it offers an infinitude of possibilities. However, the Cold War rivalry between the USA and the USSR has transformed into a competition of multiple countries vying for space hegemony – this poses pertinent questions such as who owns space? What are the limits, rights, duties and responsibilities of countries when above the skies?
The Space Race began on 1955, when USA materialized its intent to launch artificial satellites for the International Geophysical Year, which quickly prompted a response with a similar proposal from the Soviet Union. This marked the beginning of an era of technological, scientific and military developments which would heighten mankind to a level never seen before.
The Soviet Union put the first satellite (Sputnik 1, 1957), animal (Laika, 1957), man (Yuri Gagarin, 1961) and woman (Valentina Tereshkova, 1963) in space. On 1969, the spacecraft Apollo 11 landed the first 3 humans on the moon – Neil Armstrong became the first human to set foot on the moon, followed by Buzz Aldrin (Michael Collins never left the craft). Since then, the launching of a multitude of satellites, the observation of several planets and the overall exploration of the universe, coupled with technological and scientific improvements, gave mankind an unprecedented understanding about all that surrounds us.
Space suit worn by Laika in 1957
However, this era of intense exploration of a new environment – and all the resources in it – poses serious questions which should be clearly answered to assure a seamless and trouble-free state of affairs and stimulating cooperation with the final goal of promoting human development.
According to a Space Tech report in 2021, there are more than 10 000 private companies (more than half of them in the USA), 5 000 investors, 150 R&D Hubs and Associations and 130 governmental organizations in the space business. In 2020, the Space industry was valued at $380B (approximately 0.5% of the global GDP) and it’s expected growth to $10T by 2030 is posed to expand this boom and attract even more competition. However, before diving into the main question, it is important to define where space begins.
The imaginary boundary which separates the Earth’s atmosphere from space is a tricky one and one which has sparked discussion in the past. However, currently the Karman Line is considered to be the start of space, an imaginary boundary at an altitude of 100km above sea level above which the atmosphere is too thin for conventional planes and aircrafts to maintain flight – at this height, aircrafts could fall back to Earth if they’re travelling below the orbital velocity (about 28 000 km/h). Above the Karman Line, international law asserts that space should be free for exploration and use.
Most regulations presently accepted for space regulation and governing were defined in the 1967 Outer Space Treaty. As of February 2022, 112 countries are signatories of the treaty, including all significant space-exploring nations. It defined the basis of space law, the foundation being that space, the “province for all mankind”, should remain free for use and exploration by all states and its exploration should benefit the interests of mankind. It established that no nation can claim sovereignty over (and limited the use of) any celestial body, including the Moon, and forbade nuclear weapons in space. Last but not least, it also limited military activity above the skies (prohibiting military maneuvers or the testing of weapons in outer space, important clauses due to the development of intercontinental ballistic missiles in the 1950’s which could reach space) but doesn’t formally outlaw all military activities in space. The relevance of the Outer Space Treaty is undeniable as it provided a framework for an ordered and conflict-free exploration and use of space.
So, claiming sovereignty over celestial bodies is off the table. But how about other space objects like asteroids, an increasingly more common target for space mining, or other space resources?
Space mining is the act of extracting resources from asteroids or other minor planets and, although it is an highly challenging and costly task, it has recently caught a lot of attention due to, on one hand, technological and scientific advancements which have reduced of the cost, challenge and complexity of space mining, and on other hand, the amount of profit to be made. Moreover, space mining has the potential of providing an alternative source of resources currently being exhausted on Earth (like, for instance, platinum group metals – Ruthenium, Rhodium, Palladium, Osmium, Iridium, and Platinum). All this, of course, has caught the eye of many countries and companies which have invested copious amounts of money into space mining. But what happens when they seize an asteroid or another minable celestial body?
In general, the logic here is very straightforward – whoever manages to find and capture one is entitled to mine and capture as much of its resources as they can. More specifically, in the United States of America, the 2015 US Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act states that any citizen “engaged in commercial recovery of an asteroid resource or a space resource […] shall be entitled to any asteroid resource or space resource obtained, including to possess, own, transport, use, and sell the asteroid resource or space resource obtained”. Thus, sovereignty is still not acceptable and space resources are free for whoever reaches them first. This Act prompted other countries to follow suit, dictating much of the logic currently followed in the international space mining scene. Moreover, this “early bird catches the worm” approach has bolstered the space race further, with countries vying for the exploration and mining upper-hand.
As previously stated, the increased focus in the extraction of resources from space can have astonishing benefits for life on Earth, giving us alternative sources for materials which are already being depleted on Earth, reducing scarcity on our planet. However, without proper regulation and surveillance, this highly competitive area can quickly turn sour, if, for instance, regulation loopholes start being exploited or profit becomes the only priority over progress and sustainability.
by YKW // 29 October 2022
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