At the start of this year, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson warned that the “free world” is locked in a space race with China. Since then, high profile developments in that “race” have continued to unfold. China, for instance, has revealed this month how it plans to put astronauts on the moon by 2030. The U.S. Space Force, meanwhile, has rolled out its “Theory of Success,” aimed at ensuring “America’s space assets [can] provide critical services to the U.S. military, even under attack.”
Amidst this ongoing expansion into space, with accompanying competitive rhetoric from the U.S. side, a key concern among many experts is that — in regulatory terms — humanity is essentially going off into the dark.
“The treaties that we have are not fit for purpose for the 21st century,” said Tim Marshall, author of The Future of Geography, at a recent online event. His point: The 1967 UN Outer Space Treaty, the largest and most notable space treaty to date, contains valuable principles, such as preventing states from placing weapons of mass destruction in orbit around the Earth, but by now much of its content has been left behind by vast developments in technology.
And Marshall is not alone in this thinking. “It’s a complete mess,” said Mary-Jane Rubenstein, author of Astrotopia: The Dangerous Religion of the Corporate Space Race, on a recent episode of the Tech Won’t Save Us podcast. “The only genuinely multilateral, almost unanimous piece of space legislation is the Outer Space Treaty which was ratified in 1967 by a hundred and some odd nations — including, crucially, the U.S. and Russia and China and India and all of those other big space players.” Her point, too, was that that treaty has long since become outdated, though she emphasized that this came from political decisions as much as technological developments.
The implications of the world’s most significant piece of space legislation being functionally out of date split most obviously in two directions. First there’s the military expansion angle. “[The Outer Space Treaty] says nothing about lasers,” Marshall offered as an example of the potential issue. “We now have direct energy weapons that can take down a drone from a mile up and it costs a few dollars of electricity to bring it down instead of shooting a $250,000 missile at it… and now that that technology exists, I think it’s inevitable they’ll put them on satellites.” This simply wasn’t possible when the Outer Space Treaty was originally ratified, and thus isn’t covered by it.
The other big issue is the already-beginning battle to extract resources from space. “The Outer Space Treaty says that planetary bodies are not subject to national appropriation. That nation states cannot own planets or planetoids, nor can they own parts of them,” Rubenstein said. However, she explained, this legislation does not rule out the ability of corporations engaging in these forms of extraction, and this is a key direction of travel now, according to both Rubenstein and Marshall. “The concept of space as the ‘commons’ for all of humanity I think is rapidly fraying,” Marshall summarized.
Factors involved in this breakdown are numerous, but the U.S.’s 2015 Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act, which ruled that resources recovered from space by a citizen could be owned and sold by that citizen, is noted by both Marshall and Rubenstein as key. Citizens include corporations protected as citizens under U.S. law, and the act was followed by a surge in public and corporate interest in space mining operations — whether aimed at the moon, Mars, or asteroids, and coming from companies from the U.S., China and elsewhere.
There have been notable efforts to insert some order onto what could end up as a scramble for off-planet resources. But these efforts themselves have become important sites of conflict in recent years. The U.S. established the Artemis Accords in 2020 as part of its Artemis program, which aims for a human mission to the moon by 2024. The accords are framed as “a common set of principles to govern the civil exploration and use of outer space,” notably providing rules for mining activity around the moon, Mars and beyond. But China objected to these principles, in part because it said that “safety zones” they sought to create for off-planet work were veiled attempts to zone off certain spaces — effectively making claims on them.
“It’s time the U.S. woke up and smelled the coffee,” official Chinese state media The China Daily wrote last year in a piece that addressed the safety zones. “The world is no longer interested in its divisive, hegemonic schemes; instead, it is crying out for cooperation in every field, from fighting climate change, containing the COVID-19 pandemic to exploring outer space.”
Some believe this disagreement may have signaled the beginning of an important divide. So far, 27 countries have signed up to the Artemis Accords, while China has instead partnered with Russia to set up the International Lunar Research Station, research facilities to be built on the moon’s surface or in its orbit in the 2030s. That project pointedly invites “all interested international partners to cooperate and contribute for the peaceful exploration and use of the Moon in the interests of all humankind, adhering to the principles of equality, openness and integrity.” This month, Venezuela became one of the first entities to formally sign up, and China’s Deep Space Exploration Laboratory has said it is negotiating agreements with more than 10 other countries and organizations, in addition to two Western companies who signed up earlier this month.
Of course, at least where mining is concerned, the absence of agreement on rules of the game doesn’t immediately turn space into a conflict zone. These are early days and “off-planet” is an impossibly large concept where one might think it could be hard to bump into a rival party. But there are warning signs for those who are looking, particularly regarding exploration of the moon.
“As long as your spacecraft will not affect the safety of ours, you can place them anywhere you wish,” Yang Yuguang (楊宇光), a senior space industry observer in Beijing and vice-chair of the International Astronautical Federation’s space transportation committee told China Daily last year, reassuringly enough. But then he added: “if you deliberately land a spacecraft very close to ours and its engines’ blaze damages our equipment, then such acts are nothing but provocations.” The second part is somewhat less reassuring, and perhaps indicative of a bumpy road ahead, up there in the dark. And that’s before we even get onto those space lasers Future of Geography author Marshall was talking about.