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In space, no one can hear your pleading about the value of soft power. Just ask Colombia. In 1976, the South American country hosted a meeting attended by Brazil, Ecuador, Uganda, Kenya, Indonesia and both Congos. The gathered nations declared that the stretch of geostationary orbit above them was not part of outer space, but belonged exclusively to their respective countries.
The Bogotá Declaration was a total failure. Although Colombia’s territorial claim remains written into its constitution, the declaration never gained wider purchase, and the exploitation of ‘their’ real estate has continued.
The group of countries had a common diagnosis: that the laws governing space were drawn up to benefit the world’s great powers, rather than all nations. And they were right, though that will be little comfort to them. Since the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which states that any space exploration shall be carried out “in the interests of all countries”, was first signed by the US, the Soviet Union and the UK, a country’s ability to assert itself in space has always been inextricably bound up in its ability to exercise hard power on Earth. One good demonstration of that is the US unilaterally setting laws on matters where the 1967 treaty is silent or ambiguous, such as commercial activities like lunar and asteroid mining.
Last month’s Chandrayaan-3 landing on the Moon was a significant moment because it provided a romantic illustration of something we already know: India is an ascendant power in the 21st century. But the moment was also significant for another reason: the country managed to reach the unexplored South Pole for reportedly as little as $74mn: a little more than Arsenal Football Club paid to secure the services of German footballer Kai Havertz. The low cost of this lunar mission is, in some ways, non-replicable for many other countries, and driven to some extent by knowhow acquired during India’s 54-year-old space programme.
But is also part of a broader fall in the cost of rocketry, driven by private companies such as SpaceX. Some of India’s success is a demonstration of its hard power. But the rest is that, thanks in part to Indian innovation, even diminishing world powers, such as the UK, may be able to afford their own lunar missions, as may private companies and individuals with much smaller fortunes than Elon Musk or Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, whose interest in colonising space goes back to his valedictory speech as a high school student.
The falling cost of rockets removes one of the barriers to establishing space settlements. An excellent new book, Kelly and Zach Weinersmith’s A City on Mars, sets out persuasively and amusingly why you would have to be wildly optimistic or crushingly stupid to want to set up a space settlement any time soon. Unfortunately, a lot of us are one, the other, or both.
The history of great power competition suggests that countries do an awful lot of crushingly stupid things just in case it turns out they are missing a trick. It’s possible that there are lunar resources yet undiscovered on the moon’s South Pole: but it’s equally possible that the moon’s southern pole is as illusory as the dream of an “El Dorado” in the heart of Africa.
One consequence of the scramble for Africa was the displacement and murder of millions of Africans. Fortunately, there are no lunar people or Martians for us to dispossess. But another consequence of the scramble was that it caused direct conflict between Europe’s established powers. The race for real, or perceived, advantage in space is already doing the same thing.
The switch in focus of India’s space programme from domestic development to lunar missions and the ability to defend Indian assets in space is a response to China’s testing of anti-satellite missions, while the United States’ re-embrace of lunar missions is more about the certainty that China is heading to the Moon than the remote possibility there is something worth finding on the moon’s South Pole.
The falling cost of rocketry means that, unlike during the cold war, space exploration is not going to be a game largely played by great powers. The 1967 treaty that underpins the sharing of space still assumes a world in which that activity is largely an affair for Americans, or for two now defunct empires: Britain’s, and the USSR’s. These days, the space race is led by the US and China.
“Nothing about the space environment so far appears to imbue the human heart with a desire for peace,” the Weinersmiths warn. As the world prepares for a scramble for Mars, space exploration badly needs a new set of global rules.