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Will the Moon become the next Iraq? As Earth's great powers compete for lunar supremacy, astropolitics is about to get ugly

Russian and American astronauts take off together in Kazakhstan. Credit: KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP via Getty Images

Russian and American astronauts take off together in Kazakhstan. Credit: KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP via Getty Images

October 28, 2020   5 mins

If you establish a sovereign colony on the Moon are you a colonialist? The Russians and Chinese seem to think so, and they may have a point. At the heart of the issue is not just colonies but, as in previous centuries, the fuelling stations required to get there, and the bottleneck points along the way. If we can’t agree a legal framework governing their use, and the territories they lead to, it follows that we may end up fighting over them just as we did in previous centuries.

Neither Russia nor China is signing the NASA-led “Artemis Accords” agreed this month between the spacefaring nations of the USA, UK, Italy, Canada, Australia, UAE and Japan. The Accords govern the exploration of the Moon and extraction of its resources; signatories must keep each other informed of their activities during the operation to land the first woman, and next man, on the Moon within four years. These landings are planned as the next giant step for mankind before creating Moon bases for mining purposes by 2028. In turn, these bases could be the launch pad to “enable human expansion across the solar system”.

Russia is a NASA partner on the International Space Station but was excluded from the accords after the newly formed US Space Force accused it of tracking US spy satellites in a dangerous and “unusual and disturbing manner”. China cannot be part of the agreement because Congress has banned NASA from working with Beijing. Both have their own plans for lunar bases, but are not about to allow rivals to establish a set of “rules” which do not involve them.

Going ahead without everyone agreeing is, according to the head of the Russian space agency, Dmitry Rogozin, an “invasion” of the Moon which could turn it into “another Afghanistan or Iraq”. That’s fighting talk.

Moscow and Beijing are particularly concerned about the articles allowing the signatories to establish “safety zones” on the Moon to protect the area in which a country is working. Nations are asked to “respect” the zones in order to “prevent harmful interference”. This throws up the scenario of a Russian spaceship landing within a zone, setting up shop next door to a Japanese or American base, and the new arrivals getting their drills out. By what law could the Japanese or Americans object, and in the absence of law, what would they do about it?

They could hardly turn to the now horribly outdated 1967 document popularly known as the Outer Space Treaty upon which most of the rules governing the use of space are based. It says “outer space is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means”. A safety zone looks an awful lot like national appropriation, and the Moon could get awfully crowded.

That is partly because space travel is no longer only the domain of powerful states. Getting out there is becoming cheaper and within reach of private companies, as Elon Musk and others demonstrate, and we can expect competition for the Moon’s resources. But there is usually a link between commercial outfits and the state — the East India company comes to mind.

The Outer Space Treaty says the Moon “shall” be used only for peaceful purposes. It doesn’t define peaceful and once you’ve put “facts on the Moon” it would be easy to argue that you needed defensive weapons, not for aggression, but to ensure the peace.

The treaty is also outdated in many ways. It was drawn up at a time when people thought of outer space as a featureless void and politically different to Earth. It’s true that the Soviet/American space race took place within the frame of the Cold War, but it was mostly about prestige — which political model could prove itself superior. Since then a new way of thinking has arisen and with it, new “astropolitical” theories.

Space exploration can be viewed as an opportunity, indeed a requirement, for states to fully cooperate via the international system for the benefit of all humanity. However, another view assumes the great powers will seek to dominate space to achieve commercial and military dominance — this is realpolitik for space — astropolitik.

Both views start from an understanding that space is not featureless, but is, in the words of astropolitik theorist Everett Dolman, “a rich vista of gravitational mountains and valleys, oceans and rivers of resources and energy alternately dispersed and concentrated, broadly strewn danger zones of deadly radiation…”.

Dolman builds on the writings of the great twentieth century geopolitical theorists Halford Mackinder and Alfred Mahan. Both helped shape strategic thinking by drawing on geographic realities, territories, and how new technologies could impact them. Students of geopolitics are familiar with how the corridors of trade, and who controls them, have played a major role in history. Astropolitics takes a similar approach and applies it to the cosmos looking at place, distance, fuel supplies, and a lot of science.

The starting point is Earth and control of the narrow corridor around it, namely low Earth orbit. This is where our communication, and increasingly our military, satellites are placed. In the future, control of this belt will give countries a huge military advantage across the earth’s surface. Without binding treaties limiting the militarisation of space, this is a probable battlefield for military weapons aimed firstly at rivals within the belt, and then below it. As a commander in China’s People’s Liberation Army put it: “If you control space, you can also control the land and the sea”.

Low orbit is also the area where spacecrafts seeking to travel further than the Moon could be refuelled. Mars is millions of miles further away from Earth than the Moon, but because of the incredible effort required to slip the bounds of Earth’s gravity, more energy is required to get from there to the Moon than from low orbit to Mars. If one powerful state gained full control of this corridor, it could prevent rivals from refuelling within it and thus hamper their ability to travel further.

There are several other key geographic regions in Space. For example, the Van Allen radiation belts have such a high concentration of radiation that crewed spaceships are better off avoiding them. Spend too long there and the crafts electronics may begin to fail, as might the crew. There are also “libration” points — a network of pathways around planets a spacecraft can use to avoid the drag of a planet’s gravity slowing it down. That is for the medium term, but in the short term the libration points between the earth, the Moon, and one just past the Moon, may become areas of competition.

There are five of these points, all places where the gravitational effects of the Earth and the Moon balance out. This means an object stationed at one of them would be able to stay where it was without having to use fuel. Two in particular are in locations allowing a commanding “view” down to the belt containing satellites. Another, known as L2, is on the far side of the Moon. China has stationed a satellite there allowing it to see what is happening on the “dark side” which, by no coincidence, is where they are considering establishing a base.

These are the type of geographical realities we may become more accustomed to hearing about as astropolitics comes of age and the great powers integrate space warfare into their military budgets. Russia and China have both made organisational changes in their military as have the Americans with the formation of the US Space Force.

There are concerns that this activity violates the Outer Space treaty, but it only states that weapons of mass destruction such as nuclear missiles should not be placed “in orbit or on celestial bodies or station them in outer space in any other manner”. There’s nothing in international law to prevent the stationing of laser armed satellites capable of attempting to shoot down another country’s hypersonic missiles from above. Every page of history suggests that if one country does it, so will another, and then another.

The treaty needs rewriting to reflect today’s technology whilst keeping the spirit of the text and its promise that exploration “shall be carried out for the benefit and in the interests of all countries and shall be the province of all mankind”. We saw the possibilities as early as 1975 when Soviet and American spaceships docked, the hatches opened, and the crew members shook hands. Since then astronauts from 10 countries have lived and worked together on the International Space Station, and international organisations have been set up to monitor our oceans and atmosphere. We’ve reached the high ground; it is mainfestly our destiny to go higher, and we will get there more quickly if we do it together.

Tim Marshall is a journalist, author and broadcaster.


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Geoffrey Simon Hicking
Geoffrey Simon Hicking
3 years ago

Stealth in space is impossible without a spacecraft coated in vantablack and emitting helium coolant for temperature control and propulsion. That needs to be considered before anything else regarding space is proposed.

Mark Corby
Mark Corby
3 years ago

The title of this piece implies that the recent Iraq War was about plundering its resources. It wasn’t.

Iraq had idiotically become a clear threat to Israel, and had to be chastised, at whatever cost.

This accomplished, it has nearly been returned to the Stone Age, and will remain docile, for at least another ten years. Syria has suffered a similar, if not quite so humiliating fate.

Mike Finn
Mike Finn
3 years ago

It’s an interesting thought exercise, certainly.

We have to remember though that the 1967 agreement only came about once human and automated spaceflight was becoming routine and competitive between nations, and risked wider conflict. That is simply not the case for the moon right now – it would be as likely as countries having agreed how to approach colonialism in the 15th century (however desirable that would have been considering the harm done to indigenous populations). Until such risks come about, facts on the ground will dictate how lunar policy plays out, not planning up-front (not to mention that ignoring treaties seems rather in vogue right now). Besides which, it would seem simple for any colony on the moon to “declare independence” and so be freed from earthly treaties, yet still receive direct support from an earth-based state… it’s not clear how this might be policed!

Right now, the best we can hope is if any nation can get back there and create a viable habitat for our species. Only if and when we succeed in that great endeavour can we puny humans reasonably worry about the minutiae of the bureaucracy!

3 years ago
Reply to  Mike Finn

You may want to look into this. Near earth industry and lunar industry are actually having their infrastructure put in place now.

Mike Finn
Mike Finn
3 years ago
Reply to  raypallie201

Thanks… space history and technology is one of my areas of particular interest, so I’m comfortable with what I’m saying here. Having infrastructure being put in place is completely different from proving that infrastructure can operate in any economically and socially viable way, or whether it has any military value to states on Earth that we all agree are in our best interests to be constrained. There is no evidence at this stage that any permanent lunar colonisation will succeed (although I personally very much hope it will!).

A look at historical agreements will show that they almost all come after the viability and value of something is proven, and also after the potential for harm is also recognised. Any good treaty must offer benefits for all participants, and why would the first nation to the moon wish its actions to be constrained? Better strategically to wait until their position is strengthened by boots on the ground if you will, and then negotiate a treaty that acknowledges the fait accompli and at the same time impedes the competition. On the other hand, if you think you’re going to lose the race…