The politics of outer space


Forty five years after the Moon landing, outer space still holds a fascination for the world, associated with prestige, political and military power.

July 2014 marked the 45th anniversary of the Moon landing, a major political victory for the United States in the context of the Cold War with the Soviet Union.

Five decades on, do nations still attach as much significance to manned space exploration? Does having a presence in outer space send a message to the world about the status of a country, or have political imperatives on Earth changed?

LSE Visiting Research Fellow in the Department of Government, Dr Jill Stuart, says while space budgets have shrunk proportionally since the US claimed the Moon as the 'unspoken prize' in 1969, there are still compelling reasons - both political and practical - for nations to pursue space programs.

In this video and Q&A, Dr Stuart discusses the changing use of space, the major players vying for supremacy in developing commercial space activities, and the military sub-text that underlines a lot of activities in outer space.

She also outlines the arguments for and against manned and unmanned space exploration, unresolved issues surrounding the Moon and whether space tourism is really viable in our lifetime.

Why is it so important for countries to have a presence in space?

Manned space exploration gives countries power and prestige. There are only three countries in the world that have successfully managed to put humans into space – the US, Russia and China. It indicates you have a very strong economy; that you are technologically advanced, very ambitious and have political backing within your country. There's also a military subtext because if you can launch a benign military satellite into outer space, you can launch an intercontinental ballistic missile by changing the payload that's on top of that rocket. Finally, there is a nationalistic element to manned exploration that I think incentivises governments to invest in it.

It is 45 years since the US won the space race and put the first man on the Moon. What was the significance of that at the time?

The American moon landing was a political victory in the context of the Cold War. There was the bi-polar space race going on between the United States and the Soviet Union and the Moon was the unspoken prize. However, the Soviets continued to invest money into space stations and after the Moon landing they launched Mir which became a very prestigious space station. There were also six further Apollo landings resulting in 12 American astronauts walking on the Moon before they ended manned missions in 1972.

Who is leading the space race today?

By most accounts the United States is still the world leader in space for a variety of reasons: they have, by far and away, the largest civilian space budget, not to mention a sizeable military budget. They also have a very robust commercial space sector and are the leading shareholders in the international space station. However, the United States space program has weakened in recent years. They no longer have the ability to put astronauts into space since they retired the space shuttle and they now rely on the Russians in order to get to the international space station. They are hoping that commercial companies that have government backing from NASA will soon be able to bridge that gap for them.

Which other countries apart from the US and Russia, are major players in space?

Countries such as China, Japan, India and the United Arab Emirates are now investing a lot of time and money into manned and unmanned space programs.  In addition you have countries, including the UK and within Europe, that have healthy, developing commercial space activities - either the ability to build and launch their own satellites into space, or the budget to buy satellites and have them placed into orbits so that they are building up their own space infrastructure. Politically, having a presence in outer space still carries a lot of prestige, but there's also practical reason for being there, both in the civilian and military sphere, and also for commercial reasons.

Should we be concerned about the unchecked development of anti-satellite weapons?

The use of anti-satellite weapons is of concern, partly because of the issue of debris. When China shot down one of its own satellites with an anti-satellite weapon, first of all that sent a political message that they were capable of doing so; but these weapons also create a dangerous scenario known as the Kessler Effect. When satellites break up they cause a cascade of debris, with a greater likelihood of further collisions with other satellites.

Should we be focusing more on the practical uses of space rather than human spaceflight? Is unmanned exploration where we will reap more of the benefits?

Whether or not we should continue to invest money in manned exploration versus unmanned projects is hugely controversial. In support of manned space exploration, people say that there are things that humans can simply do that robots can't. If we ever get to the surface of Mars you would need humans in order to complete certain tasks. There's also a sentimental, romantic value to putting humans in space. On the other hand, manned exploration is much more expensive and more dangerous and those funds can be reallocated to robotic missions that can achieve a lot more for the same amount of money. To a degree, some of the really practical uses of outer space - for example satellites for telecommunications - are being filled by the commercial sectors so it is not something that governments have to continue to invest in.

What is the current status re who governs outer space and what treaties are involved?

The international community first started talking about space governance in the 1950s when it became apparent that we were going to be able to place satellites into earth orbit. There was this question of who governs space, who owns it, how are we going to politically organise this or should we just leave it anarchic?

In 1967 the Outer Space Treaty established that outer space would be neutral territory and that no sovereign state could lay claim to celestial bodies. That treaty was followed by four others, from 1967 up until 1979. Those cover such scenarios as objects crashing in space, or from space, and who is liable for that; what happens to astronauts if they crash land on earth; and also the establishment of a registration regime so that anything placed in outer space has to be registered with a launching country. The last treaty was with regards to the Moon and sought to deal with some of the bigger issues surrounding its governance, mining and ownership. It was the only one of the five that was not widely ratified so was considered a failure.

Since 1979 we have backed away from having these big multinational treaties and moved more towards smaller memorandums of understanding between countries. Through this we are starting to pick apart the more difficult and contemporary issues in outer space politics relating to debris, satellite registration where there are increasingly crowded orbits, ownership over the Moon and celestial bodies, and mining.

What are the issues surrounding the Moon that are yet to be resolved?

There's a lot of renewed interest in going back to the Moon because it is seen as potentially a launch pad and stopping off point on to other planets such as Mars. It has resources such as Helium 2 that could be used as fuel for furthering rocket missions and other resources that might be able to be brought back to Earth.

This does raise legal and ethical questions about what we want the future of the Moon to be. Do we want countries to be able to mine it? Are we okay with companies mining it? As it stands right now it is considered under the Outer Space Treaty to be neutral territory and technically, no country may lay sovereign claim to it.

Is space tourism really viable or is it just a big pipe dream and a large waste of money?

First of all it is worth remembering that space tourism is not new. The international space station has been taking tourists since the 1990s. These were people who paid in the region of $10 million to go up for a week or so with the Russians who are partners of the International Space Station. What's interesting about companies such as Virgin Galactic is that as they lower the price and also shorten the amount of time in space, you are potentially opening up space tourism to a larger market - still a very elite market given the prices we are talking about, but a larger market. They have had a lot of delays but I do think eventually that it will start to happen. There's going to be a lot of safety, environmental and legal issues to overcome beforehand.

Additional notes:

Dr Stuart is an LSE Visiting Research Fellow in the Department of Government, specialising in the law, politics, and theory of outer space governance. She is also Editor in Chief of the journal Space Policy, which is publishing a special section on the Moon at the end of 2014. For more details go to:| 

Posted 7 August 2014