Time to end the space race free-for-all
Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, said last week that it would take Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa and his aide on a 12-day visit to the International Space Station (ISS), which is jointly owned and operated by Russia, the US, Japan, Canada and the EU and is perhaps the only symbol of multilateral cooperation in space exploration.
The ISS has been operating for more than 20 years and has allowed the entirety of mankind to benefit from a whole volume of research that has resulted from this unique model of how the global community can benefit from space exploration.
Unfortunately, it is the only such program and there are currently no signs of any meaningful replication of this model. The last two decades have seen many nations launch new space exploration projects, each more ambitious than the last. They are generally highly competitive with their perceived rivals. The list of space missions keeps on growing as more nations develop in-house capacity or buy their way into space exploration. Two notable nations that have developed significant space exploration capacity relatively recently are Asian giants and fierce rivals China and India. Both these nations have plans to launch manned missions to the moon and even beyond. In fact, both have already sent probes to Mars and are now preparing to send their astronauts into space.
On the other side of the world, the US is now aggressively working toward sending another manned mission to the moon, with a deadline of 2024. NASA has invited like-minded nations and allies to join the project and so far eight have signed up, including the UAE, Canada, Australia and Japan. However, Russia, China and India do not figure on the partner list.
Having successfully launched a series of manned flights, China is now setting its sights higher. It last month launched the core component of a permanent Chinese space station; similar to the ISS, except that it will be fully and solely controlled by Beijing. The country also wants to send a manned mission to the moon and beyond, though that is likely only in the next decade.
India also has its own manned programs lined up. It hopes to send Indian astronauts into space on its own Gaganyaan spacecraft for a week-long mission. Though initially it was slated for 2022, it may be delayed due to the coronavirus pandemic.
For most players, the rush to space is motivated by several factors — none of them being the common good of humanity or simply a love of science.
Ranvir S. Nayar
But the competition in space is no longer only between nations, as a number of American billionaires, notably Tesla’s maverick boss Elon Musk and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, are fighting a very public battle over space exploration. Bezos’ firm Blue Origin has taken NASA to court over its decision to choose Musk’s SpaceX for its manned lunar mission. There are at least two other private firms in the US with their own space exploration programs, not to forget British billionaire Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic.
For most players, the rush to space is motivated by several factors — none of them being the common good of humanity or simply a love of science. They include pride and one-upmanship, as is evident in the Bezos-Musk clash or the competition between Russia and the US and India and China.
Another factor is far more serious and worrying. In the long-term, several nations and private operators, notably in the US, China, Russia and even India, plan to set up permanently manned stations in outer space or even on the moon, which will serve as a base for further exploration. If these plans were limited to space exploration and science, then perhaps they might have been welcome. However, for the superpowers, space has become a new frontier for rivalry. Just as several nations have carved up the oceans and the Antarctic between them and are planning to exploit them for minerals and metals, they have their sights set on the moon, Mars and beyond to exploit and even claim ownership of wherever they are the first to reach.
These trends and ambitions are absolutely no different from the colonial exploration of the world, when European powers sent their explorers to go and “discover” new worlds. We all know what these explorations resulted in and how, even a century after the end of colonialism in many parts of the world, the wounds caused by severe exploitation over several centuries are still fresh and the colonized nations remain impacted.
Space, like the Earth, is a common property of all humanity, and perhaps other lifeforms, if they exist. Allowing a few nations or billionaires to carve up space or exploit the wealth of other planets for their own benefit would be a crime far worse than colonialism. It is time for the global community, led perhaps by the UN, to wake up to the threat that is rapidly building and address it appropriately.
Space cannot be allowed to become a case of “finders keepers” and a country or a private company cannot simply claim ownership of any bits they like. Space exploration has to be for the common good and, the sooner the world wakes up to that principle, the better.
- Ranvir S. Nayar is managing editor of Media India Group, a global platform based in Europe and India.