Outer space has long provided a playground for the imaginations of media whizzes. Gene Roddenberry’s creation, Star Trek, now designates a multi-billion dollar media franchise. Not only has Roddenberry’s Starship Enterprise sourced the name of NASA’s prototype space shuttle, his fantastically fictional paraphernalia seemingly inspired the design of the more palpable handheld mobile phone.

Image courtesy of NASA, © 2011, some rights reserved.
Image courtesy of NASA, © 2011, some rights reserved.

However, over the last century space has not merely captured the fancies of ‘Trekkies’ and other motion picture connoisseurs. With the rapid advancement of science and technology, space has progressively become the theatre for a different kind of actor: states and international organisations.

But what can this immense vastness offer to international players and can the perceived opportunities be employed frugally? More importantly, how is space governed? And will it lead to international cooperation or conflict?

The existence of a sort of technosphere buzzing beyond our atmosphere – comprising 3,600 artificial satellites possessed by over 50 countries (there have been over 6,500 satellite launches; 1,000 satellites remain operational today) – seems to advocate the ‘space age’ as a roaring international success. The International Space Station (ISS) has hosted 212 visitors from 15 different countries, qualifying a remarkable 13-year continuous human presence in space.

Worldwide leaps in telecommunications, weather forecasting, agriculture, forestry and even the search for minerals have chiefly been attributed to the toil of international players in space. The environment can now be monitored. Hurricanes can now be predicted and managed accordingly. Even the poorest farmers have a better idea of when to plant crops. Global banking and cell phones, by-products of space exploration, have transformed international business. Additionally, studying humans living in the microgravity of space has expanded our understanding of osteoporosis and balance disorders and has led to new treatments.

Warfare has also been revolutionised. Smart missiles can now be guided to any location on the planet with pinpoint accuracy using satellite-based global-positioning systems. Equally, powers can no longer deploy forces covertly .Indeed, the 2006 U.S. National Space Policy cites that their ‘national security is critically dependent upon space capabilities, and this dependence will grow.’ At least 35 countries now have space research programs that are designed to either augment existing space capabilities or lead to deployments in space.

With such opportunity at hand, coupled with prospective boosts to international prestige, it may come as little surprise that emerging economies are dashing forward with space ambitions. In November 2013, India launched the Mangalyaan (Mars vehicle) into space to examine methane levels on Earth’s neighbour. China put a woman in space in 2012 and, in December 2013, launched its first (unmanned) lunar mission. Of 129 moon explorations, only 51 have succeeded. Nigeria too has a handful of satellites floating around the Earth.

From a distance, such commotion may seem like a waste of money. India spends $1 billion a year on its space programme but only assigns 1.2 per cent of GDP to public health. But it needn’t be one or the other. An advantageous space program may even compliment the latter: in 1999 a fierce hurricane hit India’s east coast killing over 10,000. And yet, a 2013 hurricane of same strength and location killed just a handful. A significant reason for this hailed improvement was the forewarnings provided by India’s weather satellites. Even NASA’s $7 billion-a-year shuttle programme seemed worthwhile, especially in light of America’s ‘justifiable’ $10 billion-a-month expenditure (2006) in Iraq.

With mankind becoming ever more reliant on space-based resources, there becomes a need to administer activity, striving to achieve passive coexistence between international actors. Since the initial launch of USSR’s Sputnik 1 in 1957, Space law has grown – primarily owing to the UN’s Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) created in 1959 – to incorporate five international treaties.

Further accords have simply elaborated upon existing provisions of the OST. 1967 and 1972 saw the conception of the ‘Rescue Agreement’ and the ‘Space Liability Convention’ respectively. Whilst the former guarantees from the signatory all possible assistance to rescue the personnel of a spacecraft who have landed within that state’s territory, the latter names states themselves as the sole bearer of international responsibility for any form of object launched from their territory.

Similarly, in 1974, the ‘Registration Convention’ came into force. This requires participants to disclose considerable information to the COPUOS (function, dimensions, location, condition etc.) on any object launched into space.

But 1979’s ‘Moon Treaty’ seems to indicate doubt over space’s future capacity to facilitate skirmish. The treaty – which bans any military use of celestial bodies and aims to prevent the Moon from becoming a source of international conflict – has failed in practice as it hasn’t been ratified by any nation which engages in self-launched manned space exploration.

History has already bore witness to one arduous struggle between two superpowers with the view of dominating space. But can history repeat itself?  Does space just represent another – currently idle – means to acquire power, masked by moderately stable political relations on Earth itself?  Definitions of space-power focus on the ability, as Colin Gray notes, to use space and to deny its use to enemies. Like power in IR theory, space-power is ‘complex, indeterminate, and intangible’ according to Peter L. Hays.

Undoubtedly, space provides significant potential for international cooperation. But it also represents a more menacing entity; an opportunity to spawn a new kind of Stars Wars that the film boffins may not be so frenzied with.

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