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Opinion

Geopolitics' New Frontier in Space

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A recent statement by National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) head Bill Nelson that the US was in a space race with China, when combined with recent moves by both the US and China to militarize space, could send the US on a policy trajectory that transforms established policy regarding space-based activities as being exclusively exploration-driven in nature, to one where conquest and domination become the dominating factors. Such a move would be a sharp departure from past practice and inconsistent with existing treaty obligations banning such conduct. However, the current level of anti-Chinese rhetoric in the US and an historical willingness to walk away from treaty vehicles that fall foul of US interests, could combine and result in Bill Nelson’s self-declared “space race,” becoming the foundation of future US declaratory policy — especially once billions of dollars are allocated by the US Congress premised on such a notion.

‘Space, the Final Frontier’

Most individuals, when hearing this phrase, will conjure up visions of Capt. James Kirk and the voyages of the Starship Enterprise, both having become household names thanks to the television show Star Trek and a series of movie spin-offs. The purpose of Kirk’s five-year mission was to “explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations — to boldly go where no man has gone before!”

Such is the world of fiction. Enter reality: According to statements made during an interview with Politico, published on Jan. 1, 2023, NASA’s Nelson, a former congressman and senator from Florida, declared that the US was in a “space race” with China that could see the Chinese make territorial claims to parts of the moon. “It is a fact,” said Nelson, who in 1986, while serving in Congress, flew onboard the space shuttle Columbia. “We’re in a space race. And it is true that we better watch out that they don't get to a place on the moon under the guise of scientific research. And it is not beyond the realm of possibility that they say, ‘Keep out, we’re here, this is our territory.’"

So much for exploration — the idyllic mission of the Starship Enterprise and its crew appears to have been replaced by a competition that increasingly sounds more like a race for territorial acquisition. And while Nelson’s assessment has not been echoed by anyone in the Biden administration, it does come on the heels of recent moves by both the US and China to militarize space, which when seen in that light, could reflect a changing mindset within the US government that any future competition between the US and China to return humans to the moon’s surface should be treated not as an act of simple exploration, but rather of conquest.

Déjà Vu, But Different

This wouldn’t be the first time that the US embarked on a race to the moon as part of a broader geopolitical competition. On Nov. 21, 1962, President John F. Kennedy convened a White House meeting with the senior management of NASA, where he made going to the moon one of the top priorities of his administration.

Kennedy’s desire to reach the moon was tempered, however, by the fact that he clearly distinguished the domestic aspects of a moon race from those relating to the defense of the nation. This mindset transferred over to the administration of President Lyndon Johnson, which in 1967 entered the “Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies,” better known as the “Outer Space Treaty.” The treaty, among other things, declared that space is free for all nations to explore, and that sovereign claims cannot be made. Moreover, the treaty stipulates that space activities must be for the benefit of all nations and humans — in short, no claims can be made by any party to the treaty regarding the moon.

Proving that these words had meaning, when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first men to set foot on the moon, on Jul. 20, 1969, they deployed a plaque containing the following statement: “Here men from the planet Earth first set foot upon the Moon July 1969, A.D. We came in peace for all mankind.”

There was no mention of a US-Soviet space race, or even of the US. The statement “We came in peace for all mankind” was in fact derived from the 1958 National Aeronautics and Space Act's declaration of policy and purpose “that activities in space should be devoted to peaceful purposes for the benefit of all mankind.”

Militarization of Space

NASA is currently engaged an active program to return US astronauts to the moon, perhaps as early as 2024. The area of interest on the moon is the lunar south pole, where concentrations of valuable minerals, water and geographical features conducive to sustaining 24-hour solar power generation combine to create the ideal conditions for the creation of a moon colony.

But NASA isn’t the only party interested in putting a man back on the moon. China has been conducting exploratory missions to the moon, with the intent to establish a robotic research station on the lunar surface prior to setting up its own full-time base in the vicinity of the lunar south pole, something US intelligence assesses could occur as early as 2026.

The potential of competing mineral exploration and exploitation by the US and China on the lunar south pole of the moon creates some potential for confrontation. While the Outer Space Treaty mandates that space and celestial bodies cannot be claimed by other nations, it is less clear about the applicability of these provisions to private companies. Given the increased role played in US space exploration by private companies, resulting in the commercialization of space, the Outer Space Treaty may not serve as a restraint to issues of private territorial claims.

Moreover, given the US record of withdrawing from treaties, such as the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty or the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, when the provisions became inconsistent with newly formulated US national security priorities, the Outer Space Treaty does not, in and of itself, preclude the possibility of the US simply leaving the accord at some point in the future.

The US has passed laws, including the Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act, which prohibit territorial claims. However, in the event of a true “moon race” involving the US and China, there is great uncertainty about issues such as exploitation rights and property rights in the event that US and Chinese bases were to operate near one another.

Given that both the US and China have recently declared space to be a “military domain,” it is possible, if not probable, that any future commercial exploration and exploitation interest by either party on the lunar surface would be treated as a national security priority, and therefore subject to military protection — especially after both parties have invested so much of their respective treasury and prestige into putting their citizens on the moon. The interests “of all mankind,” it seems, is no longer the driving factor behind lunar exploration, instead replaced by the kind of national chauvinism space exploration was supposed to supersede.

Scott Ritter is a former US Marine Corps intelligence officer whose service over a 20-plus-year career included tours of duty in the former Soviet Union implementing arms control agreements, serving on the staff of US Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf during the Gulf War and later as a chief weapons inspector with the UN in Iraq from 1991-98. The views expressed in this article are those of the author.

Topics:
Security Risk , Alternative View
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