Earthly Plunders in Space?

NASA’s newly landed Mars science rover ‘Curiosity’ has snapped the first colour image of its surroundings on August 7. The colour image shows the north wall and rim of Gale Crater, a vast basin where the nuclear-powered, six-wheeled rover touched down August 5 night after flying through space for more than eight months. The $2.5 billion project is NASA’s first astrobiology mission long after the Viking probes of the 1970s. The primary mission of Curiosity, first fully equipped mobile laboratory ever sent to cosmos, is to search for evidence that the planet is most similar to Earth in terms of key ingredients necessary for the evolution of microbial life. Hailing the successful landing of Curiosity on Mars, President Barrack Obama said, “It proves that even the longest of odds are no match for our unique blend of ingenuity and determination.”

The science-fiction enterprise ‘invaded’ outer space long before the space race during Cold War days brought about guesswork and research into the possibility of space colonies. In 1869, Edward Everett Hale wrote a book The Brick Moon. It was about an artificial space station made from brick. In 1929, Dr. John Desmond Bernal conceived of the Bernal sphere, a rotating space colony with a diameter of approximately 15 kilometers, filled with air and colonized around the equator, where the rotation of the colony would create centrifugal force to replicate Earth’s gravity. Princeton physicist Gerard O’Neill, asked in 1969 the provocative question, “Is the surface of a planet really the right place for an expanding technological civilization?” O’Neill conducted workshops that investigated several proposed space colony designs in great detail throughout the 70s. The long-lasting Space Race between the United States and the Soviet Union from 1957 to 1975 was initiated by the launch of the first intercontinental ballistic missile, R-7 Semyorka and after just six weeks, release of the first artificial satellite, Sputnik, into orbit by the Soviet Union in October 1957.

It put America into a state of panic. To counterbalance Soviet space programs and regain the confidence of American people, NASA was established in 1961, and massive funding for space-related projects from the US Government was available. In 1961, US President John Kennedy said that the USA should put a man on the Moon by the end of the decade. This was achieved in 1969, largely putting an end to the Space Race when it was sealed by the first joint USA-USSR mission in July 1975. The USSR and USA were competing to outdo each other in the amazing field of space exploration, ultimately to prove that which political system, Communism or Capitalism, was superior. The Space Race was essentially an extension of the Cold War and thus was intimately connected to military-industrial superiority to be shown the world. If the Cold War turned hot, intercontinental ballistic missiles and suborbital launch units had to be disabled by spy satellites of the other side. Communication satellites (comsats) handled more than half the world’s communications traffic in 1979.

The 1970s was a period of intense concern about natural resource shortages. The dire predictions of Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb and the Club of Rome’s Limits to Growth report, the 1973 and 1979 oil price shocks and the films trans-creating those horrible futures like Z.P.G., Soylent Green, Logan’s Run, etc. had tilted public opinion considerably. G. Harry Stine in his book The Third Industrial Revolution (1975) advocated that the emerging great business opportunities are in outer space as miners tapped the asteroids for their metals and manufacturing moved into orbit. The solar system is abundant in solar energy and raw materials, and an orbital environment has many advantages. Pollution is not a concern, and many industrial processes not feasible in Earth’s atmosphere and gravity become practicable.

In the neoliberal unipolar world, there is a very important additional incentive for more and better comsats to sustain the treadmills of production and consumption. Thus the renewal of “limits to growth” argument is often coupled with a vision for overcoming those limits by going into outer space. The Chinese space agency and a private Russian firm have plans to mine the moon for helium-3, a potential fuel for fusion reactors. United States and Japan also have plans to establish lunar bases by the 2020s. Over the long-term the energy, raw materials, and space of the solar system and beyond will be critically needed if humanity is to go on multiplying. If space colonies possess the ability to produce new space colonies, and travel long distances to obtain resources for this purpose, the eventual result could be the colonization of the entire inhabitable universe. This process would begin with the creation of the first self-sustaining space colony, an event many see as likely to happen in 2030s.

The schemes to mine helium-3 are plans to supply a market that does not yet exist. But the prime mover of capitalist accumulation — supply creates its own demand — would soon become active. Solar powered satellites for resolving the world’s energy problems through space systems are commercially viable. But this panacea is still constrained by matching technological development and launch costs which are likely to remain prohibitively high for decades. The space environment, like its earthly counterpart, is a finite resource system, which is susceptible to over-exploitation and mismanagement by its self-interested, rational users. Uncontrolled and unregulated access to this common resource system runs the risk of inviting self-interested and irresponsibly behaved space actors to exploit the available resource units, leading to potential additional orbiting debris to the space environment.

Article VI of the Outer Space Treaty 1967 provides that: “States bear international responsibility for national activities in outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, whether such activities are carried on by governmental agencies or by non-governmental entities”, that is, private parties, and “for assuring that national activities are carried out in conformity with the provisions set forth in the present Treaty”. The prohibition of national appropriation by Article II thus includes appropriation by non-governmental private entities also. The space debris mitigation guidelines promulgated by the United Nations are not binding upon member states of the UN and only a few of the spacefaring nations have implemented them. Remediation or removal of existing space debris is still in its infancy and faces substantial technical, financial, and political hurdles along with major legal issues. The most prominent issue surrounding cleanup of orbital space debris rests with Article VIII of the Outer Space Treaty, in which space objects, including non-functioning satellites and other space debris, continue to belong to the country or countries that launched them. There is no right of salvage as provided in maritime law. Without consent from the nation that launched and operates or otherwise owns the satellite or space object, it cannot be disposed of or be interfered with. This is further complicated by the fact that international space law examines fragments and components from space objects to determine the owner and either individual or blanket consent to remove it from orbit.

The 2010 International Academy of Astronautics (IAA) ‘Cosmic Study’ on Protecting the Environment of Celestial Bodies goes beyond the interpretation of ‘Planetary Protection’ as biological contamination and extends consideration to the geophysical, industrial and cultural domains. From the perspective of current and future activities in outer space, the study observes that present measures aimed at protecting the space environment are insufficient. Deficiencies include a lack of suitable in-situ methods of chemical and biological detection and the absence of an organized record of radioactive contaminants.

Other issues identified by the Study include an insufficient legal framework, economic tools and political will to address these concerns. The Study concludes that a general consensus on protection of the environment of the Moon and other celestial bodies should be initiated by the spacefaring states, while the deliberations and enactment of new laws and regulations should be assigned to the UN and scientific organizations. The study also recommended that experience in formulating the Antarctic Treaty System and other terrestrial environmental accords could be of great help. To ensure that space exploration and exploitation remains open to future generations, greater responsibility is to be undertaken to protect the freedoms of those future generations from the potential disastrous space activities conceived in contemporary times.

A 2012 report, entitled ‘Homesteading the Final Frontier: A Practical Proposal for Securing Property Rights in Space’ by Rand Simberg, has advocated for a law requiring the United States to recognize land claims off planet under specified conditions. The possibility of legal, tradable land titles, allowing the land to be used as loan collateral or an asset to be sold to raise funds needed for extraterrestrial ventures on the Moon and on asteroids to access precious minerals. The 1967 Outer Space Treaty implicitly prohibits private property in outer space. But Simberg’s interpretation is that it only prohibits national sovereignty in outer space. Moreover, United States is not a signatory of 1979 Moon Treaty, which does outlaw private property claims in space. This should be viewed as an advantage to enact the proposed law which would not impose any new costs on the federal government, and would generate significant tax revenue through title transaction fees. It would have great potential to thrust the development of extraterrestrial resources, bolster corporate performance and thus to revive the crisis-ridden US economy. Last but not the least, colonization of outer space would engender human settlement there with infinite potential to plunder almost virgin cosmos.

Arun G. Mukhopadhyay is formerly of Indian Institute of Management Calcutta. His current research interests are in Ecosocialist Worldview, Political Economy of India, etc. Apart from numerous publications in journals, etc., many of his papers have been accepted by international conferences held in Europe, North America, and Asia. He can be reached at: Read other articles by Arun.