To go where no man has ever gone before, to explore the final frontier, has long been considered to be the ultimate sign of scientific progress. But once man did reach the final frontier, earthly problems were not left far behind. As on earth, nations are now competing to grab chunks of the vast universe and its riches. Earlier this week, China launched a crewed mission to Tiangong, Beijing’s own space station, even though the country is barred from the International Space Station as per American laws. A resurgent China is trying to counter the hegemony of the United States of America in space as it has been doing on terra firma. This only goes to show that a handful of global powers, intoxicated with the idea of achieving interstellar fame, would like to carve up the universe among themselves. This feuding is the fuel that propels the Race for Space.
One of the consequences of this rivalry is that a shadow has fallen on international space treaties that were inked after painstaking negotiations. The Outer Space Treaty of 1967 laid down the foundational principles for human space exploration — it should be peaceful and benefit all mankind, not just one country. But it has little by way of detail and has now become outdated since it does not include the possibility of colonization. This pact was followed by the Moon Agreement of 1979 to prevent commercial exploitation of outer-space resources, but the US, China, Russia and India — the principal space warriors today — did not ratify it. Then, in October last year, came the Artemis Accords, a document purportedly articulating international norms for the development of planets, their satellites and other celestial objects of economic interest. Once again, Russia, India and China, each with sizeable space programmes of their own, chose not to be signatories, alleging that the US is trying to covertly impose its own laws on space. Perhaps their concern has something to do with the initiatives largely led by the US that adroitly combine political and commercial interests. For instance, Jeff Bezos — he plans to travel to space next month aboard his ‘passenger rocket’ — has argued in favour of moving heavy industry off the face of the earth and building space-based infrastructure that will create opportunities for economic growth. The billionaire, Elon Musk, is eyeing habitation on Mars to save humanity from extinction in the event of a catastrophe on earth. Unfortunately, these ambitions are not tempered by participatory debates on the modalities of cooperative civil exploration of outer space.
Some unscrupulous entities are seeking to exploit this loophole. That is because space exploration is no longer about enhancing the boundaries of human knowledge; intelligence gathering, military operations, global communication can be controlled from space. The discourse on space is being transformed into one of domination that is reflected in contemporary laws, politics and economics. Will one small step for man turn into a giant leap towards a more unequal future?