Gone are the days when there used to be only two major spacefaring countries—United States and the USSR. The 21st century has seen the emergence of new players in the field of space exploration. These include the European Space Agency (ESA), China, Japan, India, South Korea, Iran, Israel and even private space companies. While this has made the field of space exploration ever more exciting, it has also added new challenges. The addition of more players means the increase in likelihood of yet another space race akin to the one between the former two superpowers; the difference this time being more multilateral and with wider repercussions. As such it becomes necessary that there be a healthy competition between the parties and enough transparency between them so as to ensure the peaceful use of outer space.
The good news is that there hasn’t been any direct conflict between competing nations in space thus far. This is impressive given that history is filled with wars and battles that have taken place for land territories over oceans and air. However, will the countries be able to maintain peace as more and more players enter the arena? This is a question that needs greater attention before countries become distrustful of each other due to militarization of space.
Owing to security concerns and the Chinese ambition to dominate space, the United States congress has banned NASA from any cooperation with the Chinese Space Agency. Though the Chinese space program is still in its infancy and way behind, the United States nevertheless, perceives a formidable opponent. However, as China grows more and more dominating in space, it will become increasingly difficult for the US to sequester itself from a partnership.
Considering the current pace of progress, the Chinese space program outstripping that of ESA and Russia in the coming years is likely. As such, the US space program which has been running short of budget and thus looking for international partners, may not be able avoid China anymore. Moreover, the US government might experience mounting pressure from the private sector to partner with China.
One area of a shared challenge that makes it imperative for both the countries to work together is orbital debris control. Orbital debris are objects floating in space that can cause significant damage to satellites and space crafts. While this has become a topic for international concern and one that the US has taken keen interest on, it cannot be solved without the inclusion of China.
Speaking of orbital debris control, this has also been one of the areas where there has been significant progress in international cooperation. United States, Russia, Japan and ESA came to an agreement to the formation of Inter-agency Space Debris Coordination Committee (IADC) in 1993. It has called upon states to take necessary steps to keep space clean and safe. IADC eventually coordinated with Committee on Peaceful Use of Outer Space (COPUOS) to craft the space debris mitigation guidelines.
Looking back in history, there have been co-operations in space with political implications. The international space station (ISS) which is a co-operation between five nations or parties—USA, ESA, Russia, Canada and Japan—embodies their willingness to put aside their political differences and work together where humans share a common interest for space exploration. NASA’s ISS project, which initially started with the goals of interplanetary exploration in 1984, later was transformed into an international space co-operation, in order to ‘link’ their allies into the program. However, after the breakup of the former Russian federation, fearing the proliferation of the ballistic missile technology from Russia to rogue nations, the US felt it necessary to cooperate with Russia. Thus a truly international cooperation in space began symbolising an end to the Cold War era.
Similar co-operation had also taken place earlier in mid 1970s when Apollo-18 had coupled with Soyuz. While the technical merits associated with the event was significant, the political ones at the time of the transition period of the cold war was more significant.
The international cooperation in space is most pressing when it comes to the issue of its weaponization. Though there has not been any weaponization of space to date the problem is that virtually anything can be used as a weapon in space. Even the deployed satellites that are deemed to be ‘peaceful,’ are used by military to direct bombing raids or to orchestrate a “prompt global strike” capability. Moreover, if a number of satellites were destroyed during the course of a war, it would create so much debris that it would make impossible for future satellites to be placed in space and limit space access.
Though there have been a number of treaties like Partial Test Ban Treaty, Outer Space Treaty, Launch Registration Convention, the Moon Treaty and the likes, they only ban the placement weapons of mass destruction in space. They do not prohibit countries from placing other kinds of weapons. For this reason, Conference for Disarmament (CD) established an ad hoc committee to identify and examine the issues relevant to Prevention of Arms Race in Outer Space (PAROS). The United States resolutely opposed this due to its large missile defense program and technical advantage in potential space weaponry.
While competition has always acted as a catalyst for states to venture into space, the need for international cooperation cannot be overstated. Especially, due to the possibility of the deployment of weapons of mass destruction, treaties such as PAROS have to come to fruition. For this to happen there has to be a trust build-up between the major spacefaring countries. There is a precedent for such an agreement in history when the US and Russian Federation joined hands to sign the anti-ballistic missile (ABM) treaty at the height of the cold war. There is no cold war today and the relationship between China and US though complex, is nowhere as hostile as between US and Russia back then. Cooperation in space exploration needs a leadership today and thus presents a good opportunity for the US. Refraining from such cooperation will only aggravate the situation as those countries will find their own ways to develop technologies and result in a new and a potentially more dangerous arms race. Whereas joining hands will set an example for future generations and serve as a moral guidance in times of crisis.