In the Renaissance epic poem Orlando Furioso, the mad hero’s brains are kept on the moon, like everything else that is lost on earth. The paladin Astolfo goes to the moon to bring back Orlando’s brains. Astolfo finds them there in a big jar, but is surprised to find his own brains up there as well. Along with the brains of people that he didn’t think had any brains to lose.
There are huge financial problems down here on earth at the moment, but more countries than ever before are seeking answers out in space. What they hope to find there varies a lot.
China very shortly expects to put men on the moon and plans to establish a base on the moon some time after 2020. India intends to map in detail the entire lunar surface and then to land robots on the moon. Iran and the United Arab Emirates have announced plans to launch their own satellites.
At the same time, the traditional space players are entering new phases of activity. Russia has recently announced its intention to create a “Star Wars” missile defence system similar to that conceived by President Reagan in the 1980s. The USA and Europe face a period of change from old and trusted systems to new ones at a time of enormous financial and political turmoil.
Going back to the days of the Cold War, space exploration and exploitation have always had goals apart from the military and economic ones that gain the most attention. The space race in the 1950s and 60s had at least as much to do with creating an image of power and confidence among potential allies and enemies. After the USA had overtaken the USSR by putting men on the moon, there was a perception that it was now time to concentrate on purely earthly problems such as the Vietnam War and the great social changes that were occurring. In 1971, though, President Nixon’s advisers urged a continuation of the Apollo programme, including further manned flights to the moon. Otherwise, they said, it would seem that the USA was turning inwards and trying to avoid its responsibilities as a superpower and that seeming lack of confidence would send out a message of weakness to the USA’s enemies.
The self-assertion of China, India and Russia today is aimed at sending out a similar message of pride, confidence and challenge. These countries’ plans include ambitious new schemes that no one has previously carried out. But even traditional indicators of superpower status such as moon landings serve an ideological purpose as long as a country achieves them with its own independent technology and above all with its own people.
Manned space flights continue to have great importance, even when much space travel and research is carried out by robots. This is not only because humans are more efficient in making independent decisions. It is one thing to have a robot probe land on Mars, quite another to put one’s countrymen there, as remains a long-term goal of various countries, including the USA. Part of the research at the International Space Station which is being constructed by a group of countries, including the USA, Russia, Japan and Europe, is aimed at overcoming human problems involved in very lengthy space travel, such as weakening of the bones and muscle atrophy. Robots don’t have these problems, but the problems are still worth trying to overcome for humans.
Russia’s threat to create a “Star Wars” defence system comes allegedly in response to the planned creation by the USA of a similar system in Poland and the Czech Republic, which Russia perceives as a threat. Such a defence system would be based on the coordination of ground-, water- and space-based anti-missile systems. This would be a sophisticated application of the old concept of defence of ground targets with the help of space technology. The defence forces of all the superpowers – and particularly those of the USA – have for many years been dependent on satellite communications.
In recent years we have seen the first signs of a possible new phase of space war. Both China and the USA shot down one of their own apparently obsolete satellites using ground based missiles, provoking fears that enemy satellites could be destroyed in the same way. It would seem a natural extension of this principle for satellites themselves to carry anti-satellite weapons. In theory, there is currently no diplomatic or legal reason why the arms race could not expand into space in this way.
The most important international agreement in military and commercial terms is the Outer Space Treaty from 1967, which has currently been ratified by about 70 countries, including all the major space nations. At the time the OST was drafted, only the USA and the USSR had realistic space capabilities. Although the treaty does seem to allow conventional weapons in space, it does prohibit the use or deployment of nuclear weapons. However, given the ongoing problems in controlling nuclear proliferation on earth, it would likely be difficult to enforce the OST’s prohibition in space. At around the same time as the OST, the Moon Treaty was created in attempt to try and extend similar controls over military and commercial use to the moon. The Moon Treaty has to date only been ratified by a small number of countries and none of those is a major space power. The moon is therefore generally regarded as largely unregulated territory in both military and commercial terms.
The moon is likely to become increasingly important as commercial war moves more and more into space. India’s plan to scan and map the moon’s surface is probably in part intended to locate mineral resources for possible future commercial exploitation. China’s intended moon base probably has a similar scope. The USA also plans to examine the moon’s surface carefully with a view to selecting a suitable base site; presumably locating any significant mineral deposits would be an important factor in both the site selection and in the base’s operations. As more expeditions – particularly manned ones – become capable of reaching the moon, Mars and beyond, we can expect commercial war to go along with them.
These are all new possibilities for commercial war to reach out into space, but financial competition is still finding new ways to use the traditional space market. Google has recently announced plans to bring cheap internet and mobile phone access to large parts of the world such as Africa, through the launch of its own satellite system. The intention is that Google would then sell its satellite capacity to technology providers. Many satellites use a Geostatic orbit, meaning that the satellite is exactly synchronised to the earth’s rotation and therefore appears to be stationary; this has great advantages in transmission to earth. Instead, Google hopes to greatly reduce costs by placing its satellites in Low Earth Orbit, which is much closer to the ground but which requires a series of satellites with mobile wings that move around the earth, each one replacing its neighbour as it moves out of range.
It takes much less energy, technology and money to put satellites into Low Earth Orbit, but like so much of the earth, that region of space is already very crowded and polluted, above all by discarded junk from spacecraft. That places a limitation on the potential of Low Earth Orbit use to expand beyond a certain point. This probably means that in the medium to long term the exploitation of space will remain the province of large countries or groups of countries with the necessary huge resources to move further away from the earth.
Given that very high threshold of money and technology required to make use of space, commercial war will probably create further opportunities for advanced nations to withhold vital space supplies from less advanced competitors. Some European countries such as Italy and Germany are large exporters of space technology, including robotics and components for low cost, quick satellite launches. As more countries need or desire to enter the space market, there will be greater potential for suppliers of essential components to threaten to withhold supply for political or economic ends. Germany is a major supplier of space technology to Iran; if there were sufficient political motivation, a threat to withhold supply of such technology could be part of the international pressure brought to bear in relation to Iran’s nuclear programme.
That is just one example of the increasing synergies there will be in future between the space market and other sectors. The importance of the interaction between commercial interests, communications, environmental and climate monitoring and social factors is already very familiar, though these relationships will certainly develop further. So will the stimulation given by space research and exploration to industry and technological development.
Until now, though, the military and financial sectors have acted relatively separately as regards space, unlike the nuclear sector which was initially established by the military and has only relatively recently developed purely civil technology. In relation to space research, however, NASA was deliberately founded by the Eisenhower administration in the 1950s as a civil and not military organisation for the express purpose of keeping these two aspects separate. Europe is most openly leading the way towards a new form of cooperation between the financial and military sectors in space development. The Cosmo-Skymed satellite – part of the new European Copernicus space system of 40 satellites – could have both a military and commercial function thanks to its very sophisticated radar system.
This sort of synergy will likely become more common in future and might allow a freer – and less transparent – flow of both private and public funds into and between the financial and military sectors. Authoritarian capitalist countries like China and Russia face much less scrutiny and criticism of their levels of defence spending than Europe or the USA. A blurring of the line between where defence ends and commerce starts may help those democracies indirectly increase their defence spending to keep up with their rival superpowers.
Despite its advanced technology, Europe is still dependent on other countries – principally the USA and Russia – for the actual vehicles that carry equipment and people into space. This is the sort of problem that many other countries are trying to resolve. As in pure defence matters, and in energy supply and other areas, the maximum possible degree of independence will become increasingly important in the space war, both commercial and military. This will require enormous amounts of investment, technology and political will.
Even the USA, for so long the undisputed leader in space, is facing a medium term crisis in its space Independence. The long-serving Space Shuttle was decommissioned n 2011. However, the replacement Orion programme is not planned to be available until 2018, leaving a large gap in the USA’s independent space capacity. Renovating Space Shuttle to allow it to continue for five more years would cost a colossal amount. The USA had counted on using Russian vehicles for the period before Orion is operational, but the recent deterioration in Russian-American relations makes that plan doubtful. NASA is therefore trying for the first time to finance such a programme directly with the private sector. It is not clear what results that will bring given the world’s current economic uncertainty.
There’s a lot to play for up in space as well as down here. Just as long as we don’t all lose our heads – or our brains – like Orlando along the way.