Space offers no escape from the surly bonds of Earthly politics

From stardust we come, to stardust we go. EPA/Sergei Ilnitsky

Seasoned observers of the United Nations generally regard the organisation’s lofty aspirations to the “betterment of humankind” and the eternal pursuit of “peace and security” as just the rhetorical tokens of the “UN system”. But when it comes to the politics of outer space, this sweeping rhetoric is still deeply resonant.

Projected onto the vastness of the universe and laden with the continuing assumption that space activities provide a “unique platform at the global level for international cooperation”, global initiatives such as the International Space Station doubtless lend some credence to such claims.

But close up, the detail of debates between “space actors” shows just how difficult and complex the challenge of outer space security really is.

From June 11-20 2014, the UN Office for Outer Space Affairs’ Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) will meet for its 57th annual session. Established initially as an ad hoc multinational committee by UN General Assembly Resolution 1348 in December 1958, COPUOS remains the principal forum for discussing how to achieve the original “wish” expressed by the General Assembly: that UN members should “avoid the extension of present national rivalries” into outer space.

With the Cold War space race now consigned to history, the latest COPUOS session brings together a much more diverse crop of space powers. The US and post-Soviet Russia are still key players, of course, but China, India and the European Union (and several of its constituent member states) now also boast extensive space programmes.

That list is far from exhaustive: the Space Security Index of 2013 (citing data from the Union of Concerned Scientists) notes that in 2012 alone, Mexico, Turkey, Brazil, Luxembourg, Venezuela, Belarus and Vietnam (to name but a few) all launched satellites into orbit.

And space is no longer just the province of states. The delivery of the Harmony module to the International Space Station by the privately owned SpaceX in 2014 was only the most obvious manifestation of a growing array of non-state, commercial and state-private partnerships extending into the heavens.

None of this is necessarily problematic, of course – but recent COPUOS debates have shown up deep-seated challenges and tensions. Fundamentally, they indicate a clash of priorities between stated aspirations to preserve outer space as part of the “global commons” and efforts to reserve national rights and interests.

Various states within COPUOS stress a desire to retain their sovereign “freedom of action” when it comes to outer space.

Chief among these reservations is the use of satellite systems for military support purposes, a core part of modern military reconnaissance, communications and targeting. (The US possesses the largest number of military satellites, and Russia the second largest.) But even when it comes to using outer space for non-military and commercial purposes, the playing field is not level. As an ever more diverse array of state and non-state actors seek to enter outer space, the number who can actually deliver craft into orbit remains very limited.

Space junk

Peaceful purposes. EPA/Maxim Shipenkov

Crucially, there is no one way to understand the meaning of “outer space security”, and different ideas of what it means often come into competition. For instance, COPUOS discussions are ever more concerned with the security of space activities in terms of the “sustainability” of outer space as an environment. As the Earth’s key orbits become more “crowded” with satellites of all sorts, the number of redundant objects in orbit increases. Without careful management, the risk of satellites colliding with such “junk” – or each other – also increases.

At the same time, environmental security also features in a different sense, with satellites more and more in demand for geo-surveillance and earth-remote sensing for monitoring changes in the Earth’s surface topography and measuring atmospheric fluctuations. The imperative of climate change requires more satellites be deployed for these uses – and so the imperative against “space junk” meets a challenge.

But the role of outer space activities in the military security of individual states is still the central question. Tellingly, various delegations to last year’s COPUOS summit continued to voice concerns that the existing international law on the uses of outer space is not sufficiently robust to prevent states from placing weapons systems in Earth orbit.

These may sound like nothing more than the musings of doomsayers – but the proposed deployment of weapons in space has been a feature of the space age since it began, from advocacy of military bases on the moon in the 1960s to the idea of lasers based in space to shoot down nuclear missiles, as in the Reagan-era Strategic Defense Initiative (also known as “Star Wars”).

Last year’s COPUOS report recognised the possibility of space “weaponisation”, but suggested that “disarmament issues [are] more appropriately dealt with in other forums.” Instead, it argued that COPUOS “had been created exclusively to promote international co-operation with respect to the peaceful uses of outer space.”

If the current round of COPUOS discussions continues to leave these issues for discussion elsewhere, and to treat military and non-military space security as entirely separable, it is hard to imagine that humanity’s activities in space will ever escape the gravity of terrestrial security politics.