America’s foreign policy, unfortunately, seems to be governed by a latent utopianism. The last 17 years have shown the dangers inherent in a starry-eyed approach to the world.
When it comes to space policy, however, the utopian policy consensus—as embodied in the Outer Space Treaty—has been on display for at least 50 years. It’s past time for us to shake it.
This bedrock agreement for international rules, regulations, and laws concerning space is a deeply flawed document that is damaging U.S. interests. Predicated on the promise of making space “the province of all Mankind,” the treaty undermines the national interests by denying countries the right to fully develop space as a strategic and economic asset according to their capabilities—the way that international law generally lets nation-states develop the strategic domains of land, air, sea, and now cyberspace.
The treaty was forged in the crucible of the Cold War, during the height of the space race. When the treaty was enacted in 1967, there were only two space powers, and their technological capabilities were limited. Very few conceived that space could be anything other than a forbidding domain useful for little other than satellite surveillance.
“Fifty years ago there were two nations in space, . . . and our main concern was nuclear proliferation,” said U.S. Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-Okla.), who is currently President Trump’s nominee to lead NASA. “Now, almost every nation on Earth has some sort of presence in space, and we have to be concerned with threats like jamming, dazzling [shining disruptive light down from space], spoofing and hacking satellite constellations.”
Clearly, our enemies recognize the strategic value to space—as well as America’s vulnerabilities Wishful thinking tends to plague American policy in a way that it doesn’t afflict our rivals, like China. Despite China’s rise in space, the antiquated, utopian space laws originally designed to prevent the weaponization and private sector exploitation of space are one-sided: only the United States adheres fully to the rules.
When international agreements unilaterally disarm America, they cease to be in our interest, and either should be abrogated or at least renegotiated.
For example, present-day space law is the reason America doesn’t have a truly robust missile defense system. President Ronald Reagan announced his Strategic Defense Initiative in 1983. Yet America’s policy remained steadfast: no space-based weapons. If not for that blinkered notion, we would not be fretting over the North Korean or Iranian nuclear missile threats. Idealism rarely protects national interests.
Meanwhile, since the Apollo moon missions in the late 1960s and early ’70s, we’ve known that space is overflowing with natural resources. Expensive commodities called “rare earth minerals” are in abundance on our moon, in the asteroid belt, and on other celestial bodies throughout the solar system. Many of the problems associated with resource scarcity on Earth today could be ameliorated by developing a bevy of natural resources that exist in space. There are untold riches to be had in space.
The technical limitations make for a prohibitive entry fee into this new market. In fact, if not for the onerous regulations and laws preventing economic development in space, America’s private sector likely would be up there, making a fortune and delivering unimaginable benefits to mankind. The regulatory burdens in space are killing the private space sector at a time when America needs it most.
Fact is, a new space race is underway and America is not winning. China is.
Today, China has no qualms about violating space law (or any other agreement Beijing views as inimical to its interests). China’s space program is one of the most advanced in the world. It is part of the Chinese military and fully funded. Unlike our own operations with NASA, everything that China’s space program does has military value. Plus, Chinese state-owned enterprises have taken to developing space for economic and strategic gain. While the United States has spent the last decade taking cool snapshots of distant stars and arguing over whether Pluto was a planet or not, China has:
- Built a manned space station;
- Successfully developed the Quantum Internet (as well as Quantum Radar that can detect American stealth planes);
- Built anti-satellite weapons, and;
- Built the EmDrive, which can take people to Mars in 70 days (and to the moon in a matter of hours).
That used to be us.
China also plans on strip-mining the Moon for an isotope called Helium-3 (He-3) beginning in 2020. The Chinese believe He-3 holds the key to nuclear fusion. They are using space to enrich their country while America continues to ignore space as the chump still worried over antiquated international concerns.
And, with China’s decades-long commitment to funding its high-tech industry (so much so that KPMG predicts Shanghai will displace Silicon Valley as the most innovative tech hub in the world in a few short years), Chinese dominance of space is a fait accompli—unless America rises to the challenge.
America must abandon stifling utopianism and deregulate space now, while we can still compete with China. Otherwise, in another decade, we might be seeing Chinese miners strip-mining the Moon, dominating the new nuclear fusion market, and threatening America with orbital weapons platforms. This is an avoidable future, but we must act now. We have plenty of catching up to do.
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