Interntionally, for many years, it has been agreed that space should be used for peaceful purposes, and for the benefit of all humankind. Examples of uses and benefits include weather monitoring, help in search and rescue, help in potential natural disaster detection, coordinating efforts on detecting and dealing with issues of space debris and minimizing harmful impacts on Earth, research in sciences, health, etc.
The United Nations (U.N.) Outer Space Treaty3 provides the basic framework on international space law, saying that space should be reserved for peaceful uses. It came into effect in October 1967. As
summarized by the U.N. Office for Outer Space Affairs web site
4, the treaty includes the following principles:
the exploration and use of outer space shall be carried out for the benefit and in the interests of all countries and shall be the province of all mankind;
outer space shall be free for exploration and use by all States;
outer space is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means;
States shall not place nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction in orbit or on celestial bodies or station them in outer space in any other manner;
the Moon and other celestial bodies shall be used exclusively for peaceful purposes;
astronauts shall be regarded as the envoys of mankind;
States shall be responsible for national space activities whether carried out by governmental or non-governmental activities;
States shall be liable for damage caused by their space objects; and
States shall avoid harmful contamination of space and celestial bodies.
Towards the end of 2000, the United Nations General Assembly had a vote on a resolution called the Prevention of Outer Space Arms Race. It was adopted by a recorded vote of 163 in favor to none against, with 3 abstentions. The three that abstained were the Federated States of Micronesia, Israel and the United States of America. (You can see the details from a U.N. press release5, together with a list of countries that voted, were absent and so on.)
While various militaries around the world have used Space for years, it has largely been for surveillance satellites etc.
However, the Bush Administration in the United States has long made it clear that the US wishes to expand its military capabilities and have weapons in space7 and therfore also be dominant in this fourth military arena (the other three being sea, land and air). This new ultimate high ground would provide further superior military capabilities.
While it would provide additional important defense mechanisms, many worry about the other benefit it would bring—capabilities for offensive purposes to push America’s national interests even if they are not in the interests of the international community.
Furthermore, together with its pursuit of missile defense, (which goes against the Anti Ballistic Missile treaty, an important part of global arms control mechanisms), the USA risks starting a wasteful expenditure of an arms race in space.
Since the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States, and the resulting War on Terror military-based policies and spending has increased. So too have the policies looking into space-based weapons. The Washington D.C.-based Center for Defence Information (CDI) provides a detailed report suggesting that this should not be a rushed decision:
But because space-based weapons have been on the agenda long before September 11, and the War on Terror, the fight against terrorism is not the sole justification, though it may now add to the reasons. However, long before September 11, the concerns of the US’ motives for pursuing such policies have been questioned. The fear is that by seeking to create a dominant position in space, the US will become more powerful and others may be compelled to join an arms race in space.
The above-mentioned CDI report also points out that The Bush administration’s views were directly reflected in the 2001 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR), released Oct. 1, 2001. A key objective … is not only to ensure US ability to exploit space for military purposes, but also as required to deny an adversary’s ability to do so, states the QDR. In this context then, space is no longer seen as the resource available for all of humanity, but another ground from which to fight geopolitical and economic battles.
Most wars (hot wars, trade wars, cold wars etc) throughout history have had trade and resources at their core. (See the Military Expansion14 part of this web site for more on that perspective.) The military superiority of past and present nations has been to defend or expand such national interests. The militarization of space by the USA, even when there has been an international agreement to use space for peaceful purposes, as mentioned above, begs the question why?
While the answer from US authorities is usually along the lines of defensive purposes (as with the related issues of missile defense and star wars, as also discussed on this web site, in this section), many see the domination of space as the ability to maintain, expand and enforce those policies that will serve that national interest.
Additionally, the development of weapons in space risks leading to an arms race, as mentioned in the Star Wars18 section on this site, in discussing the development of missile defenses.
Currently, as CDI points out, the threat to US space-based interests is not as much as it is made out to be:
However, fearful of the additional advantage, dominance and power the US will have, it is possible other nations may choose to develop their own systems to try and keep up or minimize the perceived threat. This will in turn make the US want to increase its expenditure even more, and so on, leading to an arms race, which risks leading to a self-fulfilling prophecy to justify continued expenditures.
While the US may possibly be able to afford this, for other nations to get involved into such expenditures will be costly indeed, especially most have other pressing priorities. (It is also somewhat questionable that even the US can afford this in the long term, but the influential US military industrial complex supports this and so tax payers money will help large military contractors, as also discussed in more detail on the Star Wars21 page on this site.)
(The star wars part of this section on this web site, also linked to from above, discusses more about the possibilities of an arms race and an impact on international relations.)
For more information, as well as the links above, you could start at the following:
United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs23 (UNOOSA). From here you can also see the official treaty documents and more.
Articles by Karl Grossman. Karl Grossman, professor of journalism at the State University of New York/College at Old Westbury, wrote The Wrong Stuff: The Space Program’s Nuclear Threat to Our Planet (Common Courage, 1997). He is a prominent researcher and writer on these issues.
Master of Space24, Progressive Magazine, January 2000
The Presentation to Members of the British Parliament25 London, May 3, 2001, by Karl Grossman
Lasers from Heaven26 by Matthew Rothschild, Progressive Magazine, May 10, 2001.
The Global Network Against Weapons and Nuclear Power in Space27 works to make a global call to resist the nuclearization and weaponization of space.
From the Washington, D.C. based Center for Defense Information (CDI):
Space Wars28, by Colonel Daniel Smith, USA (Ret.) February 2001.
Space: Battleground or Frontier of the 21st Century
29, by Jeffrey Mason, November to December 1999.
CDI’s section on missile defense30 has many other articles on space and missile defense.
The Next Space Race31 from CDI’s America’s Defense Monitor programs, August 27, 2000.
Space Policy Project32 from the Federation of American Scientists provides a large collection of articles.
The Institute for Cooperation in Space33 (ICIS) works to prevent the militarization of space, and have space used for peaceful purposes.
Note about China blowing up a satelite in space using a ballistic missile and the fear this could trigger an arms race
Note about new US National Space Policy
US Air Force seeks for weapons in space
Update United Nations raising concern about the militarization of space and on China consistently opposing weaponization space. In addition, a link for more information was added. Rest of page is still largley unchanged since the last update of April 20, 2002