I thought we’d go into a different direction today. As what usually happens, I figured we would end up in the same place, but that’s what usually happens these days. First, a little history lesson. It seems we have already determined that no one can own space. Shocking. The days of conquistadors planting their flag in foreign lands ended before it even began. The nations formed a Space Treaty in 1967 to establish this point.
“The 1967 Outer Space Treaty bans the stationing of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in outer space, prohibits military activities on celestial bodies, and details legally binding rules governing the peaceful exploration and use of space.“
Now, what does this have to do with the price of whiskey in Ireland? Well, it dovetails into a few fine points. However, we start with our mission in space in the first place. Since NASA retired the shuttle, the space program has been more or less directionless. There were some generalized goals, but literally no vehicle to get there.
SpaceX has made rapid progress and just completed it’s first successful manned flight to the International Space Station. This is a huge deal for a couple of reasons. Obviously, it’s the first step in whatever comes next, but it also means that we don’t have to rely on the Russians anymore. They had been charging us 70 million round trip per astronaut. I’m not sure what their policy was on baggage.
NASA has been doing exciting things independent of manned space flight. They have working rovers on Mars that have taken really cool pictures and made a lot of interesting discoveries. Similar missions have commenced for Venus and some of the moons for Jupiter and Saturn. Unfortunately, the head of the Russian space agency has claimed Venus for themselves. It belongs to Russia. They were the first to explore its surface and I guess they planted their flag. Good for them.
Except they can’t do that. I referenced the treaty above. Space doesn’t belong to anyone exclusively. You can’t lick the surface and call dibs. Of course, the president has responded with Space Force. It is the sixth major branch of the military. Except, according to that treaty we can’t do that either. At least, we can’t legally weaponize space.
This matters for two very important and different reasons. First, what we do next in space is not exactly clear. One of the great things about discovery is that there are no practical objectives immediately in mind. There is no way to colonize Venus as it stands now. The initial probes that went could not even last one hour on the surface. Subsequent probes fared a little better, but the gases and temperatures make human exploration next to impossible.
Mars presents fewer grave challenges, but a long-term direct objective is not yet known. Some experts anticipate a manned Mars mission taking three years with two of them being for travel to and fro. Obviously, if the planet is uninhabitable as it currently sits then there is no current practical reason to do it.
That’s the beauty of discovery. We have pioneered so many technologies, medicines, and other inventions from our exploration of space the past 60 years. These are things we couldn’t have conceived when NASA first began. So, there is no telling what may come out of exploration of other planets or colonizing the moon. You can’t always boil something down to the immediately practical.
The second point is a more earthy geopolitical point. The statements by the head of the Russian space agency and the adoption of Space Force are proof of the assault on the rule of law. The Russians obviously don’t respect it in this instance and we could rattle off numerous other instances where that has been the case as well.
When you are deciding who to cast your lot with as a nation there are some basic questions to answer. The main question concerns the rule of law. Does that particular country or particular leader adhere to past treaties, laws, and agreements? In the case of Russia and North Korea the answer would clearly be no and that is the reason why most U.S. presidents have considered them adversaries instead of allies.
The rule of law grounds us. Most people want those boundaries in their life. We want to know what we can do and what we can’t do. We want to know that no one can turn the moon into a Death Star. We want to know that no one can legally weaponize satellites. We want to know that the first people to land on Mars can’t legally plant their flag and call it theirs’s.
So, while the issue of space and space exploration might be low on the totem pole for most Americans, the issues surrounding it begin to ring a familiar theme we’ve seen woven into the fabric of our daily lives. Do we respect the rule of law or not? Are we governed by rules and agreements or not? Is there anything we as humans can all agree on or not? I guess we will find out either here or in another world.