A new space race in the offing?

As the world is grappling with the coronavirus pandemic and the United States is in
a precarious situation, President Donald Trump has passed an executive order
allowing Americans ‘the right to engage in commercial exploration, recovery, and
use of resources in outer space.’

All major spacefaring nations, including the United States of America and India, are
signatories of the Outer Space Treaty 1967. Article II of The Outer Space Treaty,
1967, states, ‘Outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, is not
subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or
occupation, or by any other means.’ The Moon Agreement 1979, although ratified by
only 18 countries, the US not being one of them, also prohibits the exploration of
the moon. The order highlights that US doesn’t consider space as ‘global commons’
and further states that the US is not a party to the 1979 Moon Agreement and
doesn’t recognise the Agreement to ‘be an effective or necessary instrument to
guide nation-states regarding the promotion of commercial participation in the
long-term exploration, scientific discovery, and use of the Moon, Mars, or other
celestial bodies.’

While the legal opinion on the legitimacy of exploiting outer space by the USA is
divided, the intent of commercial exploration is not entirely new. Over the past
couple of years, we are seeing increasing interest in asteroid mining and
exploitation of space by nation-states. The US Congress had passed the
‘Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act’ in 2015 giving its citizens the right
to ‘possess, own, transport, use, and sell the asteroid resource or space resource
obtained.’ NASA’s Artemis Lunar Exploration programme plans to develop a base
camp at the south pole of the moon and build other infrastructure to facilitate
long-term exploration of the moon. Billionaire explorers like Jeff Bezos and Elon
Musk, are also looking to reach Mars and other celestial bodies and take advantage
of the resources found.

Luxembourg, a small European nation, has implemented an even more liberal
regime than the US for asteroid mining and harvesting of other resources from
space. Trump’s executive order is an endorsement of the growing global sentiment
and formal recognition of the property rights of private players from the US.

Russia has heavily criticised the US, and Trump for the order, stating, ‘attempts to
expropriate outer space and aggressive plans to actually seize territories of other
planets hardly set the countries (on course for) fruitful cooperation.’ However, we
need to trust actions, not words when we observe sovereign nation-states in the
international arena. Russia’s space agency Roscosmos has announced plans for a
2024 orbiter, a 2028 sample-return mission, and human flights by 2029-30, China
has an ambitious lunar programme with its Chang’e missions. Russia and China are
also planning to build a shared data centre for lunar and deep-sea research. It will
be interesting to see whether all these missions are only towards the pursuit of
science or are there other strategic and economic interests that the countries will
undertake.

Setting up bases and exploiting and trading resources found in space is also a way
of asserting power in space. Most states now acknowledge space as a new domain
of security, and thus are building capabilities to safeguard their interests and
project power. While building defensive capabilities through specialised defence
space agencies is one way, establishing economic avenues through the exploitation
of resources and trade is the other way to gain primacy.
The Outer Space Treaty, enacted in 1967, in the wake of the cold war and the height
of the space race, has done well to prevent exploitation of space so far. As space
exploration and travel is becoming cheaper, and there is increased participation
from private players, we are likely to see new strains in the international order. We
would observe an increased interest in property rights in space and countries
trying to enable, if not encourage, their private players to harvest resources in
space.

The executive order says that the US is looking to negotiate multilateral
agreements with foreign states for sustainable operations for the recovery of space
resources. India needs to be cognisant of the developments in this new ‘space race’.
While the Moon Agreement which India has signed but not ratified may prove to be
a thorn, India must take prudent measures to ensure that its citizens can reap the
economic dividends of space exploration while India can safeguard its strategic
interests.

(This article was published in the Deccan Herald. The views are of the author’s own.)