Citizens of Earth, the race is on…again! But this time it’s way more complicated. The recent launch of a Tesla with a dummy at the wheel during SpaceX’s ‘Starman’ project would have seemed utterly absurd during the Cold War. Along with the Artemis Accords from NASA and the founding of the US Space Force (USSF), these events present unique developments to how outer space is being used and narrated by different geopolitical actors.
Ever since the International Space Station was conceived, outer space has been presented as a place of unprecedented unity. Departing from Cold War narratives of threat and competition in 1992, Bill Clinton once spoke of how “confrontation” had been replaced with “cooperation”, a sentiment that has been somewhat trampled on recently by states and private companies.
And there’s no points for guessing that Donald Trump has had the largest footprint during this trampling; being at the forefront of renewed extraterrestrial tensions, rather unambiguously labelling outer space as a “warfighting domain”. The mere creation of the USSF also adds to this sort of ‘re-militarisation’ of outer space. Weighing in on top of this was VP Mike Pence in 2018 when he called for “American dominance in outer space”. The stance of the USA is no secret then, with language like this presenting perhaps the most severe escalation of rhetoric ever seen surrounding outer space.
Furthermore, NASAs apparently peacefully motivated ‘Artemis Accords’, that attempt to set out terms for collaborative uses of outer space, seem to violate sections of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty surrounding ownership of space property. The Accords blur the issue by stating that “safety zones” must be installed around resource extraction sites which have to be avoided by other nations. Despite the innocent name of ‘safety zones’, this concept presents a vague yet serious attempt at territorialising outer space, a form of bordering almost. This is something unprecedented in legal terms and forbidden by the 1967 Treaty.
Add to the mix some private companies like SpaceX or Blue Origin and the situation becomes even more complex. The ways in which outer space is being narrated and used by these companies is reflected in the fact that it can be commodified; you won’t find talk of militarism, threat or war on the websites of these companies. SpaceX has pioneered this, aiming to make space look ‘cool’ whether through Elon Musk’s boisterous persona, the sleek redesign of the spacesuit, or the launch of ‘Starman’.
The website alone offers an impressive advert for the future of space travel with a swish design, artist renderings and philosophical quotes from Mr. Musk himself. On top of this, Musk recently laid down the gauntlet, declaring that SpaceX would operate under its own laws if it gets to Mars first. Again, the implications for territory in space seem unclear yet entirely serious in intention.
Outer space to Musk apparently presents somewhere similar to the American frontier in the 1800s where land was free to settle to whoever got there first. A view such as this, if adopted by every outer space stakeholder, could quickly translate into real-life conflict.
So it seems that the future of this second space race is dependent not only on the different actors involved but also their fundamental beliefs on how outer space is viewed in relation to territory. Currently we sit in an odd mix of corporate imperialism and self inflicted state restraint that looks to be bursting at the seams. We’ll have to watch attentively as the Frankenstein’s Monster of this space race becomes electrified and the true territorial intentions of everyone involved becomes clear.