At the start of the month, Vice President Mike Pence summarized the Trump Administration’s plans to create a new independent branch of the United States military to operate in space. A U.S military presence in space is defended by the administration to counter suspected developments by Russia and China to build space technology that could interfere with the United States’ satellites or carry military planes at high enough altitudes to be undetected. In 2007, China displayed its capabilities by destroying a dormant weather satellite, which disturbingly created a mass of space debris.
Opposition to President Trump’s plan is widespread and is even found within his cabinet. Just last July, Defense Secretary James Mattis voiced his opposition to an independent Space Force. He stated that trying to “integrate the Department’s joint warfighting functions” was his priority rather than creating new bureaucratic branches.
Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson, chief of the branch that currently oversees most space-related operations, was also concerned that creating “more boxes to the organization chart” would “cost more money.” Furthermore, a lot of appropriations would be redirected away from the Air Force’s space-related costs, such as satellite upkeep, making the branch concerned for its own financial future.
Regardless of the domestic implications of the Space Force, the idea to increase military activity in space runs counter to international law. Despite Trump’s belief that “space is a war-fighting domain, just like the land, air, and sea,” the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which the United States is party to, explicitly states that space and celestial bodies are “exclusively for peaceful purposes.” The agreement also prohibits nuclear weapons or the establishment of military bases beyond Earth’s atmosphere.
Like Antarctica, space is protected by international treaties as a place for peaceful scientific exploration and not for military use or territorial exploitation. As space exploration and technology advance, proposals about innovative uses of the “Final Frontier” have been put forward. One example is asteroid mining. As Earth’s natural resources are being depleted, some are looking towards asteroids as sources of metals and even water to refuel human spaceflight missions. International space law is silent on resource management although it does vaguely ban “national appropriation” in space. The United States’ policy is that the Outer Space Treaty allows for commercial mining and has even created a law protecting its citizen’s future claims to resources extracted from asteroids and developed a licensing scheme. However, there is currently no international policy on its legality or any system delegating what asteroids can be mined by who. Furthermore, there are no international environmental protections to ensure that any future outer space mining activities do not harm the celestial body or any greater space systems. Given the vast environmental complexities that have come out of terrestrial mining, the international community should be conscious of its impact on foreign bodies and strive to enact protections before the technology is widely used.
Human activity, including mining, territorial settlement, and catastrophic warfare, have hurt our Earth and its environment in countless ways. Currently, humanity faces the dilemma of climate change, including its dangerous effects that cause extreme weather activity and ecosystem destruction. The international community should be conscious of what it has already done on this planet and ensure that space and celestial bodies are protected from total exploitation. The United States should continue its exploration of space through scientific institutions like NASA, but resist any further militarization of space to maintain its peaceful status. The United Nations should look at expanding international law regarding space to ensure that it is updated to cover modern ideas of space warfare, planet colonization, and asteroid mining. We Earthlings must be prepared for our potential actions in space in the near future and how it could affect larger celestial systems by laying down the rules before it’s too late.