When things finally get going, NASA’s belated launch of the world’s most powerful lunar rocket — the 30-story-tall Space Launch System — will ultimately take humans to the moon for the first time in over 50 years, and possibly land them on Mars as well. The mission could mark the beginning of a new golden era in space exploration.
But with all the pomp and ceremony of the Artemis program, could this be the final hooray for the combined efforts of the US space agency and its international partners? New technologies and the increasing commercialization of space travel in recent years have rewired the space industry. At a time when space is becoming increasingly crowded and contested, we need to start asking – and answering – serious questions about the future of space security and sustainability. What can we do to improve cooperation and build trust between the major space powers? How do we reconcile national interests with global and planetary interests?
Mankind becomes highly dependent on space. We depend on space-based resources for much of our critical infrastructure, not least the internet, navigation, aviation and weather forecasting. This means that any disruption in space orbit will disrupt vital activity on Earth, as our terrestrial security is inseparable from space security. This dependency exposes the glaring gaps in space law.
The Outer Space Treaty of 1967, the international framework for outer space law signed by over 130 countries, is outdated and lacking bite. The treaty does not address the militarization of space, anti-satellite weapon (ASAT) testing in space, the proliferation of modern technology, or the growing role of the private sector in the space industry. Thankfully, malicious activity in space like hacking, jamming, or even direct kinetic hits is still rare for now, but the lack of legal clarity has created a dangerous vacuum that we need to fill while we still can. As I told the United Nations General Assembly this month, we desperately need a modern regulatory framework that will help demilitarize orbits, improve coordination and improve management of space traffic, low-hanging fruit.
Modernizing the antiquated space treaty will take time and political power, but new traffic rules are needed now. The international community should increase efforts to create codes of conduct that govern human activities in space. These standards must reflect rapid technological change and should address issues such as the resource race in space and the exponential growth of space debris, often caused by malfunctioning satellites. With a record number of satellites being launched into orbit, space debris is becoming a serious problem for spacefaring nations, as an object as small as a paper clip can sabotage a spacecraft.
Tackling problems like this requires intensive political, financial and technical cooperation. There have been several attempts – most recently by the European Union, China and Russia – to carve out codes of conduct for the cosmos. None have been successful so far, but they deserve our continued encouragement through existing intergovernmental and multilateral instruments. The unilateral commitment by the United States, backed by Russia, to ban ASAT testing is an admirable initiative. So did the UK-inspired Open-Ended Working Group at the United Nations General Assembly. We need to change the current geopolitical mindset and move from zero-sum security paradigms to multi-sum security and symbiotic realistic paradigms. This will help ensure conflict-free competition, defined by absolute rather than relative gains. Above all, it is critical that all space parties understand that when space becomes critically unsafe, it will be unsafe for all. In a global commons like space, humanity will either triumph or fail together. This is especially important at a time when private aerospace companies are building reusable rockets that have radically reduced launch costs.
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Beyond shared challenges, there is also a shared opportunity to advance global and planetary interests, including the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Good governance in space will promote sustainability and security on Earth. For example, space technologies such as remote data sensing can improve our understanding of terrestrial water cycles and forest cover. Other space industry technologies could help us improve energy efficiency and strengthen food security. At the very least, working towards a common goal could help space powers overcome their suspicions. The US-Soviet Apollo-Soyuz space mission in 1975, at the height of the Cold War, reminds us that this is not impossible. With that in mind, it is unfortunate that the Artemis program is limited to just a few dozen countries, and the International Space Station will be decommissioned in early 2031.
Building a sustainable international space framework will be critical to the success of future space missions. It will also be vital to our daily earthly needs for sustainable and just peace, prosperity and security. Just as NASA’s Apollo 11 moon landing in 1969 instilled in humanity a new spirit of adventure and paved the way for numerous scientific breakthroughs, the legacy of the Artemis program may be rooted in the opportunities and goodwill it creates for participating countries . However, these opportunities, and space security more broadly, will only go so far unless all major space powers are involved.
Professor Nayef Al-Rodhan is Director of the Geopolitics & Global Futures Program at the Geneva Center for Security Policy (GCSP) and a member of the World Economic Forum’s Global Future Council on Frontier Risks.