Can Space Tourism co-exist with Space being turned into a War Zone?

Karl Grossman*

Keywords:   Outer Space Treaty – PAROS Treaty – Peaceful purpose – Space Doves – Space Force

The push to turn space into a war zone could spell goodbye to space tourism.

The space tourism drive that is underway, led by billionaires Jeff Bezos, Richard Branson and Elon Musk is seen as only a start. Meanwhile, there’s the push, led by the United States, to turn space into a war zone—and this, despite the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 that sets space aside for peaceful purposes. As the then U.S. President Donald Trump declared in 2018 while advocating for formation of a U.S. Space Force, “it is not enough to merely have an American presence in space. We must have American dominance in space.”The following year, he signed the National Defense Authorization Act of 2020 establishing the Space Force as the sixth branch of U.S. armed forces and said: “Space is the world’s newest war fighting domain.” The Space Force, Trump said, would “help” the U.S. “control the ultimate high ground.”  Then, at the unveiling of a Space Force flag at the White House, Trump said: “Space is going to be…the future, both in terms of defense and offense.”

Trump’s successor, U.S. President Joe Biden, has not rolled back the U.S. Space Force. Several Democratic members of the U.S. House of Representatives last year introduced the No Militarization of Space Act that would abolish the U.S. Space Force. The prime author of the legislation, Representative Jared Huffman of California, in a statement, called the Space Force “costly and unnecessary.” 

The measure got nowhere. That was not surprising considering that most Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate and nearly all the members of the Republican Party voted for the National Defense Authorization Act of 2020 providing for the Space Force’s formation. Thus, the U.S. Space Force is moving forward.

Last year, Space Force requested a budget of $17.4 billion for 2022 to expand its reach as reported by Air Force Magazine.  Space Force also aims to fund more than $800 million in new classified programs.“Guardians” is the name adopted by the U.S. Space Force in 2021 for its members.

In 2020, the Space Force received its first offensive weapon: satellite jammers. The satellite jammers can be used to interrupt any satellite communication and can hinder warning systems designed to detect attacks from the US. Soon afterwards, the Financial Times’ headline was: “U.S military officials eye new generation of space weapons.”

As to the impacts of war in space, Bruce Gagnon, coordinator of the Global Network Against Weapons and Nuclear Power in Space, in an interview in 2021 said:

In 1989 during one of our campaigns against NASA plutonium launches [NASA’s launching of plutonium-powered space probes], we had a rally at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, and our keynote speaker that day was Apollo astronaut Edgar Mitchell, one of the moonwalkers. And he came and said if there is one war in space, it’ll be the one and the only. He said because we will create so much space debris or space junk from all the destroyed satellites and things like that in space that there would literally be a minefield encircling the planet – he called it a piranha-laced river—and we would not be able to get through. A rocket would not be able to get off this Earth through that minefield. So, it’s insane to think about having a war in space.

Gagnon has also spoke of how space warfare would mean activity on Earth would immediately shut down as cell phones, ATM machines, cable TV, traffic lights, weather prediction and more are all hooked up to satellites.

Alexander Chanock, while pointing to the generation of space debris resulting from warfare in space, noted that space weapons would produce an immense amount of space debris. Chanock, then a candidate for a law degree, now a legislative counsel in the US House of Representatives, wrote that, “The Fear is that destroying in space could generate extremely dangerous debris with a long orbital life.”

Chanock quoted Dr. Joel Primack, professor of physics and astrophysics at the University of California, Santa Cruz, stating that “the weaponization of space would make the debris problem much worse, and even one war in space could encase the entire planet in a shell of whizzing debris that would thereafter make space near the Earth highly hazardous for peaceful as well as military purposes.”

The blueprint for international cooperation in space has been the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 which sets aside space for peaceful purposes and declares it a “global commons.” It was put together by the United States, United Kingdom and the former Soviet Union and has wide support from nations around the world. As Craig Eisendrath, who as a young U.S. State Department office was involved in the treaty’s creation, explained, the aim of the Outer Space Treaty was to de-weaponise space before it got weaponized to keep war out of space altogether.

The Outer Space Treaty of 1967 prohibits placement “in orbit around the Earth any objects carrying nuclear weapons or any other kinds of weapons of mass destruction or from installing such weapons on celestial bodies.”  For decades there has been an effort to extend the Outer Space Treaty and enact the Prevention of an Arms Race (PAROS) treaty, which would bar the placement of any weapons in space. China, Russia and Canada have been leaders in seeking passage of the PAROS treaty. But the United States—through administration after administration, Republican and Democrat—has opposed the PAROS treaty and effectively vetoed it at the United Nations. A rationale for the U.S. Space Force has been that it is necessary to counter moves by Russia and China in space, particularly development of anti-satellite weapons. This is what a Cable News Network report in 2021, titled “An Exclusive Look into How Space Force is Defending America,” centrally asserted. There was no mention in the six-minute-plus CNN piece of how China and Russia have been leaders for decades in the push for PAROS, and how China and Russia in recent times have reiterated their calls for space to be weapons-free.

Most recently, the U.S. concern about Russia and China moving into space militarily was heightened by Russia in November 2021 using an anti-satellite weapon to blow up a defunct Soviet intelligence satellite that was launched in 1992. Dr. Paul Robinson, professor of public and international affairs at the University of Ottawa, in an article on RT, views that the Russian effort may be intended to bring the United States to the negotiating table by highlighting the space vulnerability.

The history of U.S. interest in space warfare includes the Strategic Defense Initiative scheme of the U.S. President Ronald Reagan during 1980s, dubbed “Star Wars,” predicated on orbiting battle platforms with on-board hypervelocity guns, particle beams and laser weapons energized by also on-board nuclear reactors.

A U.S. Space Command was set up in 1985. The motto of one of its units, the 50th Space Wing is “Master of Space”. The unit is now a component of the U.S. Space Force.

A January 2022 article in Air Force Magazine called attention on this aggressive stance of the U.S. Space Force. Alexander Chanock also expressed concerns on this issue in his article published in the Journal of Air Law and Commerce. While highlighting the contrasting views on the U.S. developing space weapons, he refers to “Space Doves”, who are against space weaponization, especially Nina Tannenwald. Tannenwald wrote that in the long run she believes that the best way to protect American interests in space would be through stability of the rule of law, rather than through unilateral assertions of military power. She asserts that US should promote a transition to a regime that consists of mutual restraint and benefit in space.

However, Chanock, in his piece, stated: “Although space doves have many valid arguments for reducing the danger of space weaponization, in reality, it is unlikely that their ideas will prevail.” He noted: “The U.S. Congress has consistently rejected any bill that tries to ban the use of space weapons.” He cited bills that “sought to ban space weapons but failed” including the one introduced in 2001 by Representative Dennis Kucinich of Ohio which “did not garner a single co-sponsor.”

Internationally, since the creation of the U.S. Space Force, several nations—including the United Kingdom—have begun to emulate the U.S. in space military posture. “How to halt the space arms race” was the headline of an article in the British publication The New Statesman in 2021. It stated: “This year the UK launched its own space command, with military chiefs acknowledging space as a domain of conflict co-equal with air, land, sea and cyber,” said the piece by Paul Mason.

“We are stuck,” the article concluded. “And while polite verbal fencing takes place at the UN, the major powers of the 21st century are engaged in an unprecedented expansion of military power in space, leaving the vast majority of countries powerless, most of humanity as passive spectators, and the Earth’s orbit increasingly polluted with debris from exploded satellites.”

This is pessimistic forecast need not be. The Outer Space Treaty of 1967 was—and is—a visionary documentary. War on Earth is terrible enough. It must not be brought up to the heavens. This will take continued political will and international pressure—to preserve and extend the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 and its setting aside space for peaceful purposes. Especially in the United States, this will require action at the grassroots because the two major political parties in the U.S. have joined in a bellicose stance on space, supporting it becoming a war zone. Every year, the grassroots organization Global Network Against Weapons and Nuclear Power in Space, founded in Washington, D.C. in 1992 and the leading group internationally challenging the weaponization of space, holds a “Keep Space For Peace Week” with actions around the world. Meanwhile, there are nations around the globe that have, unlike the U.S., adopted a peaceful stance—as reflected in their support for the proposed PAROS treaty.

We must, indeed, keep space for peace. Can space tourism co-exist with space being turned into a war zone? The answer is no. And with a shooting war in space, it will not only space tourism that would be kissed goodbye.


*Professor of Journalism at the State University of New York/College at Old Westbury & Co-founder of the Global Network Against Weapons & Nuclear Power in Space.