“Space: The Final Frontier” is now “Space: The War-Fighting Domain.” This isn’t a new Hollywood movie. It’s the future of space if we don’t act now.
The Trump administration has officially designated space as “a war-fighting domain.” Doing so has massive implications politically, culturally, and in our day-to-day lives. Wars in space could create mass civilian casualties. Is this the Hollywood version of our future we want?
Space is legally considered a global commons — an area outside the reach and ownership of an individual or nation. The 1967 Outer Space Treaty “recognizes the common interest of all mankind in the progress of the exploration and use of outer space for peaceful purposes.” Outer space “is not subject to appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means.” International law extends these same rights to the high seas, the atmosphere, Antarctica, and the Internet.
Space is more than a legally defined domain; it is an integral part of our understanding of the human experience. Space advances our understanding of our fundamental place in the universe and serves as a testing ground for science that has dramatically changed how we live. Now, space is also critical infrastructure for the daily survival of our human species. Our cell phone communications, GPS, banking systems, air travel, and more all depend on our space assets. If we lose them or they are attacked, Americans will become collateral damage.
The US government accepted space as a global commons during the Cold War, after a series of arms tests — including the July 9, 1962 detonation of a 1.4 megaton hydrogen bomb by the United States that disabled six satellites .
But now our restraint is waning.
In December 2017, Scott Pace, executive secretary of the US National Space Council, said, “It bears repeating: Outer space is not a ‘global commons,’ not the ‘common heritage of mankind,’ not ‘res communis,’ nor is it a public good.” Two years later, US Space Command was established as one of 11 Unified Commands under the Department of Defense. It’s responsible for defending US action in space, delivering combat-relevant space capability, and joint warfighters to advance US interests in, through, and from the space domain. This is an aggressive militaristic approach that will be mimicked by other nations.
There is no precedent for assuming that weaponizing space will benefit humanity. In fact, we should assume the opposite, especially when reviewed in the context of its closest corollary: the Internet.
US Cyber Command, based within the National Security Agency, is the model for the US Space Force. Created in 2009 with the original mission to defend the nation’s cybersecurity, US Cyber Command has increasingly acted as an offensive force. The Internet is a war-fighting domain and becoming more so daily. On any given day, 30 nations are actively engaged in acts of war against one another. Cybercriminals and other bad actors use the Internet to maliciously target American citizens, companies, and institutions, steal data, and spread disinformation.
A war in a global commons is not traditional war: It is not finite, with strict boundaries and rules of engagement. Instead, wars in global commons spill outward and impact our entire world. For example, WannaCry ransomware, a top secret exploit developed by the NSA and released by hackers, brought China, Russia, Britain, and the United States to their knees by holding users’ files hostage until a ransom was paid. It spread to hospitals and other vital institutions. A cyber weapon knows no physical boundaries. Neither does a space-based one.
In wars that take place where there is no sovereign claim, weapons take new and ever-changing forms and have unintended consequences. Weapons in space could be used to defend against attacks on space-based critical infrastructure, but they could also lead to unprecedented damage. Space is large and unknown. Physical weapons like rockets would be hard to intercept. But physical weapons are only one scenario. Cyber weapons attacking vulnerable satellites are a real threat that will cross multiple commons.
Space is a blank canvas on which to paint a new existence, or it is a chance to repeat the failures of our past.
We need to figure out a way to create a resilient system in space where we put the common goodfirst. This includes a vision where our critical infrastructure is protected. But to do this, we need to have a broad discussion about space as a global commons. It must include understanding the role that space plays for humanity, the impacts of weaponizing space, how much of a role individual nation-states can play, identifying the policing force, how we envision space exploration, and more. If we do not develop a global vision for space, the militarization of space and inevitable conflicts will impact every one of us here on Earth.
Space is, indeed, our “final frontier.” It belongs to all of us. It should not be colonized or controlled by any nation’s military. We have the opportunity to get this one right and develop the future with a blockbuster Hollywood happy ending: a world where space is safe, secure, and stable for human exploration.
Kristina Libby is an adjunct professor at New York University and executive vice president of future science and research at Hypergiant. Follow her on @kristinalibby. Maggi Molina is a US Air Force veteran and a TechCongress alumni.