Space exploration should aim for peace, collaboration and co-operation, not war and competition

A commitment to peaceful cooperation can prevent potential conflicts over space and resources.
This article was first published by The Conversation.'s Expert voices: Op-Ed and Insights was contributed by the publication.

Kuan-Wei Chen is the Executive Director of Centre for Research in Air and Space Law at McGill University

Ram S. Jakhu is Acting Director of Institute of Air and Space Law at McGill University

Steven Freeland Emeritus Professor International Law, Western Sydney University

Sputnik 1, the first major foray into space, was launched by the Soviet Union in 1957. As science fiction became science fact, our imaginations were opened to the possibility of exploring space.

Space arms race?

The prevailing cold war mentality at the time contributed to suspicion and fear over what it meant being in space. This led to the military roots of space technology applications and technology. John F. Kennedy once stated that the Soviets could control space, just as the nation that controlled seas had dominated the continents in the past.

As it was known, the space race was marked by intense competition between the Soviet Union to become the first nation in space.

Since Sputnik 1, space technology and its applications have advanced rapidly. Space exploration and its use over seven decades have revolutionized communication and navigation, and made it possible to communicate with the rest of the world via satellites.

Space science has allowed us to track weather patterns, improve land use, and greatly enhance our understanding of the planet and our place within it.

It seems that the desire to oppose other countries' space ambitions and to be a space king has resurfaced. Despite space being a vital part of any country's economic, scientific, and social progress, there has been an alarming increase in counter-space capabilities around the world.

Continue reading: The US plans for a Space Force could lead to an increase in a'space arms war'

Crowded spaces

Military strategists warn that space travel can be manned by private citizens, but it is possible for military personnel to crew space missions.

Tensions building on Earth are increasing the likelihood that humanity will be plunged into a space war. This would destroy civilian and military infrastructures that have been so dependent on space.

The International Committee of the Red Cross warned the world in April that weapons used in outer space could have a significant human cost. This includes the potential to disable, damage, destroy, or disable civilian space objects.

The devastation caused by a war on space could have lasting effects.

Colonialism prevention

Contrary to popular belief, a space conflict is not inevitable. The idea that space is now the "warfighting domain" is contrary to the six-decade-old understanding that space has been a shared space governed by international law. This means that global interests are aligned to ensure that it is explored and used for the benefit of all nations, regardless of their scientific or economic development.

Here, private corporations are joining the space race. A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket is launched from the Kennedy Space Center. (Image credit: Shutterstock)

The UN General Assembly's first resolution on space focused issues recognized the need to "eliminate the expansion of current national rivalries into the new field."

Ten years after Sputnik 1, diplomats gathered in the height of cold war brinksmanship in 1967 to sign the Outer Space Treaty. This remarkable feat of international diplomacy has reunited 111 countries to date. It demonstrates the common humanity's desire to explore and use outerspace "for peaceful purposes." The treaty affirms that all countries can explore and use space, including the moon, in accordance to international law.

The Outer Space Treaty, which was not the traditional reactive nature of international laws, established the most important principle of law to enhance the common interest of all space-faring citizens in order to stop any potential colonization plans. The treaty declared that outer space is "not subject to national appropriation by any means" and established a foundational governance system built on mutual understanding.

The race to peace

Since 1980, the UN General Assembly (UNGA) has passed every year a resolution on the prevention and control of an arms race within outer space (PAROS). The latest reminds the international community "the urgency and importance of preventing an arm race" and calls on countries to "refrain any actions that are contrary to this objective."

While it is essential to prevent an arms race in space, this does not mean that space should be militarized. Peace in outer space requires that we properly emphasize the humanity of space, and its safety, stability, and sustainability.

For decades, the Outer Space Treaty and multilateral dialogue at UN have been the anchor that keeps space free of conflict. This overarching legal framework and institution for peace can continue to protect us from reckless behavior in space. This is the direction that diplomatic language is moving in, and initiatives are being taken to clarify international law regarding military use of outer space.

The government, industry stakeholders, civil society, and younger generations all have a part to play in promoting humanity's benefits and common interests in space. They can take inspiration from Yuri Gagarin, the Soviet cosmonaut who said: "There is space for everyone."

There is no place for superiority or dominance in an age when the world is facing climate change, a global pandemic, and rapid exhaustion. Instead, our common interests in peace are more important than ever, on Earth as well as in outer space.

This article was republished by The Conversation under Creative Commons. You can read the original article.

Follow Expert Voices to keep up with the debates and issues. You can also join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter. These views are the author's and may not reflect those of the publisher.