Editor’s Note: David Pedreira is a science fiction author whose debut novel, “Gunpowder Moon,” envisions a near-future where superpowers go to the brink of war over resource mining on the moon. He is a former newspaper reporter and current business owner. His novel can be found at www.davidpedreira.com. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.
One of the first weapons in space was a triple-barreled handgun designed to kill Russian bears. Cosmonauts brought it with them into orbit in case their descent module landed in a Siberian forest.
Those were simpler times – at least in terms of celestial firepower. The militarization of space is in full gear today, and it isn’t focused on 800-pound omnivores. People may have understandably snickered at President Donald Trump’s call for a US “space force,” but the laughter masks the fact that too few are noticing the rush by world powers to develop warfighting capabilities in orbit.
Rhetoric often outstrips reality in geopolitics, and a lot of experts say fears of a new arms race in space are overblown, but consider these recent headlines:
• The Pentagon told Congress this month it is studying a combatant command for space warfare to counter recent efforts by China and Russia to militarize Earth orbit.
• US Air Force Chief of Staff General David L. Goldfein warned last month that American forces will find themselves fighting from space “in a matter of years.”
• China tested a direct ascent anti-satellite and antiballistic missile system in February that analysts say could destroy most US satellites.
• Russian President Vladimir Putin boasted this month of a hypersonic glide vehicle that can be launched into space, navigate on its own into Earth’s atmosphere and avoid radar and antimissile defenses.
All three countries, and others including North Korea and India, are testing systems such as lasers that fry or dazzle satellites, space-borne electromagnetic pulse weapons that can knock out power grids, and satellites that maneuver in orbit and target each other.
Of course, this isn’t entirely new. Concerns about weaponizing the cosmos have been around for decades, and international laws have been written to stave them off. The Outer Space Treaty of 1967, which laid much of the foundation for space law, prohibits weapons of mass destruction in orbit, on the moon or on other celestial bodies. But the treaty doesn’t directly ban conventional weapons in space, or weapons fired from Earth into space.
Efforts have been made to strengthen space nonproliferation laws, but none of the major powers seem to be honest brokers in the endeavor. While Russia and China blast the United States for refusing to agree to the Prevention of an Arms Race in Outer Space resolution in the United Nations, they’re also actively testing anti-satellite systems and making no secret about their research and development for space weaponry.
And the US military has been flying a secretive, unmanned mini-space shuttle called the X-37B since 2010. It stays in orbit for two years at a time. The Air Force insists it isn’t a potential weapons platform. The Chinese and Russians are dubious.
So where does this leave us? Science fiction writers like looking at things from 50,000 feet up – or even 50,000 miles. And the view from that height is chilling.
Calling for an outright ban on weaponry buzzing around low or high-Earth orbit feels like tilting at windmills at this point. There’s too much momentum in the wrong direction. And few are talking about the even bigger issue outside of Earth’s gravitational embrace: the future resource mining of the moon, the asteroid belt and other parts of the solar system.
It’s understandable, because so far there’s been nothing worth fighting for in deep space. It costs thousands of dollars to put one pound of payload into orbit. Mining an asteroid for rare metals just isn’t cost-effective or technically achievable – yet.
But the price to launch material into space is dropping, and companies and governments are gearing up for when the tech is ready. Consider that an asteroid with the scientifically dreary name of 2011 UW158 comes within a few million miles of Earth in its eccentric orbit – and it reportedly contains about $5.4 trillion worth of platinum.
An economic market that makes the Silk Road look like a five-and-dime will eventually open up in the solar system. And when has humanity ever kept peace in the face of such a mother lode? Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk may have good intentions for space today, but what about the astro-tycoons wrestling over trillion-dollar rocks in the future?
Even if we take the most cynical approach about the growing arms race in Earth orbit – that it’s a fait accompli – can’t we at least make a push for an absolute weapons ban in those regions of the solar system that haven’t already been compromised? Physicists, astronomers and influencers such as science fiction authors could lend their voices to such an effort. They could argue that we don’t have to take the sins of the Earth with us into the heavens.
Famed astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson has broached the subject, but the most optimism he could muster about avoiding war in space is the idea that there’s so much wealth in the cosmos, we may not need to fight over it. He didn’t sound convinced of his own argument, and that’s something to think about, before military science fiction becomes reality.