Over the past two weeks, China and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have both successfully launched spacecraft to Mars, and by the time you are reading this, the United States is expected to have launched its latest rover robot to the red planet. The European Space Agency is working together with the Russian Roscosmos to launch another Mars mission in 2022. With the world still in the grips of a pandemic, and scientific efforts focused on resolving it with a vaccine, why this expensive, resource-heavy race to Mars between great and emerging powers? The answer is in the politics of space in the 21st century.
The 20th-century space race was evidently part of the race between the Soviets and the United States for technological and economic dominance, a pathway to proving the superiority of their respective political ideologies. John F. Kennedy's famous "we choose to go to the moon" speech captured the imagination of an American generation, and focused the world's attention on the competition between the two nations. The Soviets were winning every aspect of the race at that point - the first man in space, the first woman in space, the first space walk - but Western history focuses on the final win, when two Americans landed on the moon in 1969.
Just two years before Neil Armstrong left the first human footprints on the moon, and symbolically planted the American flag, the two competing nations had come to the negotiating table under the auspices of the newly formed United Nations Committee for the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS), and signed the 1967 Outer Space Treaty. Both the Soviets and the Americans were already highly dependent on satellites for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions, and both had been testing various forms of anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons, including nuclear explosions. But because the physics of space are so different from Earth's environment, it was impossible to protect one's own satellites from the impacts of activities meant to target one's adversary.
For example, the 1962 US nuclear Starfish Prime test took out British, American and Soviet satellite telecommunications, and affected radio transmissions from California to Australia. The countries realised that if they wanted to ensure continued access to and use of space for their own national interests, they would need to put some restraining rules in place under international law. Other major powers foresaw that their dependence on space-based technologies would only increase with time, and that they also had an interest in a rules-based order extending to space, and so the Outer Space Treaty gained immediate international support. It remains the key treaty for all activities in outer space today, and one of the core principles is that space is not subject to national appropriation: no country can claim ownership of space.
The geopolitical picture today is very different from the bipolar rivalry of last century, yet just as with the first space race, these political competitions are playing out in space as well. Because so many aspects of our lives depend on space-based services, the race for technological dominance in space is linked to economic and military dominance. So as China and Russia contest the United States financially, militarily and technologically in all areas, all three of these powers have been facing off against each other with ASAT tests for several decades. Just last week, Britain and the US accused Russia of yet another space weapon test, but these tests need to be seen in light of the fact that the US has made explicit that it seeks dominance in space. With last year's creation of the "Space Force", it made a powerful projection of its intentions.
Rising regional powers are also busy projecting their force in space. India built an impressive space program in a very short time at a fraction of the budget of the traditional powers, and shocked the world in 2019 with a successful ASAT test. And the UAE has been asserting itself as leading the Arab world in space, establishing a national space agency in 2014 and now being the first Arab nation to launch a Mars mission.
So why has this space race extended to Mars? It's clear that our space explorations are continuing and expanding in decades to come, and that there are many who want to see humans building new societies on Mars sometime this century. Countries that can prove technological prowess today, and contribute to our understandings of Mars's terrain and atmosphere, are in the running for political, military and ideological dominance throughout the next decades of this century - just as they were in the first space race. It's worth watching which of the three Mars missions launched this month are successful when they arrive at their destination in February next year, and the international responses. While claiming ownership of space is unlawful under international law, claiming dominance is not - and being a leader in space is one of today's currencies of power.
- Dr Cassandra Steer is a lecturer at the ANU College of Law and a mission specialist at the ANU Institute for Space.