SPACE begins where the earth’s atmosphere trails off into a vacuum 50 or 100 miles above ground. For human beings it is an overwhelmingly harsh and alien environment — the sunlight, without the effects of air, is unbearably intense while any areas in shadow are cold and frigid.
Yet near space, for all its physical differences with the earth, can best be understood as an extension of the human world— it is, after all, nearer to most people than their own national capitals. And near space, just like the earth, has become the site of ideological competitions, warped spending priorities, resource disputes and relative indifference to the interests of future generations.
The beginning of the Space Age was the October 1957 launch of a 184-pound satellite. ‘Sputnik’ electrified the world and was seen by many in the US as a ‘technological Pearl Harbour’. Since then well over 90 per cent of all space activities have been carried out by the two rival superpowers — through programs of military reconnaissance and remote sensing as well as manned missions that have captured public attention.
Certainly the most significant impact of the quarter century in space has been military. Military motivations led people to pioneer the ‘high frontier’ and military activities remain the dominant use of space today. In 1981, for example, the Soviet Union successfully launched 858 military and 392 civilian missions while the United States sent up 420 military and 392 civilian payloads - the Soviet lead is not however a reflection of a menacing ‘space gap’ but of the longer lives of US satellites.
The overwhelmingly military character of the space venture has been curiously neglected by the space visionaries. In contrast to the outspoken protest and personal anguish of many atomic scientists there has been little resistance to space militarisation from among the leading space developers. This particular blindness was perhaps best captured by satirist Tom Lehrer. To the title of rocket pioneer Werner von Braun’ s autobiography, I Aim for the Sky, he proposed adding: ‘but sometimes I hit London’.
But whether the penetration of space has actually made nuclear war more or less likely has always depended on the current state of space technology. This has gone through three distinct phases.
In the first phase, after the second World War, the development of ballistic missiles created an environment of unprecedented tension and insecurity — the Cold War.
But in the second phase the development of reconnaissance satellites in the early sixties tended to reduce that tension as the US and the Soviet Union used orbiting cameras to observe each other’s military activities. In 1961, for example, satellite photographs of Soviet missiles and bomber facilities exploded the idea of a US-Soviet ‘missile gap’ and slowed down an expensive US catch-up programme.
In the third phase of military space development, however, satellites have begun to unsettle the balance between the superpowers. The use of satellite data to measure precisely the anomalies in the earth’s gravitational field, for example, has enabled missile trajectories to be calculated so accurately that enemy missiles can now be destroyed in their silos. Such technology gives an edge to the side that strikes first and encourages the idea that nuclear war might be winnable.
This and other recent developments such as satellite killers and space-based laser weapons are a bleak indication that space armaments will merely extend into yet another realm the same stalemate of forces present on earth — at exorbitant cost
As for non-military activities, enough is now known about the potential of space that some ideas — such as large-scale space colonies— can be eliminated as practical and desirable near or midterm goals. Long a staple of science-fiction writers, space colonies were first seriously proposed in the early seventies by Dr Gerard O’Neill, a Princeton University physicist, who detailed plans to build colonies with at first 10,000 inhabitants and then up to a million. Manufactured out of materials from the earth, the moon, or astroids, these colonies would become completely self- sufficient by harnessing the sun for energy. By exporting humans to these orbiting cities, he claimed, the wildlife and wilderness qualities of the earth could be protected.
Life in such places is envisioned as pastoral and pollution free. And ‘artists’ recreations’ depict vast transparent domes with sunlight flowing in for plants and lighting. But the radiation belts around the earth and cosmic rays of deep space make these visions misleading to the point of fraud; thick metal shielding would be necessary to block the lethal quantities of radiation. Life in space would be more like that in a submarine or an Antarctic mining camp— dangerous, cramped, isolated and uneventful.
Space colonies, in any case, are hardly a meaningful response to the population and environmental problems of the earth. Simply to transport the world’s daily increase of about 200,000 people into space would consume the current annual gross national product of the United States. Population stabilisation is a difficult social challenge but it is certainly less complex than large-scale colonisation of space. Even if feasible, the endless multiplication of human beings in such canisters’ is ultimately as pointless a vision as it is bleak.
This is not to say that some small-scale scientific and manufacturing activities could not be carried out. Experiments aboard the US Skylab in 1974 revealed that the weightless and airless conditions of space enabled the production of certain goods that are impossible to manufacture on earth. Without gravity, crystals form much more regularly, permitting the creation of glasses and electrical devices that have vastly higher performances.
The drug industry too could also be a user of space for delicate chemical processes and Johnson & Johnson is working with NASA to conduct an extensive research programme. The experiments in materials processing scheduled for the shuttle-launched Spacelab this year will answer some questions while undoubtedly posing many more. Even at a modest level, however, it is clear that such space manufacturing ventures as are feasible will be carried out by Western high-technology corporations — thus intensifying the gap between the North and the South.
Indeed near space in general is subject to many of the other divisive issues which affect the earth — resource disputes, crowding and pollution. As with any valuable resource, questions of ownership are of great political significance.
The central agreement governing outer space is the 1967 ‘Outer Space Treaty’, drafted by the UN. Its core doctrine is that outer space is not subject to ‘national appropriation’. It has been ratified by 107 countries including all those active in space and is essentially a codification of the present status quo. A second UN agreement known as the ‘Moon Treaty’ goes much further and attempts to lay down principles for any future activities. This declares that the moon and other celestial bodies are the ‘common heritage of mankind’. Prospects for widespread ratification of the treaty are dim however. US aerospace and mining companies are lobbying vigorously against it, claiming— probably with some exaggeration — that the treaty would effectively forbid private enterprise on the moon.
Curiously the Outer Space Treaty does not contain any definition of outer space, leaving unanswered the question of where the atmosphere ends and outer space begins, or where national air space becomes international space. This could become the center of much future controversy, particularly if aerospace planes — capable of traversing the unused band of this atmosphere between the maximum altitude of aeroplanes and the minimum height of satellite orbits — are deployed by the superpowers.
But disputes over ownership caused by crowding in space are likely to arise first over the ‘geosynchronous’ orbits around the equator. These are so useful because the movement of the satellite can be made to match that of the earth’s rotation — and so keep the satellite stationary over a particular place on earth.
There is only room for about 180 satellites and so far these have been allocated on a first-come first-served basis. Developing countries claim that this discriminates against them since many of the slots will be full by the time they have the technology to make use of them.
Another conflict in space could emerge over the role of private enterprise as corporations begin to build launch vehicles. The Soviet Union and the Third World argue that private firms can only be allowed in space as extensions of state activity, while the US, Western Europe and Japan maintain that private enterprise under licence from governments can operate in space.
But whatever the international disagreements, some international standards are urgently needed to control a potentially lethal human export into space: pollution. Already up to 15,000 objects — everything from satellites that no longer function to just plain garbage— are orbiting the earth, mainly in the most useful areas. And millions of small metal fragments from explosions and tests litter near space— many of which could punch right through satellites and space ships.
In August 1982 the nations of the world met under UN auspices to confer on the future of outer space. Unfortunately opposition from the United States and the Soviet Union kept the most pressing item of concern — the placing of weapons into orbit — off the agenda. The Conference adjourned without tackling any of the emerging issues. It seems that actual conflict or a costly accident will be necessary before the space powers act.
In space as in many critical areas of life and death our technology has outstripped the competence of our political institutions. Humanity’s greatest challenges now are averting war and stabilising the physical basis of life on earth, and engineering triumphs in space will not help in these battles. To reverse the spread of weapons into space, to design new institutions of international co-operation in space and to ensure a permanently habitable earth would be to conquer humanity’s real frontiers.
Space’s most important lesson is its reaffirmation that humanity’s fate will be determined on earth. For all our looking and probing of the universe we have yet to find any place as habitable as the remotest, most forbidding. part of our own planet Space exploration has taught us just how precious and rare the earth is.