Both Russia and China, among the world’s premier space powers, are now aiming for their own space stations, with the latter having already launched the first of several modules.
After the U.S., Russia is the biggest contributor to the International Space Station, which by some measures the most successful and fruitful space project, and among the most expensive scientific endeavors ever.
Half the ISS—which involves five space agencies and fifteen countries—is Russian-built and operated, and to this day Russia does most of the legwork in launching both crew and cargo. It was a rare and enduring example of cooperation between two erstwhile rivals, an interesting if fragile antidote to the petty politics on the ground. (Scientists and astronauts from both countries get along pretty well and have consistently collaborated even through the worst flareups of tensions and hostility.)
China was never part of the ISS—a notable absence given its hefty financial resources and technical knowledge—due to a controversial NASA policy implemented by Congress in 2011 that excludes any form of cooperation with any Chinese institution or organization. So I imagine its ambitious attempt at a national space station, like so many of its actions abroad, clearly has a triumphalist “We’ll show you!” aspect to it.
But China’s Tiangong, or “Heavenly Palace”, which is set for completion in just a year, will have only one-sixth the mass of the ISS, and roughly a quarter of its habitable space. This isn’t to say it won’t be an impressive feat—especially for a developing country that remains a byword for cheap consumer goods—but its full potential is likely limited given the sheer costs and complexity of building (and regularly maintaining) a human habitat in space.
Meanwhile, Russia’s plans are less clear: Though it holds many records in space stations—including launching the first one, having the most in total, and having the most experience with space walks and the like—it no longer has the financial resources to back this knowhow. (That’s what made the ISS so successful: What Russia lacked in America’s vast resources it made up for with its proven expertise, and visa versa.)
Even the otherwise prideful U.S.—albeit namely its pragmatic scientists at NASA—has now seemingly realized that space is too big, costly, and complex an endeavor for even superpowers to handle.
Aside from being a key founder of the ISS, which was created to replace a planned U.S. station that would have been too costly, NASA plans to return to humans to the moon for the first time in fifty years through the Artemis Program—a decidedly international effort.
While it will be led primarily by NASA and its mostly American commercial contractors, it will include personnel, tech, and resources from Europe, Japan, Canada, Italy, Australia, the United Kingdom, United Arab Emirates, Ukraine, and Brazil. (Believe it or not, those last three do carry a lot of technological heft in space; the UAE has a probe orbiting Mars as we speak, and India is notable for accomplishing many difficult space ventures at fairly low cost.) More countries have been invited and are are expected to join.
The Artemis Program not only aims to put humans (including the first woman) on the Moon by 2024, but has the long-term goal of establishing a lunar base that will be a launchpad for crewed missions to Mars.
Surprisingly, all this was promulgated during the tenure of a Trump-appointed, former Oklahoma congressman as NASA Administrator, who explicitly modeled the “Artemis Accords”, which broaden international participation in the program, on the United Nations Outer Space Treaty of 1967 (on which most space law is grounded).
To be sure, neither the Artemis Program, nor the Accords that essentially “internationalize” it, are without their criticisms. Many international legal scholars see them as a way for America to apply its own self-interested interpretation of space law that permits commercial exploitation of celestial bodies; as The Verge reports:
[The] Outer Space Treaty is pretty vague — purposefully so — which means there is a lot of room for interpretation on various clauses. The goal of the Artemis Accords is to provide a little more clarity on how the US wants to explore the Moon without going through the slow treaty-making process. “We are doing this in keeping with the Outer Space Treaty,” said Bridenstine, adding that NASA is trying to “create a dynamic where the Outer Space Treaty can actually be enforced.”
One big thing NASA wanted to make clear in the accords is that countries can own and use resources that are derived from the Moon. As part of the Artemis program, NASA hopes to extract lunar materials, such as the Moon’s dirt or water ice that’s thought to be lurking in the shadows of lunar craters. The Outer Space Treaty forbids nations from staking claim to another planetary body, but the policy of the US is that countries and companies can own the materials they extract from other worlds. “Article II of the Outer Space Treaty says that you cannot appropriate the Moon for national sovereignty,” Bridenstine said. “We fully agree with that and embrace it. We also believe that, just like in the ocean, you can extract resources from the ocean. But that doesn’t mean you own the ocean. You should be able to extract resources from the Moon. Own the resources but not own the Moon.”
It’s an interpretation of the Outer Space Treaty that not everyone may agree on. A pair of researchers writing in the journal Science last week have called on countries to speak up about their objections to this interpretation, and that the United States should go through the United Nations treaty process in order to negotiate on space mining. “NASA’s actions must be seen for what they are—a concerted, strategic effort to redirect international space cooperation in favor of short-term U.S. commercial interests, with little regard for the risks involved,” the researchers wrote in Science.
Still, the overall substance and spirit of the Accords — which at just seven pages, makes for an easy read) — seems like the sensible way forward. I know, I know count on the internationalist to reach that conclusion! But really, if we want to maximize humanity’s potential in space, we must do so as, well, humans: unified in our resources, knowhow, innovation, and vision. Given how much has been accomplished by just a handful of nations on their ow — and the number of countries joining the space club grows annually — imagine what a united front can offer?
Given that China and Russia have lunar aspirations of their own—including a joint lunar base that sort of speaks to my point—it will be interesting to see which vision will play out successfully: The Star Trek-style pan-humanist approach, or the more familiar competitiveness and nationalism that characterized the Cold War or even the colonial era.
What are your thoughts?