As the cost of reaching space falls and the rewards rise, tension will mount. The next cold war could be in a vacuum.
On Tuesday the top story for many of the UK’s news outlets was not about ISIS or immigration, flooding or welfare, murderers or paedophiles. It was about a man going into space. An unequivocally British man* heading to the International Space Station on board a Russian spacecraft, with a Russion pilot and an American as a fellow passenger. Everything went to plan (well mostly).
The biggest news in the country was good news.
There has been a lot of space news recently and much of it has been good. After years of stagnation in the progress of our ability to leave the atmosphere, the interest of a few billionaires has sparked a new space race. We can expect the price of getting to space and back again to fall dramatically in the coming years.
So what then? It may not all be good news.
People want to go to space for very different reasons. Countries and corporations all have what may be conflicting ambitions: exploration, expansion, acquisition, tourism, and security. Not everyone is going to play nicely.
Just look at what is happening now in the South China Sea, where China has effectively annexed large parts of the territorial waters of the Phillipines and Malaysia by building naval bases on reefs. Such actions are explicitly against international treaties that they have ratified.
International treaties of the type that also address claims to space.
China has a big space programme. As does India. Both countries are likely to be economically and militarily our superiors for years to come. Corporations may well have greater access to space than we do, and they aren’t always keen to toe the line when it comes to international law.
There’s a reason that the UK’s first national space policy outlined this week was strong on national security, as well as commercial opportunities.
Today we are already deeply reliant on access to space for all manner of services as well as our security. Access to space is going to be increasingly important in the future, as mining and manufacture move out there and colonisation of space becomes a realistic prospect.
More and more rockets will be going up. Which means there will be more and more tension.
The next cold war could be conducted in a vacuum.
*Though not the first Briton in space by any means — nor the first on a space station, That honour goes to Helen Sharman all the way back in 1991.