Occupation, even in orbit, is colonialism

Putting to use the vast expanses of outer space ought to be a unifying endeavor for humanity, a shared quest for discovery and cooperation. Right now, our race to space bears an unsettling resemblance to our history on terra firma. The relentless drive for orbital dominance, fueled by nations and corporations, harkens back to a colonial-era land grab.

Consider the United States. Our Space Force states that its mission is to “secure our Nation’s interests in, from, and to space.” Notice the difference between those words and the mission of the U.S. Navy, which is, in part, to “keep the seas open and free” — providing not just freedom of navigation for U.S. ships but to all in the name of preserving “economic prosperity.” In space, matters are playing out much differently than at sea. In 2010, there were about 1,200 working satellites in orbit. Today, there are a little under 9,000, and about half of them are Starlink internet satellites operated by Elon Musk’s SpaceX. Five years ago, about one satellite per month was launched, and today upwards of 60 satellites reach space every few weeks, and most are Starlinks. SpaceX intends to continue to launch its satellites at this rate until it reaches about 12,000 total, with regulatory approval for an additional 30,000 pending. Eutelsat OneWeb, the newly formed French-British conglomerate, plans on having several hundred satellites for its internet services, and Amazon’s Project Kuiper plans to launch thousands of satellites too, also for internet. Thus far, the U.S. is winning the race for orbital occupation.

What makes this contemporary form of colonialism especially insidious is its passive assertion of ownership. You won’t find a document that declares that these companies own their orbital shells. These de facto claims of ownership thrive in the ambiguity of space laws and the absence of enforcement mechanisms. This behavior is breeding resentment among nations that have yet to participate in the saturation of space with hundreds to thousands of satellites. China, for instance, has complained to the United Nations that the Starlink satellites pose a growing hazard to its own satellite and space station operations and has gone as far as stating that it is considering developing countermeasures for the Starlink satellites. Russia threatened to retaliate against the Starlink communications satellites due to Ukraine’s use of them on the front line.

These rising tensions will likely escalate into diplomatic disputes, growing geopolitical friction and, in the worst-case scenario, open conflict.

The Outer Space Treaty of 1967, while a landmark in space governance, did not comprehensively address the issue of orbital occupation. While it explicitly prevented the national appropriation of outer space and celestial bodies, it did not foresee or prohibit the unchecked deployment of satellites, which has resulted in the de facto occupation of orbital space.

Furthermore, the unchecked proliferation of satellites has led to a dramatic increase in space traffic, posing significant risks to all space activities, from satellite communications to scientific research. Potential collisions and the space debris problem are growing, with an assured path toward making specific orbital highways unusable.

To avert a potential crisis in outer space, we must confront this issue with determination. A promising solution can be found in the principles and tenets of traditional ecological knowledge, or TEK, which I’ve written about in a previous column. TEK emphasizes sharing finite resources in harmony and attunement with the environment and embracing stewardship. I’m not proposing that we turn away from regulation, but to the contrary: that we embrace regulation that is informed by tenets of environmentalism and sustainability as demonstrated by TEK.

TEK provides a framework to address the problem of orbital colonialism by encouraging the notion that passive or tacit occupation is a form of ownership instead of stewardship. Those already engaged in orbital occupation openly state that they should have an operational priority for the space they occupy, in a sense claiming rights. In the absence of legal deeds, this occupation of orbital space implicitly asserts a claim to these spaces, akin to a silent assertion of ownership. The coming generation of leaders recognize what is happening. I spent time in September with native Hawaiian kids at Molokai High School and at Aka’ula School, a private school with an enrollment of a few dozen middle and high school students. The consensus was that we, humanity, do not have a space community but rather space groups and individuals because we don’t practice equitable sharing of space.

The native Hawaiians I shared time with said that our collective behavior should be one of stewardship — a responsibility to manage and protect this finite orbital resource equitably through a shared framework or roles and responsibilities. TEK also inspires us to foster a common knowledge of space operations that can lead to shared practices. In this approach, nations and entities engaged in space activities would collaborate to build a collective understanding of responsible satellite deployment, space debris mitigation and equitable access to orbital space. This is a process of developing so-called norms of behavior, which isn’t a replacement of regulation but agreed practices that inform the creation of effective regulations.

Capacity building would involve sharing effective practices, jointly developing standards and collaborating on space debris monitoring and removal efforts. This approach would not only promote responsible behavior in space but also foster a sense of stewardship of the orbital environment. In the beginning, seat belts were highly encouraged and eventually became the law. So too with common practices and norms of behavior.

Additionally, TEK principles encourage a long-term view of space resource management, prioritizing sustainability over the myopic pursuit of orbital dominance. By working together and sharing knowledge, we can ensure that outer space remains a realm of peaceful cooperation and equitable access for all nations.

History teaches us that unchecked colonialism leads to division and conflict. We must not allow the race to space to follow this perilous path.

About Moriba Jah

Moriba Jah is an astrodynamicist, space environmentalist and associate professor of aerospace engineering and engineering mechanics at the University of Texas at Austin. An AIAA fellow and MacArthur fellow, he’s also chief scientist of startup Privateer Space.

Occupation, even in orbit, is colonialism