Is Spaceflight Colonialism?

Is Spaceflight Colonialism?

Fifty years after Apollo 11, it’s time to revisit the laws of space. 


In 2017, protesters occupied the Guiana Space Centre in Kouru, French Guiana, shutting down half the world’s space launches for nearly the entire month of April. French Guiana is a “department” of France, a territory whose currency is the euro and residents are French citizens. It is one of the few remaining European territories in the Americas. The territory was a former penal colony, Devil’s Island, which operated from 1853 to 1953, and, since 1964, France has exploited its control over French Guiana to operate the space center. Against this history, the massive demonstration in 2017 sought redress for a range of debilitating conditions that protesters attributed to mainland France: growing unemployment, decaying infrastructure, paltry wages, burdensome cost of living, high homicide rate, and limited access to schools, medical services, and potable water. Occupying the center, the “second-busiest spaceport in the world after Cape Canaveral,” was a powerful way for the protesters to command the attention of the mother country. They pressed on a vulnerability—French, European, and global dependence on the center—in order to make visible their imperial plight to the world.

As Americans celebrate the monumental semi-centennial of the Apollo 11 landing, the commemorations should also invite reflection on the troubled history of spaceflight and the laws that govern it. Two years before Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin stepped onto the moon, the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 had ensured that no nation could declare sovereignty in space; planting an American flag on the lunar surface, US officials knew, did not amount to a national claim. But while this “anti-imperial” element of the Space Treaty has received deserved attention, it by no means represents the history of spaceflight and outer-space law as practiced by countries and corporations in the Global North—a point upon which I elaborate in the Columbia Journal of Transnational Law. While the recent spate of billionaires cashing in on spaceflight points to the inequalities that shape its development, these inequalities are hardly new.

The postcolonial unrest in French Guiana is not an isolated incident. Because of its proximity to the equator, territory in developing countries is particularly valuable for launching into space, communicating with spacecraft, and monitoring orbit. This March, Jair Bolsonaro signed a deal with Donald Trump to open Brazil’s Alcântara Launch Center to the US space industry. This has revived concerns about the land rights of the quilombola, indigenous black, and poor communities in Brazil. In the 1980s, the Brazilian government displaced the quilombolas when it established the space center, promising economic development that has yet to be realized. Recent scholarship has pointed to the contingencies of launch-site territory, nationalism, and self-determination in India and Kenya. Recently, protesters in Hawaii have attempted to prevent the construction of a telescope on a mountain sacred to indigenous peoples.

Meanwhile, the US Global Positioning System (GPS) has established communication bases on numerous islands where America claims territory, disrupting communities that live there. Similarly, the US Air Force’s Lockheed Martin–commissioned Space Fence, which will monitor spacecraft and debris in orbit, will run 80 percent of its capabilities out of a military base in the Marshall Islands, a continuing subject of US empire. In these histories, spaceflight relies upon and continues imperial claims over territory and resources.

Within the United States, launch sites can exploit marginalized populations as well. For instance, industry and government agencies in the Mojave Desert region—one of the nation’s oldest sites for space activities—employ locals as manufacturers and engineers and teach students about spaceflight. But these developments do not seem to have improved the economy in Mojave, where the median income is below the national median. The population is predominantly black and Latino. The US Department of Interior’s long history of imperial expansion even includes plans for a lunar colony and the use of satellites to survey resources on indigenous lands in the United States and abroad.

Moreover, the massive technological feats of spaceflight rely on imperial claims over natural resources. Luxembourg, a recent hub for commercial space, accumulated wealth by virtue of its history of mining, but marginalized communities with valuable raw materials have fallen prey to the “resource trap” common to imperial encounters. For instance, the fact that Mojave was a key manufacturing and mining site for the Southern Pacific Railroad implicates the region in a longer history of indigenous violence and economic difficulty. Similarly, amid the advent of aerial technology and the Space Age, the US military-industrial complex funded mining projects throughout the Caribbean, extracting bauxite (aluminum) with which to construct US aerospace vehicles. Likewise, the Ball Corporation, famous for its subsidiary Ball Aerospace, is predominantly an aluminum, steel, and packaging company. Over the last decade, China has sought to instrumentalize its space capabilities to grow a network of soft power and economic resources, offering telecommunications satellites to several states, including Nigeria, Venezuela, and Bolivia, in exchange for access to natural resources like oil, raw materials, and agriculture.

Spaceflight almost invariably involves activities that directly subjugate marginalized peoples. Space provides a strategic military position from which to continue postcolonial violence on Earth, exacerbating inequalities between spacefaring countries and the so-called “Third World.” Space is critical for surveilling and enacting violence upon communities throughout the Third World, from Moroccan spy satellites over occupied Western Sahara, to remote sensing of Afghanistan and other strategic regions, to monitoring of the US-Mexico border: The United States spends $10 billion per year on publicly known space projects, but $15 billion on classified military activities.

Moreover, drones and most other military technologies that harm and surveil marginalized communities depend on global positioning technology and space-based communications. Significant advances in space technology developed in the context of US intervention in the Middle East and Latin America: Remote sensing and GPS developed in the Gulf War, and, decades earlier, the first US telecommunications satellites were used to communicate with troops in Saigon. More recently, consider the US Air Force’s aforementioned Space Fence or Boeing’s Space Based Space Surveillance satellite constellation and X-37B orbital drone, which has orbited Earth several times over the past decade.

These claims over territory, resources, and populations highlight the enormous accumulation of capital necessary to access space. The US government and its corporate entities can afford the cost of spaceflight because it is but a fraction of their annual budgets. But for developing countries and marginalized communities, that cost is prohibitive: Spending on space is contingent on accumulated wealth.

As with access to the sea or air, access to outer space, then, is not solely about obtaining resources, services, and other benefits in areas that exist outside of what are perceived as “conventional” borders. It is also about drawing on resources—capital, labor, raw materials, territory, intellectual property, expertise—from “back home,” Earth, that make those activities possible in the first place.

In this way, the history of spaceflight is the story of powerful nations consolidating power against marginalized communities within their borders and throughout the Third World.

In 2017, the Department of Defense announced that it would no longer treat space as a “sanctuary,” supplementing uses of force on the ground via surveillance, communications, and global positioning. Instead, DoD would treat space as a “warfighting domain,” in which states exercise force in space itself. This shift signals that a significant number of US officials believe in the need to secure the American economy’s most recent dependency: its space infrastructure.

Then, last June, Donald Trump proposed the Space Force, a sixth military branch, to a room of government contractors, legislators, and policy-makers. In response, some argued that the Space Force would violate the Outer Space Treaty of 1967; it probably does not. Others dismissed it as ludicrous: The Trump administration, entertaining a fantasy of battling other countries, or even extraterrestrials—in space! This is also probably incorrect. If there is violence in space, it will be a fight about who dominates the infrastructure that asserts violence, surveillance, and economic control over activities on Earth itself.

Some thinkers on the left, on their part, regard the Space Force as woefully out of touch with fundamental questions of justice. They argue that the government should spend resources in more meaningful directions: What about Flint, Puerto Rico, climate change, police brutality? This response echoes critiques of many space ventures since the 1960s. Consider Gil Scott-Heron’s Whitey on the Moon, Andrew Russell and Lee Vinsel’s contemporary update, “Whitey on Mars,” or environmentalist critiques of space futures like Interstellar’s. Even Garrett Hardin, a decade before he popularized the phrase “tragedy of the commons” in 1968, cast doubt on the idea of solving problems of population growth and limited resources by leaving Earth behind (although his racist legacy should moderate how his claims are read).

This line of thinking must go further and acknowledge that the Space Force is not just a matter of “exploration” but the most recent instance of spaceflight’s postcolonial legacies that facilitate surveillance, military strikes, media, communication, resource surveying, disaster relief, and climate science.

As most space advocates will rebut, spacecraft are essential to the infrastructure of modern life. A 2012 World Economic Forum panel concluded that “a day without satellites” would instigate a global economic catastrophe by taking out communications and media, GPS, disaster relief, meteorological observations, and monitoring of key resources like crops and water. Scientists’ understanding of climate change relies on data collected by weather satellites, and satellite observations of agriculture have aided sustainable development projects across the world, from the American Corn Belt to Morocco and elsewhere throughout Africa. Likewise, exploring other planets and stars can help scientists better understand Earth. And space activities produce trickle-down effects, such as novel, even life-saving technologies like heart pumps and prosthetics on Earth. To that point, Danielle Wood’s Space Enabled research group at the MIT Media Lab collaborates with marginalized communities to create space technologies that serve their interests. Consider also Erika Nesvold and Lucianne Walkowicz’s JustSpace Alliance.

In this sense, the Space Force is not a superficial proposal. It matters for reasons of national security and political economy—hence the DoD’s new position on space as a “warfighting domain.” While military activities in space are not new, this explicit position signals that such activities might soon take unprecedented forms. Viewed against the histories of spaceflight, the Space Force is an attempt to secure American empire, to defend the high-tech infrastructure of the “haves” against the “have-nots.”

In 1975, Indalecio Liévano Aguirre, the Colombian Minister of Foreign Affairs, declared to the UN General Assembly in New York City that the UN must pursue

a new and more satisfactory balance between the affluent and the impoverished worlds, between the rich peoples and the vast pauperized masses of the planet, on whose discontent one cannot build a lasting international order. Let us hope that no one will yield to the temptation of thinking that power and force constitute effective instruments for the perpetuation of old policies of privilege.

These words concluded a speech in which Liévano made legal claims over geostationary orbit. Arthur C. Clarke had famously proposed the concept of geostationary satellites in 1945: If a satellite were placed above the equator at an altitude of about 35,786 km, it would orbit at the same rate as Earth’s rotation, such that the satellite hovered above a specific point on the ground. Because of this convenient physics, segments in this orbit were more valuable than others for remote sensing and, most importantly, for the nascent telecommunications satellite industry.

Based on this physics, Liévano argued that international law must divide sovereignty in geostationary orbit according to the equatorial territory below. In other words, equatorial countries’ sovereignty included geostationary orbital segments above their territories.

A year later, Liévano’s country gathered leaders from seven other equatorial nations—Congo, Ecuador, Indonesia, Kenya, Uganda, and Zaire, with Brazil as observer—to sign the Bogotá Declaration of 1976. These countries not only claimed sovereignty over geostationary orbital segments above their territories but argued that segments hovering above the “high seas” were the “common heritage of mankind” and ought therefore to be collectively governed by all nations. Access to those segments would have to be distributed equitably among the “universal community” by keeping in mind developing countries’ interests.

The signatories also proclaimed that American and Soviet dominance of space amounted to de facto claims of sovereignty—a “technological partition” of orbit. Today, the Colombian Constitution still contains a provision claiming sovereignty over the orbital segment above the country’s territory.

The Bogotà Declaration is one piece of a bigger story. Historically, Third World lawyers and diplomats have long sought to reshape international law to equitably reorder barriers to access in extraterritorial or transnational domains like space, the sea, and the electromagnetic spectrum (for telecommunications). They articulated these claims by portraying US and Soviet or Russian extraterritorial activity as a unique form of empire. They saw global inequality as a perpetuation of older, more formal colonial orders, and they argued that the “Great Powers” exploited such inequality as they shaped the laws that governed extraterritorial domains.

It is often forgotten that the Outer Space Treaty of 1967—the first and, to this day, most influential treaty governing spaceflight—arrived on the heels of decolonization. Article II of the Space Treaty, which famously proscribes “national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means” in space, is frequently interpreted by US, Soviet, and European lawyers as an artifact of a Cold War compromise between the United States and USSR. But during its drafting, developing countries had recently declared independence or were continuously staving off foreign intervention. In light of this historical context, the treaty’s ban on claims of sovereignty has probably meant something different to the majority of the 107 state parties to the treaty which might be considered developing countries. Meanwhile, the treaty came to ban only weapons of mass destruction in space, not militarization as a whole.

While the treaty, like the moon landing’s “one giant leap for mankind,” famously opened by declaring space “the province of mankind,” lawyers disagreed about what that principle meant. When the Brazilian delegation added language to this phrase clarifying that spaceflight must benefit all countries “irrespective of their degree of economic or scientific development,” the US and Soviet delegations ensured that this would not amount to strong collective property rights. Instead, US lawyers argued that this much-lauded provision was not, legally speaking, a strong one. It was a general statement of the “spirit” of the text, not a formal, legal demand for equitable distribution of resources and access to space, particularly for developing countries.

These claims were part of a broader mid-20th century movement to decolonize international law. From the 1950s to ’70s, Third World leaders initiated transnational projects like the Non-Aligned Movement and the New International Economic Order, aiming to redistribute markets and natural resources to repay developing countries for their economic strife in the aftermath of imperialism. In international laws on the sea, space, and intellectual property, Non-Aligned countries proposed concepts like “common interest” or the “common heritage of mankind.” By these theories, all states would collectively govern extraterritorial domains, such that property rights over scientific information in those domains, technologies used to access them, and economic benefits derived from them would be equitably shared with developing countries. These countries were concerned that American and Soviet technology, made possible with postcolonial violence and inequitable accumulations of capital and expertise, would deplete valuable extraterrestrial resources before the rest of the world could “catch up.”

Anti-imperial notions of collective sovereignty were preceded by Latin American and Caribbean lawyers’ positions on space law. Even before the Space Treaty of 1967, lawyers in the Inter-American Bar Association signed the “Magna Carta of Space” at Bogotá in 1961 and at San Juan, Puerto Rico in 1965. In part, the document aimed to establish space as res communis—in other words, collectively owned by the international community.

Decades later, in the Moon Agreement of 1984, several developing countries declared lunar resources to be the common heritage of mankind, attempting to establish a system for equitably distributing property rights for lunar mining.

But subsequent efforts to get the international community to consider spaceflight itself as a resource that ought to be redistributed—and, in the process, restructure global inequality—mostly failed. Spacefaring countries have refused anti-imperial legal moves via explicit official statements or simply through technological practice. If outer space is a “global commons” or res communis at all—those terms’ legal meanings are controversially ambiguous—it is only insofar as space provides a domain not for collective sovereignty or property ownership but, rather, the free and uninhibited exercise of commercial and military might.

Outer space governance thus represents a unique kind of postcolonial order. Space law encodes an empire that is not about colonizing peoples, as in the relations between spaceflight and postcolonial violence, territorial claims, and resource extraction on Earth. Rather, spacefaring states have shaped space law, or at least its effect, by exploiting global inequality. They have taken advantage of their political weight around when negotiating international law, or merely exercised superior technological capabilities without regard for consensus.

Last year in the UN General Assembly, delegates from several developing nations, self-identified as Non-Aligned countries, responded to the Trump Administration’s proposed Space Force. They advocated for the total demilitarization of space, reasoning that militarization would increase the probability of producing more space debris. This would pose barriers to access, which was anathema to the legal status of space as, in their view, the “common heritage of mankind” and “a common asset for humanity.”

Decades earlier, the signatories of the Bogotá Declaration had made similar arguments about debris, access, and collective governance with respect to the commercial exploitation of geostationary orbit.

While the history of anti-imperial legal claims in space is largely a history of failure, they have affected subsequent legal developments by destabilizing the appearance of consensus among the so-called “international community.” For instance, the Bogotá Declaration may have “failed,” but it also influenced the ensuing decade of debates at the UN. Such perspectives have also shaped national legislation in industrialized countries. Even if these changes are minimal, understanding the history of these claims helps complicate the reasons “failures” are considered as such. Understanding the historical construction of dominant readings of space law might open the door for alternative, redistributive interpretations to take hold.

In the meantime, activism might fill those gaps. As French Guiana showed us, spaceflight might seem distant, but it becomes “local” where it requires territory and mineral resources on Earth. Organized protest movements might exploit these vulnerabilities. In the case of Brazil, protests about the conditions of the Alcântara Launch Center might force Brazilian officials—not to mention their friends in the Trump administration—to grapple with the conflicts between their views on international law (which have more recently turned neoliberal) and the conditions of the quilombolas in Alcântara.

The history of spaceflight is the story of technological and legal counterrevolutions against calls for global redistribution. We now know spaceflight is essential to the accomplishment of worthy ends—environmental justice, water and agriculture management, humanitarian relief, freedom of information—and to their undoing—resource extraction, surveillance, military strikes, displacement, corporate media. And it is this entanglement of technology, law, and inequality to which the left should direct its critical efforts.

No doubt, Armstrong’s “giant leap for mankind” was a technological marvel. But in order to truly realize spaceflight as a benefit for “mankind”—in order to install this abstract principle as something more concrete than a vague promise that paves over inequality—this technological audacity must find its equal in the legal and political imagination.

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