The dawn of a new space age? Billionaires and digital warfare

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“I see earth! It is so beautiful!”

Yuri Gagarin’s translated words from orbit highlight humankind’s first semi-detachment from its comfortable nesting planet. 61 years on, the same feelings of thrilling unfamiliarity are shared by the lucky few who play the role of observer to all life has ever known. The lucky few.

In 2021, eyes fixed on private aerospace companies as competition surged to blast civilian passengers to the edge of space. Gagarin’s words were modified by billionaires, the faces of leading enterprises, Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin, to pair with a flashy message: ‘Welcome to the new space age!’. Yet, space tourism is not exactly new—in 2001, US millionaire Dennis Tito purchased a seven-day trip to the International Space Station with commercial spaceflight company, Space Adventures, stimulating a series of seven similar expeditions by 2009. Nor are most welcomed to it—fees starting at $200,000 for mere minutes in zero-gravity fit more with an image of exclusive joyriding than that of the futuristic space-commuting advertised not to be far away.

The general population clearly favours the speed and availability of wi-fi over asteroid detection or cosmic discovery

Still, human presence in space is accelerating rapidly—just not presence with a heartbeat. Until 2013, no more than 109 objects had been sent to space in a single year. In 2020 and 2021 collectively, 2907 were—the vast majority into earth’s orbit for observational, navigational, and communicational purposes by private companies such as SpaceX and Amazon’s Project Kuiper. While astronomers find themselves worst hit by satellites polluting night skies, the general population clearly favours the speed and availability of wi-fi over asteroid detection or cosmic discovery as the internet becomes ever more of a necessity.

In times of emergency, even the most avid of stargazers might concede these benefits. Russia’s Ukrainian invasion acts as a showcase first for a general dependency on connection to a broader world and second for the terror sustained when said dependency is deprived or weakened. The activation of SpaceX’s Starlink project, a large array of satellites that provide high-speed internet without gaps, over Ukraine has by all accounts, proved vital for particularly bombarded regions of the country.

Here, the indescribable status of the Internet in our age is complicated further. If the Internet is to be seen as a critical target in war, its reinstallation by a foreign power can be deemed as much of a breach of neutrality as a provision of weapons or anything else to help a cause in battle. While breaches of neutrality do not necessarily make the offender a belligerent in conflict, these satellites own a unique position (quite literally) as U.S.-supervised, privately owned, potentially active military objects in neutral territory. Their designation as military objects, no matter which country they are registered to, gives a ‘defender’ authority to target them. Given the blurry status of the internet as a weapon in war, in this current instance, this designation is entirely based on the perception of Russian forces. Warfare, it seems, has obfuscated somewhat since the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 set a baseline for space law.

The current Russian-Ukrainian conflict has furthermore expedited a broader trend of astronomical alliances aligning with terrestrial ones. Since the founding of the China National Space Administration (CNSA) in 1993, the agency’s operations have been viewed with suspicion of scientific espionage by American and European governments culminating in a 2011 ban of NASA from cooperating with China or any Chinese-owned company.

The United States today is entirely reliant on Russian shuttles

Russia, on the other hand, has historically left the squabbles of earth on the ground. The United States today is entirely reliant on Russian shuttles to bring its astronauts to and from the International Space Station, a satellite on which the two countries and more are partnered in construction and maintenance. Now, the International Space Station, the greatest partnership in the history of human activity in space, figures as an item of negotiation as Russia threatens to shut off its propulsion system or pull out of the project. Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, finds a new friend in China as the two countries move forward with plans for new programmes, notably a lunar research base to rival the West’s.

Welcome to a new space age, indeed—an age of renewed political turmoil and digital warfare. While private enterprises and their ‘influencer-entrepreneur’ heads claim flash and headlines in their (perhaps overly) hopeful commercial ventures, politicians have realised in space-related matters, the necessity to operate silently and accompanied only by the closest of allies. If that sounds familiar to modern warfare on the ground, it’s not a coincidence.

Image: NASA Goddard Photo and Video via Creative Commons

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