Space. Photo: NASA / ASKEUHD/CC
Space. Photo: NASA / ASKEUHD/CC

Will capitalism’s crises follow us into space?

Scott Jones, Newham and East London Socialist Party

Space: the final frontier. Just as humans have explored and conquered land, sea and air on Earth, space has for decades been next on the list, and a new ‘space race’ is under way. But space is the new ‘Wild West’, with little in the way of law, governance and agreement, and with a lot up for grabs.

This is the subject of the new book ‘The Future of Geography’ by Tim Marshall. Marshall previously wrote the bestselling book ‘Prisoners of Geography’, and now turns his sights upwards.

Wars in space, bases on the moon, lasers, space metals worth more than most countries’ GDP, people on Mars. Even in the years following Yuri Gagarin’s feat as the first human in space, and people on the moon, most of this has remained science fiction. In reality it’s ‘astropolitics’. And the world is set to take ‘earthpolitics’ into space.

The book shines a light on the huge proliferation in recent years of public sector space agencies, private sector growth and plans for space, driven by capitalism’s interest in the potential wealth on offer, and also for control of those resources and key strategic areas in space, such as the moon and the satellite belt.

The moon is full of potential resources, including one million tons (far more than on Earth) of Helium-3, which could solve the Earth’s energy problem for generations. Passing asteroids which could potentially be mined contain billions of pounds’ worth of the metals needed for 21st century technology. Meanwhile, satellites are now crucial for almost everything.

Another aspect is the role of space in war, which the book ponders in detail. The military has played a huge role since the beginning of space exploration during the Cold War, when astronauts and cosmonauts alike were all air force pilots, and were blasted to space on rockets designed for also firing missiles.

The race for those resources could obviously lead to conflict, and it’s in the interests of rival nations to use and target satellites for military purposes. And this is in the here and now. A battle between the Russian state and American companies, over Ukrainian internet and satellites, was an early clash in the Ukrainian war in 2022. As far back as the Iraq War in 2003, the US military sliced through the Iraqi army and defences using satellites to hit targets.

There is also potential for conflict in space, as the space race reflects the multipolar world of capitalism in the 2020s. The USA and China dominate the world economy and also increasingly dominate the space race, with even Russia forced to become a junior partner of China.

Marshall discusses the creation of the Artemis Accords, put forward by the USA and signed by its allies to try to formulate some ground rules for space. But crucially not by China and Russia, among others. In 2020, the then head of the Russian Space Agency described the Accords as akin to an “invasion” of the moon that could turn it into “another Afghanistan or Iraq.”

As for the Accords themselves, they still give the US licence to do what it wants, with Marshall saying: “You could drive the starship Enterprise through the gaps in this legalese.”

Another player in the space race is the private sector. Especially billionaire Elon Musk’s SpaceX company, which while working with NASA and other state space agencies, also has its own designs and interests in space. Marshall raises the question of what laws govern their activities and possible settlements on the moon or Mars. He raises the example of the East India Company as to what it could look like. He quotes a space academic, Dr Bleddyn Bowen, who says: “Will billionaires run their ‘colonies’ the way they run their factory floors, and treat citizens like they treat their lowest-paid employees?”

To prevent and combat all these potential problems and points of conflict in space, Marshall says: “A new set of treaties is required to deal with these new realities.” But he himself points to how lacking current ones are, and how previous ones are ignored.

And there are plenty of international laws and treaties that fail in their attempt to govern the world, because capitalist nation states, blocs and private companies ignore them and circumnavigate them at every turn. To prevent the problems of the world following us into space, we need to get rid of capitalism on earth and apply socialism here and in space, to ensure an end to war and the use of resources for all. A socialist world is possible, and so is a socialist universe.