US President Donald Trump’s demands for a “Space Force” as a new branch of the US Armed Forces is contrary to international treaties and may also be part of the anachronistic desire for national dominance. However, military competition could be the only driving force that will stimulate rapid space exploration where markets and pure scientific idealism fail.
Sun Tzu told that he who is skilled in attack strikes from the highest heaven. Indeed, much of human history – and not merely its more violent chapters – has been the story of the advancement of missiles and the vantage points from which to launch them. It is possible that our species acquired its very physique through warfare and competition, favouring the good handling and throwing of spears. In later eras, civilisations that prized archery did even better, and artillery raced forward in every imaginable form. Such destructive desires, the rocket fuel of science, led to the V2 missiles of the Second World War that are still a template of modern ballistic missiles today.
The desire for an invulnerable spot in the heavens, from which to smite one’s enemies, led to the organisation and industrial capacity required to operate large aircraft on a massive scale. However much we celebrate flight and transport as peaceful endeavours to bridge our countries, the military necessity to stretch aviation and rail technology to their limits is the sole reason they are widely available today. Finally, the most invulnerable weapons ever made – the intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) – also led to the technology to propel humans into space.
An ICBM leaves the atmosphere on the way to its target, and always did so in order to be almost impossible to stop. Such missiles would seem to epitomise Sun Tzu’s maxim about attack from the heavens better than anything else, were it not for the fact that more advanced weapons could be placed in orbit within our lifetimes.
The military fixation on increased range, impunity and invulnerability when destroying an enemy has often been deemed dishonourable, atrocious and murderous. Many of the criticisms are true. Chivalry would seem a better route, but over the centuries chivalry has given way to the dirtiest forms of fighting and no-one has any choice but to follow suit if they want to defend themselves. Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are still a source of scandal in the present day, but competing states have started building their own. More than one country has expressed an interest in making lethal autonomous weapons (LAWs) a reality. If history contains a lesson, it is that those who protest rather than copying new weapons will only lose in the end. Their chivalry forgotten, they may only come to be remembered as a primitive and ineffective military force.
The only legacy left by our probably much stronger ancestors who refused to use sticks and stones was their bones. Those who refused spears and preferred to rely solely on the superiority of their bodies were skewered. If we take a lesson from the Spartan defeat at Sphacteria during the Peloponnesian War, it is clear that dismissing the use of arrows as cowardly in the ancient world didn’t save you from being target practice.
Today the race for a better spear and arrow continues on an even grander scale, and has opened the gates to the heavens. The prevalence of aircraft, satellites and spacecraft today is the result solely of accelerated military competition in the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States. The “arms race” and the “space race”, hand-in-hand, were made possible only in a setting of heightened conflict – the same unfortunate catalyst that drove so much prior development and is the germ of our species. As soon as that contest ended, as Neil deGrass Tyson has said, the race for the stars came to its anticlimax in both Russia and the US. Funding was cut and dreams died.
Some countries’ diplomats currently hold the militarisation of space to be a destabilising and hostile idea, while to others it is a reality and it is inevitable. Russia and China hold the former position, America the latter. It is possible, however, that no-one adheres to the prohibitions against the militarisation of space in spirit. The existence of spy satellites and the inevitability they would be targeted in a world war by all sides means space militarisation is already a fact of warfare. Nuclear-capable missiles already enter space. It is the restraint of countries that has averted disaster, not the lack of weapons.
The new cold war, if real, may not be all bad. It makes it perhaps possible to revive humanity’s noblest dreams. The original Cold War made necessary the resources and funding for daring space flights that crashed the barriers between reality and science fiction ahead of all predictions. If it is anything like the first Cold War, a second one will lead to the expansion of our species into the Solar System. While military bases on the Moon and Mars may be forbidden under international law now, they may be the only excuse for the funding and resources that will lead to the first off-world human settlements. In the event of a catastrophe on Earth, such habitats may eventually be thanked as the sole reason our species survived.
Scientists, including the late Stephen Hawking, pointed out that space colonisation is a necessary step in ensuring the survival of the human species. If this is so, anything that advances the homes of our species into the Solar System is not a miscalculation but the right step towards preserving ourselves.
Nanotech founder K. Eric Drexler has written of inevitable technology. Whether used for good or evil, someone is going to create it eventually, just as it is with each discovery in the natural sciences. Whether we choose to obstruct the space race, the AI race, or any other technological race, we are only refusing to let our species take an inevitable step into “possibility space”, as Drexler uses the term in the 2013 book Radical Abundance. Possibility space exists, just as undiscovered continents did. In it, every possible invention is waiting to be discovered, including quite necessary ones to save humanity from extinction or create an age of unimaginable splendour.
What scientists and engineers create is not good or evil, but inevitable. Refusing or protesting the course of science and technology isn’t a choice but a resignation from life. What we do with our creations is the real choice before us. It is in the act of discovery that helpful philosophies crystallise. Modernity and every ideological reaction to it are the result of discoveries concerning industry, medicine, species, society, and war. It is, unfortunately, war that has primarily propelled all the others.
Authors like Kevin Kelly take an overwhelmingly positive view of the technium – Kelly’s term for technology as a force of nature in his book What Technology Wants (2010) – encouraging us to direct it towards expanding individual freedom. The best analysis, however, might focus more on possibility space. Each new invention expands the possibilities of what our species can do. Ideas collide, creating things both terrifying and terrific. The technium might not really empower individuals in the long term, although digital culture has done so in the short term, but it is the only thing that can expand the reach and prosperity of humanity.
We should not undermine a country’s technological mandate due to its flawed foreign policy and record of aggression. Scientific accomplishments have a history of turning out to be necessary, no matter who achieves them. German scientists were responsible for almost insurmountable leaps in flight and rocketry, and we have no difficulty in separating those accomplishments from Axis crimes in the Second World War. North Korea’s potential to produce great scientists is a reality and should not be undermined or destroyed. For all we know, our survival as a species is going to eventually depend on a Korean rocket scientist. Kill him, and we kill ourselves.
Ultimately, a resumption of cold war cannot lead to anything other than de-escalation and peace again. Let us hope that we come out of it as a Solar System-wide civilisation, speaking still of the treacherous behaviour and desire for dominance that drove us to our technology but never lamenting the gifts it made possible.