Militarising the Moon

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A few nights every week I grab my beverage (hot or cold, depending on the season) and wander outside to stare at the Moon. Suburban light pollution aside, it never fails to move me.

The moonOur trusty hanger-on governs the tides and much besides, and it was literally fiction until recent history to think we'd ever set foot on its surface. That changed on 12 April 1961, when a Russian cosmonaut by the name of Yuri Gagarin conducted the first human space flight. That may seem a small thing these days, but a man in an extra-terrestrial can, instead of an ape or a dog, was big news back in the 60s.

Gagarin's achievement was recognised by the UN in 2011, with 12 April listed for annual observance as the International Day of Human Space Flight. That sounds more noble and 'brotherhoody' than the International Day When Russia Scared the Yanks to Death. Gagarin's wild ride was a seminal milestone in the space race, getting the US all het up. The Russians followed up in February 1966, when their unmanned Luna 9 craft became the first to achieve a soft landing on the Moon.

While Kennedy's NASA was feverishly preparing for American lunar ripostes, the very next year, the UN brokered a significant treaty declaring that 'the exploration and use of outer space shall be carried out for the benefit and in the interests of all countries and shall be the province of all mankind'.

It added, significantly in its Cold War context, that 'States shall not place nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction in orbit or on celestial bodies or station them in outer space in any other manner', as 'the Moon and other celestial bodies shall be used exclusively for peaceful purposes', and that 'astronauts shall be regarded as the envoys of mankind'.

Our American cousins, inspired by JFK and driven by fear of the Russians getting there first, put on their Moonface. The Apollo 8 mission took astronauts into orbit in 1968, as did Apollo 10. It was Apollo 11, however, in July 1969, that saw Neil Armstrong taking his famed steps 'for all mankind'.

I was only a year old at the time, so I can't say walking on the Moon made an immediate impact on me (the first toys I remember were cowboys and police cars; sci-fi-themed offerings and obsessions came later). But upon humanity? Breaking free of our own orbit and landing elsewhere changed the human psyche forever, and peaceful (non-staffed) visits to the Moon have now also been made by the former Soviet Union, the European Space Agency, Japan, India, China and Israel.

 

"Will spacefarers no longer be seen as human ambassadors, but as warriors loyal to nation states?"

 

These days, while the Yanks are focused on Mars, Japan intends to build a robot Moon base by 2020. As for Oz, well, we have less lofty ambitions — our Japanese trading partners have reported that Australia intends to mine Moon water within five years. I look forward to the occasional lunar tipple.

This journey outwards is threatened by warmongering demagoguery. The UN's hoary old peacenik treaty declaring 'the Moon and other celestial bodies shall be used exclusively for peaceful purposes' has been challenged by sabre-rattling by Donald Trump, with his declaration that 'it is not enough to have American presence in space; we must have American dominance'.

Trump's Space Force is far from the first aggressive posturing over our heads. Reagan had set up an Air Force Space Command back in 1982, and his Star Wars anti-missile furphy jeopardised international anti-ballistic missile treaties on its merry way to non-existence.

Last year, a senior analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, Malcolm Davis, pointed out that space has been militarised since the 60s. While describing the UN's 1968 Outer Space Treaty as 'the key document regulating space activities and preventing the deployment of weapons of mass destruction in orbit', he added that it was 'no longer suited to the nature of modern counter-space capabilities'. 'Space in the 21st century is a "contested" operational domain,' he said. 'Adversaries are developing "hard kill" anti-satellite weapons and "soft kill" systems that range from GPS jamming to electronic warfare to cyberattacks against satellites.'

Sceptical types could be forgiven for perceiving militant space gee-ups as 'Look over there!' announcements designed to distract from domestic policies and controversies. Yet Trump's Vice President Mike Pence has publicly made similar claims, stating that 'China and Russia have been developing airborne lasers and anti-satellite missiles that need to be countered'. Is this the stuff of realpolitik and arms supremacy, or inflated hubris and chest-puffery?

Am I likely, any night soon, to wander out to look upwards and see lasers zapping on the Moon's surface, or colourful blips as satellites and extra-terrestrial warships blow themselves up in orbit? Will spacefarers no longer be seen as human ambassadors, but as warriors loyal to nation states? Do we care enough to prevent the further militarisation of our solar system? Can firm resolve prevent some yobbo trying to blow holes in our Moon?

Resolve is in short supply. I am reminded of some wise words from a diminutive mentor of mine: 'Do. Or do not. There is no try.'

 

 

Barry GittinsBarry Gittins is a Melbourne writer.

Topic tags: Barry Gittins, space travel, Donald Trump, Cold War

 

 

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Existing comments

“Donald Trump, with his declaration that 'it is not enough to have American presence in space; we must have American dominance'.” So true. The American imperium in space is necessary for the American Pax Romana on Earth to work. You can’t rely on the EU to protect South Korea from North or the peaceful and democratic Republic of China from the less peaceful and democratic People’s Republic of China. In fact, you can’t rely on the suave and elegant metropolitans who run the EU and those of the acolyte member countries for anything that might warrant a little bleeding. Without that Roman (or Churchillian) attribute, how can there be pax?
roy chen yee | 02 May 2019


Foreign Minister Marise Payne, 30.11.18, speech to the Lowy Institute: "In the last year, the question of weaponising space has become a major strategic issue. In the United Nations, Russia and China proposed the “No First Placement of Weapons in Outer Space” resolution. Last month, Australia with a number of other partners, voted against that resolution. And the key issue for Australia and for the United States was uncertainty about identifying the genuine purpose of any particular space-based asset."
Michelle Fahy | 15 May 2019


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