Monday was the 60th anniversary of the day the first manned space mission was launched from the then-Soviet Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Yuri Gagarin, aboard the Vostok 1 spacecraft, became the first man in space. Humankind has come a long way since then. Not only have we been to the Moon, but there is also now a race between some countries to send a manned mission to Mars.
In the last six decades, space exploration as a field has undergone drastic changes. While to begin with it was essentially a two-horse race between the US and the Soviet Union, today more than a dozen nations across the globe, including China and India, have launch and exploration capabilities. Another huge change, which has come about in the last decade or so, is the entry of private companies into the domain.
The most advanced among these is Elon Musk’s SpaceX, which not only has a launch-capable rocket, Falcon 9, but last year it ferried astronauts to the International Space Station. Amazon boss Jeff Bezos has also set up a firm, Blue Origin, to launch space missions, while British billionaire Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic has focused on launching a space tourism business. The latter allows anyone to take part in a quick dash into space, mainly in low Earth orbit, to get a glimpse of the planet from about 100 km away. Virgin’s business might ultimately be in direct competition with Blue Origin, which also plans space tourism as one of its activities.
Meanwhile, there is also strong competition between today’s space superpowers — the US, Russia and China — as they seek to extend their control and dominance beyond Earth. Their plans include mining precious minerals that are in limited supply here. Other plans include setting up permanently manned bases on Mars and beyond, much like the bases they have in the Antarctic. In short, some countries now plan to colonize space.
Even though many of these plans are still on the drawing board and are years away from fruition, they indicate the direction that humans are set to take in the future. Before long, there may be a mad scramble between private companies and countries to occupy and colonize certain locations in space.
While it is generally considered good to see the democratization of any business, the kind of rivalries and competition that are likely to soon occur in the field of space exploration call for urgent action at the global level. Space, just like the oceans and the atmosphere, is a shared heritage that needs to be handled with the utmost care. We have hundreds of examples of the kind of long-term and often irreversible damage that the mindless rush for riches has caused across the globe. Most of this happened due to a lack of clear and strict international regulations.
It is imperative to learn these lessons and apply them in space. Currently, it is pretty much like the Wild West. Anyone with the capability to reach space can do anything there with no independent oversight or control. Hence, some companies have drawn up plans to set up human colonies on the Moon or on Mars.
The developments of the last six decades have already led to the first signs of long-term damage in space, as can be seen from the problem of excessive debris — satellites and other human-launched objects that are floating around in low Earth or near-Earth orbits — which pose a clear and present danger to satellites and possibly even spacecraft.
Today, the threat of a collision with a satellite or rocket may be limited, but without any regulation this is likely to become an omnipresent danger, especially if satellites or other human-made objects tumble out of the skies and fall to Earth. It is time that countries around the world got together under the aegis of a body like the UN — one that is armed with real powers to sanction rule-breaking governments or private firms — to regulate human activities in space. It could mandate or allocate space exploration quotas for each country or perhaps, even better, form a cooperative of all nations, rich and poor, to pool resources for space-related activities and share the benefits.
This would drive the human greed out of space exploration and replace it with a real scientific pursuit of using extraterrestrial resources for the shared good of humanity. Idealistic it may be but, without strict rules on what humans can and cannot do in space or on another heavenly body, we risk exposing space to the same mess we have created on our own planet.
- Ranvir S. Nayar is managing editor of Media India Group.
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