Alternative Futures for Space Security
The task of looking ahead to predict the future in space is one that can only be taken up with some trepidation. The lessons of history are subtle and contradictory, offering no easy explanations or determinate outcomes. In considering the evidence presented by the first half-century of human space activity, there are instances of close cooperation and cutthroat competition, although fortunately with no direct conflict. The good news is that any country could have defected from the norm of space restraint and yet none has strayed very far.
As we have seen, the restraint exercised by the superpowers in dealing with space security during the Cold War resulted in large part from the impact of technological and environmental factors. Bilateral negotiations moderated this learning under the influence of change-inducing trigger events, which shifted actors’ original intentions. Still, despite this difficult process and the reluctance of many actors to break out of past patterns, military restraint took place and endured over time. This “learning against one’s will” highlights the fragility of space restraint and its dependence on political relationships as well as a consensus on the adequacy of verification. Unfortunately, the evidence of weapons restraint during the first five decades of space history showed no decisive or final value change by actors in regard to collective forms of space security, despite conditions of functional (and therefore strategic) interdependence. The changing perspective of each incoming national leadership remains a factor that can challenge and even destroy previously established space norms, as seen in 1981 and 2001. China’s 2007 ASAT test is another example, in which a national leadership that had not been part of existing space understandings violated prior norms against high-altitude testing, where debris takes decades to de-orbit.
Looking ahead, what matters is whether core environmental and restraintbased understandings among leading space-faring countries can be expanded