New Zealand in space: All the universe or nothing?

Robert McLachlan

I was born in Christchurch in 1964. I watched the moon landings on television. One of my early readers was “You Will Go To The Moon”. Oh, how I loved that book. I studied mathematics and physics at Canterbury and, later, at Caltech, where I met my heroes, Richard Feynman and Freeman Dyson. My work in scientific computing is used in orbital calculations including the long-term evolution of the solar system and novel routes to the moon. So by rights I should be all-in on space.

But as the decades have passed I have realized that the extreme risks of the present global ecological crisis call into question the entire program of accelerating technological change and resource use. Climate change, biodiversity loss, and pollution are three prominent aspects of the crisis, and resource overuse and poor governance two significant contributing factors.

The New Zealand government is consulting on two new policies, one for space and one for aerospace (think drones and flying cars; both close on 31 October). My submissions are attached below.

This is a time of rapid change in our use of space. Its use is rapidly increasing and commercialising; more and more countries are engaged in the space industry; and space is becoming more and more militarised. In fact we can watch ongoing space-controlled, semiautonomous drone warfare every day on the internet. The New Zealand company Rocket Lab launches satellites for the US National Reconnaissance (i.e. space spying) Office and designs and builds hardware for the US Space Force.

The space age began eighty years ago with the launch of a V2 missile into space, and continues with vast fleets of space-travelling and space-controlled ICBMs ready to launch. The nuclear threat is higher than at any time since 1962. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists Doomsday Clock stands at 100 seconds to midnight ­– and that was set before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Many believe that the United States is determined to gain complete dominance of space through the development of space weapons:

…the rapid expansion in space use and the difficulty of determining the true intent of some satellite systems are leading many analysts to the conclusion that the next steps in the militarisation of space will be the development, deployment and eventual use of space weapons.

Dave Webb, The Ethical Use of Outer Space, in Ethical Engineering for International Development and Environmental Sustainability, Springer 2015.

The consultation mentions the value of Starlink to Ukraine. Even in the few weeks since it was written, Elon Musk (the world’s richest person and the most controversial business-person in the world, and the dominant owner of SpaceX and Starlink) has further weaponised and politicised Starlink in dangerous ways. SpaceX has rapidly become so dominant in the US space industry that any ties to that industry inevitably create links to Musk. What with the near collisions, the pollution of the night sky, the risk of debris, and the climate impacts of the enormous number of launches needed to maintain the constellation, its politicisation and weaponization in an actual war, Starlink is a disaster in which the worst is yet to come.

These considerations throw the opening sentences of the consultation into a different light:

New Zealand’s association with space goes back centuries: the first Māori explorers navigated by the stars to Aotearoa New Zealand, and centuries later they were followed by European navigators whose instruments also looked to the stars. Today, our modern navigation systems are still guided from space.

Yes, Māori explorers used advanced sailing technology and navigation to settle Aotearoa, but also to greatly alter it. European colonisation led to violence, appropriation, destruction, and extinction (amongst other things). The new space race is likely to accelerate the inroads of violence into space.

Space is sometimes described as a ‘global commons’. But does that mean it is ours to use as we see fit? It is already crowded, polluted, and dangerous. Our track record in governing other global commons such as the atmosphere and ocean is not good.

Three interrelated efforts—lowering costs of accessing space, space tourism, and privatization—are currently viewed by space advocates as useful steps to the eventual realization of the larger space expansionist program. They are actually a mix of trouble and trivia leading to danger precisely because of their potential to open the larger door to extensive space activities. Everything space expansionists want to do in space depends upon accessing space more cheaply. But substantially lowering access costs is very much a double-edged sword. If it is cheaper and easier to get to orbit, then all space activities become cheaper and easier to accomplish, whether or not their effects are desirable.

Ambitious space expansion proposals also rest on dubious assumptions about human control of nature and technology and governance of superpotent new technologies. When these deficiencies are identified and corrected, space activities, actual and prospective, look very different, and space expansion loses much of its appeal.

Daniel Deudney, in Dark Skies: Space Expansionism, Planetary Geopolitics, and the Ends of Humanity (2020)

The American rocket pioneer David Lasser, anticipating widespread bombing of cities by rockets in “The rocket and the next war” in 1931, wrote

Whether the man of the future, looking back to 1931 will wish that the rocket had never been invented, no one knows. It seems to me that the rocket is one of the creations of the human mind, that serves as a test of our right to inherit the earth. Its powers of good and evil are so equal and opposite.

Unfortunately, we still don’t know.

One final visit to the pre-space age. How far have we come, really, from the impassioned plea of the space visionary Oswald Cabal in the closing moments of the 1936 movie Things to Come, “All the universe or nothingness?”

Submission by Robert McLachlan to the aerospace policy

Submission by Robert McLachlan to the space policy

3 thoughts on “New Zealand in space: All the universe or nothing?

  1. PS “Things to Come” is full of ideas that are still relevant today and is well worth watching. Its description of a civilization-destroying world war so affected my Dad that, when he heard that World War II had been declared, he ran home and hid under the kitchen table.

  2. Too bad this came out after the deadline for submissions.
    I thank you very much Robert for leading the way

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