Billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk seemingly fashions himself as a 21st-century Thomas Edison considering the leading role that he’s sought to play in releasing cutting-edge scientific-technological products over the past few years. One of his projects is Starlink, which aims to create a constellation of satellites that would provide internet to the entire world. This supposedly noble effort, however, threatens to endanger global security if it isn’t regulated.
China recently submitted a document to the United Nations Office for Space Affairs to raise awareness of how its Tiangong space station twice “implemented preventive collision avoidance control” in order to ensure its safety after Musk’s satellites came uncomfortably close. An accident was narrowly averted due to China’s preemptive measures but it can’t be taken for granted that a tragedy won’t occur sometime in the future if this entrepreneur’s space activities and others’ remain unregulated.
There’s nothing wrong in principle with wanting to provide internet to the whole world even though this could eventually be exploited to facilitate foreign citizens’ access to banned content such as that which promotes terrorism, separatism, and extremism, for example. Nevertheless, that crucial point aside considering the focus of the present piece (though one which should definitely be discussed more in detail by others), these efforts must be carried out in coordination with space’s other stakeholders.
It’s destabilizing for a private entrepreneur to unilaterally carry out such activities on their own. The entire reason why this is able to happen is because these activities aren’t effectively regulated. That’s why they ended up posing a threat to the Tiangong space station at two occasions thus far. Musk tirelessly advocates for less government regulation into his companies’ affairs, yet what’s actually needed is more regulation, and not just by his own government, but by the United Nations.
The proliferation of space technology from the public to the private sphere in recent years will inevitably result in more entrepreneurs following Musk’s lead, which will further endanger global security due to the threat that their satellites could pose to others’, including foreign governments’ as well as their space stations. Any collision could create dangerous collections of space debris that could in turn make large areas of space off limits for other satellites, space stations, and even space missions.
The US refuses to responsibly regulate space affairs through the United Nations since it claims that China and Russia – which it officially regards as its so-called “peer competitors”– are supposedly “militarizing” this sphere. That’s the pretext upon which former US President Donald Trump created his country’s “Space Force”. In reality, the Pentagon is the one militarizing space while entrepreneurs like Musk are (to give him and others the benefit of the doubt for now) unintentionally endangering it.
These dynamics are unsustainable since it’s only a matter of time before a collision of some sort happens and results in the scenario that was earlier described wherein the consequent space debris renders large areas of space off limits for a prolonged period of time. There urgently has to be some sort of arrangement in place through which foreign governments and private companies can coordinate their activities aimed at improving humankind’s capabilities in space and overall knowledge of it.
The failure to do so will lead to a mutually detrimental outcome. This lose-lose scenario must be avoided at all costs, yet the problem is that the US is loath to play its part due to its zero-sum rivalries with China and Russia as well as its greedy desire to gives its own companies a supposedly competitive edge over others. This is absolutely unacceptable and must be remedied as soon as possible. To that end, the public must be made more aware of the threats posed by the presently unregulated system.
Only then might Americans be inspired to work through their political process to pressure their representatives to take action before it’s too late. They should write to their congresspeople and Senators as soon as possible. Those who take up this cause on Capitol Hill will be doing a tremendous service for humanity. Both Democrats and Republicans alike should unite to propose bipartisan legislation aimed at regulating private activities in space so that global security can be ensured.