Tim Marshall returns with The Future of Geography, a prophetic vision of what the geopolitics of space could look like over the next 50 years, as countries and private companies compete to control power and access to humanity’s shared future. Marshall’s comprehensive style will be familiar to readers of his previous works, such as Prisoners of Geography and The Power of Geography. Now his exploration of the geopolitical tensions inherent in astropolitics could help us chart the new frontier of space.
Marshall begins by paying homage to the scientists and the thinking that has helped humanity get to this point in space exploration. He then evaluates how each of the three main superpowers – the USA, Russia, and China – have progressed in their plans for space, and what their ambitions might be. He finishes by exploring what tomorrow’s world – and tomorrow’s space – might look like, as private companies and entrepreneurs race to put their stamp on the history books.
Our future is in our history
Acknowledging that “space has shaped human life from our very beginning”, Marshall charts the human fascination with the stars from hunter-gatherer tribes to the present day, through the Babylonians and Sumerians, the Greeks and Romans, and the Golden Age of Islam.
He tracks the development of scientific exploration through the familiar names of Copernicus, Giordano Bruno, Galileo Galilei, Newton and Einstein, and emphasises that the knowledge of the past has been surprisingly accurate in its measurements of the Earth and its place in the stars. In one example, he recalls Eratosthenes of Cyrene, who over 2000 years ago concluded, without the equipment available to use today, “that the Earth’s circumference was between 40,250 and 45,900 kilometres. The actual circumference is now usually accepted as 40,096 kilometres”.
Marshall describes how‘‘Much of human endeavour has been driven by our desire to reach for the stars”and that the last few decades have pushed humanity to the edgeof tantalising further discovery. “And” as he says, “the desire to find out, to know more – and even to go there ourselves – has proved irresistible”.
He also issues a warning: we need to ensure that we do not take our current insular political conflicts with us. The advance into space is for all humanity and should not be controlled by a single entity ora loose, unstable partnership of organisations:“If we cannot find a way to move forward as one unified planet, there is an inevitable outcome; competition and possibly conflict played out in the new arena of space.”
Earth: the ‘cradle of humanity’
Marshall quotes the Russian scientist Tsiolkovsky, who said: “Earth is the cradle of humanity, but one cannot stay in the cradle forever.” This was the guiding spirit in the decades following World War II, when humanity took its first faltering steps into the cosmos. As Marshall reminds us, “We first crossed the border with space less than a century ago. But it was conflict on Earth that finally got us there. The technology that took us to the heavens came from the arms race of the Cold War”.
It was the Russians who initially took the lead, much to America’s chagrin, and Marshall reminds his audience that Russia actually reached the Moon first, albeit through a ‘hard-landing’, with Luna 2.The Americans, of course, caught up, but Marshall reminds us that it was a historic global effort that helped Armstrong take that immortal first step: “Armstrong is a colossal figure, but he knew he stood on the shoulders of giants such as Gagarin and Tsiolkovsky, Goddard, Oberth, Korolev, von Braun and, before them, the great scientists down the ages.”
There is an almost nostalgic tone from Marshall in this chapter, as if he feels that the late 1960s could have been the moment that fuelled space exploration in a momentous and significant way for the good of all humanity. In fact, the planting of the Apollo 11 flag marked the highpoint.
Marshall acknowledges the reasons for the space race coming to an end when it did, as budgets and political pressures became important, but he also recognises that the moon still has a hold on us all: “It’s estimated that about 110 billion humans have walked on the surface on Earth. Almost all of them will have gazed at the Moon in wonder. But only 12 have walked there.”
It is now over 50 years since humans have walked on the Moon, encouraging Marshall to explore the question – is it now time to go back?
Location, location, location
Marshall thinks it is. In a fascinating manner, he outlines the reasons for countries and “space superpowers” to go back to the Moon and indeed continue with broader space activity. He compares space geography to Earth geography and observes that if an interested party controls access to a place – terrestrial or otherwise –, then they have the power there:
“If a space superpower could dominate the exit points from Earth and the routes out from the atmosphere, it could prevent other nations from engaging in space travel. And if it dominates low Earth orbit, it could command the satellite belt and use it to control the world.”
Low Earth orbit, from 160 to 2000km, is one of these key locations in space, owing to the number of satellites deployed there. Marshall notes that, “Strategically, low Earth orbit is a potential ‘choke point’… [and] an attractive piece of real estate because that’s where most satellites operate”. In this regard he identifies the five Lagrange points of our system as being another key tactical area, since they“… are advantageous positions to place satellites”.
One upshot of this, as Marshall indicates, is that space expansion has led to a crowded low Earth orbit zone: “It’s getting busy above Terra, and is destined to become more so. More than eighty countries have crossed the border and placed satellites in space.”
Mining the Moon
But aside from these general strategic motives, it might be a specific need that takes us back to the Moon. Our oldest satellite contains an abundance of resources, not least Helium-3, the fuel for a potential future fusion reactor. Investment possibilities in the minerals of the Moon and beyond might prove to be the lure we can’t resist.As Marshall says, “Many countries have the incentive to go after them [metal oxides], especially those that don’t want to rely on China, which currently holds a third of the world’s known reserves”.
The point being made clearly in Marshall’s book is that an understanding of geopolitics and ‘astropolitics’ is required in space, as our expansion continues.“Many of us still think of space as ‘out there’ and ‘in the future’. But it’s here and now – the border into the great beyond is well within our reach.”
More worryingly, Marshall highlights a key gap in enforcement of space activities: that the laws we have belong to, and were written for, a different time:
“The ‘laws’ we currently have for activity in space are little better than guidelines. Technology and changing geopolitical realities have overtaken them. With an increasing number of space-based platforms for military and civilian uses space is becoming a congested twenty-first century environment requiring twenty-first-century laws and agreements.”
It is worth noting, however, that it is not a pessimistic picture that Marshall paints. He repeatedly makes the call for global cooperation as an approach through which space exploration can continue in a positive manner.“The [International Space Station],” he reminds us, “is a symbol of what can achieved in space through cooperation”. Without global cooperation, Marshall’s fear is that“we may end up fighting over the geography of space, just as we have done over the geography of Earth”.
‘It is space and it needs space laws’
Developing his theme that our current space laws belong to another age, Marshall identifies the Outer Space Treaty (1967), the Moon agreement (1979) and the Artemis accords (2020), and concludes that, “Existing space laws are horribly out of date and too vague for current conditions”.The legal frameworks and agreements that we do have rely on countries signing up to them and some of the definitions are too loose and hazy to be effective. Perhaps they didn’t imagine a time when non-countries, in the form of private enterprise, would be competing for ‘space rights’.
Who could be in position to regulate the space activity of Musk’s SpaceX? (Perhaps that should now read ‘Who is regulating Musk’s space activity?’) To whom could parties appeal and protest? What would be effective sanctions for breaking agreements? “Laws and agreements are difficult enough on Earth”, writes Marshall, “where there are clear boundaries and borders, and established precedents. What’s more, in space, it’s not in the interests of the big powers to give up their advantage”.
To emphasise this point, Marshall, explores hypotheticals that need addressing before they happen, not as a belated response after the fact. He is surely correct in saying: “The presence of corporate and private enterprise in space also raises all sorts of questions unrelated to military activity. Which of Earth’s laws would apply to their ventures – and how would they be enforced?” Marshall underlines this serious and significant point by arguing that“Technology has outpaced law. Without laws, geopolitics – and now astropolitics – is a jungle”.
There are also pressing issues which need international cooperation, such as the risks from solar flares, asteroids and space debris. As Sangeetha Abdu Jyothi, from the University of California notes in the book,“To the best of my knowledge, there are no global agreements or plans to deal with a large-scale solar storm”.
Acting together has clear benefits for us all.The recent DART – double asteroid redirection test – development, which spent $325mn to change the orbit of another planetary object, was regarded as hugely momentous in its success, as well as being an undoubted bargain for the eight billion inhabitants of planet Earth.
The big three
Marshall dedicates a whole chapter each to the “big 3” space superpowers: China, the USA and Russia, and highlights their respective notable achievements and ambitions for space activity. Take China, perhaps the least-credited space explorer: “In 2019”, Marshall reminds us, “the uncrewed Chang’e 4 became the first spacecraft to land on the far side of the Moon”.In a perhaps now expected symbolic tradition,“… it planted the Chinese flag on the surface and began digging for rocks in a region it is considering using as a base”.
The USA“plan to construct a Lunar Gateway Space Station near the Moon”, andRussia is developing a new system known as Kalina, which could focus laser beams to dazzle or ‘blind’ other orbiting satellites, in actions that might normally be seen in a James Bond movie.
The big three no longer have space to themselves. A growing number of countries and companies are trying to elbow their way into the new world of space exploration. Jeff Bezos has founded Blue Origin, Richard Branson has Virgin Galactic, and Elon Musk has SpaceX. In addition, there are a host of countries, including France, Germany, Japan, Australia, India, the UK, Israel, Iran, India and the UAE, who are all vying for projects, partnerships and prestige in an increasingly crowded marketplace.
Sadly, this is how space is now being viewed, not as a frontier of hope and expansion for the species, but as an opportunity to exploit and abuse resources. It appears that the lessons of the past have not been learned.
Nothing new under the sun?
“Each time humanity has ventured into a new domain”, Marshall concludes, “it has brought war with it. Space is no different and the potential battlefield is beginning to take shape”.Given our history, he feels,“it is unlikely that we will recognize our common humanity and work together in space to harvest its riches and then distribute them equally”.At the same time, he accepts the inevitability of our next steps into space: “Humanity has not gone so far only to stand still now.”
By the mid-2030s – only a short 15 years from now – we may see the first human landing on the planet Mars. It is worth taking a moment to imagine that.
How many people across the world will watch this globally unifying event, if and when it happens?
In 1969, we left a message on the Moon: “We came in peace for all mankind.” What will our new message in the stars be? What language will it be in? Will it acknowledge and reflect our shared humanity and shared vision? Or will it reflect our conflicting natures?
“We are now writing what will be history in space” says Marshall, “We already have magnificent pioneers and amazing achievements. Where they went, and what they did, was incredibly hard”.
For their sakes, and in the same spirit, we have to follow.