The space race has returned to public conscience. It is a symptom of the restructuring of the geopolitical arena brought about by the turn of the century. The future appearance of the new global system, however, is not entirely clear. Hand in hand with technological development and unprecedented population growth, Humanity has moved on from the mirage of a monopolar world. The years between the tearing down of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States in 2016 have framed an apparent zenith of American power, and the rise of the challenge posed by the Middle Kingdom.
It is tempting to draw an analogy between the conquest of space and the European colonization of the New World across the centuries. Fiction, which is the crystallization of the collective unconscious into narratives, has made the space cowboy a recognizable type. The simile, undoubtedly of a great dramatic value, makes sense at face value: space, the last frontier, populated by asteroid miners, bounty hunters, and Native American-looking extraterrestrial civilization.
Lonesome cowboys make for good stories, as they are the actualization of the very ancient Knight Errand archetype found in Medieval tales. The historical main catalysts of Far West colonization, though, were big mining and railway corporations, which, in close collaboration to the government, incentivized the arrival of homesteaders as a way to obtain resources and allow continued operations. A good description of this relation between homesteader individualism and corporate-government collusion is found in the book American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures in North America, by Colin Woodard. Interestingly enough, space settling seems to have shifted towards a similar model of intense collaboration between private enterprises and the government, both in the US and abroad.
Nonetheless, space-steading colonies, for which the Space As Frontier narrative might make a good trope, still lay far ahead in the future. For now, Humanity is still in a phase of space exploration, and Age of Discoveries tropes might seem a more adequate frame for contemporary endeavors. The meme has been around for a while, as attested by President John F. Kennedy’s famous 1961 “new ocean” speech: “We set sail on this new sea because there is new knowledge to be gained, and new rights to be won, and they must be won and used for the progress of all people (…) only if the United States occupies a position of preeminence can we help decide whether this new ocean will be a sea of peace or a new terrifying theater of war.” Is Space As Ocean, then, the previous exploratory stage to the exploitatory Space As Frontier, parallel to the way ocean exploration preceded land exploitation of America?
Ask any seasteading advocate, and they will answer that Space As Ocean can be not only a model for exploration, but also for settlement. It is no coincidence that both Outer Space and the sea are presented as ideal scenarios for techno-libertarian promises of Exit. After all, human habitats can and do exist in the Ocean: ships, oil platforms, artificial islands. Likewise, space can host stations, satellites, and even small bases on nearby planets. All of this infrastructure, due to the extreme hostility of the environment in which it is placed, is on some degree dependent on Earth for raw materials and basic living commodities. Any stable, self-sustaining presence in the water becomes, by definition, an incursion of Land into the Sea. To the continental geopolitical attributes of solidity, stability, and production, the Sea answers liquidity, transition and trade. Thus, water becomes geopolitically solid at the rate it transforms from explorable to exploitable.
The European powers that arrived to the New World looking for the East Indies were exploring uncharted oceans and territories of an unknown extension, in a race against their competitors. In 1494, two years after Columbus’ voyage, the monarchs of Spain and Portugal signed the Treaty of Tordesillas, brokered by Pope Alexander VI. The deal included the drawing of a line along a meridian 370 leagues west of Cape Verde; newly discovered territories to the East of it would belong to Portugal, while those to the West would be for Spain. Among other things, the Treaty is significant because it was one of the first instances in which each side’s diplomats were formally supported by a cabinet of technical advisors: geographers, philosophers and jurists. It was also an immense bet: both sides had almost no prior knowledge of the area they were distributing among themselves. Columbus’s travels only touched the South American coast by 1498. The first maps identifying it as a new continent different from Asia appeared around 1507, and the existence of the Pacific Ocean was completely ignored until Núñez de Balboa took possession of it for the Catholic Monarchs in 1513. Such gambles are unfathomable in the context of space exploration.
Modern space powers’ competition is for an immense emptiness and for the objects, more or less already known and well described, contained therein: fundamentally the Moon, Mars, and several hundred asteroids of expected mining value. Although the hidden face of the Moon is almost unknown to us, we know that there is something there; the conquerors of America had no clue about how far the continent reached when they first landed. Celestial bodies outside the Solar System are technologically unreachable, so dispute of their resources can only be speculative, in the same way the Treaty of Tordesillas was. Or, in other words, they do not exist in a geopolitical sense as of yet.
Historically, the formulation of classical geopolitics only appeared when mapping of all the globe’s seas and oceans was complete. The theories of Halford John Mackinder were formulated in the context of the Asian Great Game, which pitted the British Sea Empire against the Russian Land Empire. Figures like Alfred Thayer Mahan, and later Nicholas J. Spykman (the “godfather of containment”), transformed Mackinder’s ideas into American foreign policy doctrine, and were instrumental to the US’s rise to world power status. Naval power was the key to military influence on the continent, and diplomacy was designed to dissolve consolidation efforts on the ground by fostering balance-of-power systems. The waves always move towards the coast: the Sea is not an Exit strategy, but an Entry point.
Public and private space enterprises are well aware of the difference between potential and actual resources, and consequently direct most of their prospective efforts to attainable objects in space. Scientific curiosity may be boundless, but the geopolitical will directing and financing it is essentially competing for a “closed”, relatively well known portion of space. This portion of space is a connective compartment of Earth, the limits of which are determined by current navigability. Geopolitically, Outer Space is not the speculative, theoretical and uncharted Atlantic ocean of Columbus and Magellan. It is a liquid and navigable Mare Nostrum, the Mediterranean Sea which Roman, Aragonese and Venetian thalassocracies used for communication, commerce and warfare.
In real world practice, this translates to the fact that almost all of the technological efforts of the current space race have been devoted to creating satellite constellations with geolocation, surveillance and telecommunications functions, all directed towards the ground. Both the hard and soft power of modern leviathans depends intimately on space technology for meteorology, maritime navigation, command and control of military units, surveillance networks, and dissemination of propaganda. Thus, contemporary space powers must be seen as the maritime powers of classical geopolitics taken to the third, vertical dimension of cosmopolitics. They are entities that exploit their dominance of a liminal common space –the sea/extraterrestrial space– to project their shadow on a continental Hinterland/Earth. Space is not the last frontier to be settled and tamed. It is a body of water which, precisely because of its lack of borders, can be expanded – or better, penetrated – infinitely.
Cosmopolitics arrives with the realization of the liminal and ever-expanding nature of Outer Space. As Humanity gains the ability to navigate it further and further in, it transitions from a theoretical space to a liquid, connective shell encompassing Earth. The development of Space Power is not a centrifugal vector of Exit, but a tool meant to act centripetally and exert power on the ground.
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