Constructing Space: A Study of Power Arrangements in Space Developments

Author: DeLaine Mayer, April 2020.

“Space exploration and associated research initiatives do have important positive effects societally and culturally, including the development of multi-modal technologies, job creation, and nationalized or globalized realizations of human progress. However, economies of space exploration and resource utilization will replicate traditional power structures seen in historic environmental geopolitical arrangements unless those implicit in constructing New Space develop new arrangements.”


Image from Wikimedia Commons.

On a trip to Puerto Rico in January, amidst the earthquake swarm of late 2019 through 2020, my Uber driver relayed that people thought the world was ending. The week prior, the island had experienced a magnitude 6.4 earthquake, the most devastating of the nearly 2,000 earthquakes that had hit the island thus far (Bacon & Rodriguez 2020). Shortly after, a visible meteor had been seen trailing the sky. Several days later, “the sky crackled, and we didn’t know why,” my driver told me. The debris from a Starlink launch was responsible for the crackling, but the aggregate of these experiences for people in Puerto Rico, from what I was told, were feelings of displacement, unsettlement, and fear. This story feels emblematic of the modern experience most people have with space or space-based initiatives. Space happens to them, either naturally (the meteor), or as a result of corporate or national strategy decided elsewhere—the latter of which reinforces larger structures of political, economic, and social powers already at play in peoples’ lives.

Space today includes both nationally-funded (and therefore nationalistic) projects as well as privately-funded enterprises. The goal of both is to capitalize on “strategic advantage by the most technologically advanced” (“Environmental Geopolitics and Outer Space” 4). Klinger notes that post-Cold War era space is often implied as a “depoliticized environment” in which space is understood by technology rather than politics, and space ventures are defined by international cooperation rather than conflict. This view is shifting once again as space opens as a new frontier of extractive and commercial industry, driven as much by politics as scientific inquiry. Within this, an exploration of power dynamics (traditional in structure, but new in their space-specific application) is required. By using the center-periphery dependency theory, this paper will examine space infrastructure siting and access to space benefits, such as “logistical infrastructure,” to better understand development and underdevelopment across countries (“A Brief History of Outer Space Cooperation” 50).

This will be a topic of increasing importance in coming months and years given U.S. President Donald Trump’s April 6, 2020 executive order, Encouraging International Support for the Recovery and Use of Space Resources (The White House 2020). Under the Trump Administration, this order reduces the possibility of future ratification by the U.S. of the Moon Agreement, a United Nations (U.N.) resolution stating that space is peaceful, space environments should not be disrupted, and the U.N. should be informed of purpose of any stations in space. Importantly, the Agreement provides that “the Moon and its natural resources are the common heritage of mankind,” (General Assembly Resolution 34/68) implying common cultural and natural ownership of space territories, raising questions of legal ability to extract and use space resources in commercial applications. The executive order, by eschewing American participation in the Agreement, argues a right of Americans to engage with space commercially and encourages the recovery and use of space resources. This is an important signal to New Space (the emerging privatized, commercial space industry) and the traditional aerospace industry, of the White House’s recognition of the importance of space resources to national security, scientific inquiry, and economic opportunity. It is also a nouveau America First frontiersmanship, reminiscent of the 1850s Gold Rush and Cold War-era Space Race. These were periods in which scientific exploration was militarized and nationalized and the benefits of participation were unevenly distributed at the cost of environmental degradation and marginalization of peripheral groups.

Space exploration and associated research initiatives do have important positive effects societally and culturally, including the development of multi-modal technologies, job creation, and nationalized or globalized realizations of human progress. However, economies of space exploration and resource utilization will replicate traditional power structures seen in historic environmental geopolitical arrangements unless those implicit in constructing New Space develop new arrangements.

Defining Center-Periphery

Dependency theory emerged in the 1950s in the UN’s analyses of economic growth disparities between industrialized and underdeveloped countries. Raul Prebisch, the Director of the UN Economic Commission for Latin America, posited that global growth inequality was due to poorer countries exporting their more valuable commodities to rich countries to manufacture, turn into higher-value goods, then sell back to the poorer countries (Ferraro). Industrialized countries were dependent on lower value raw materials from non-industrialized countries as inputs for manufacturing processes. In turn, non-industrialized countries became dependent on the manufacturing processes at work elsewhere and relied on imports of higher value products. Center-periphery theory, as a subcomponent of dependency theory, places political, economic, and social power within geographic boundaries. Sertan Batur, in Encyclopedia of Critical Psychology, defines the theory as follows:

Capitalist development in Western Europe and North America put countries in these continents into the center of the world market while other countries in South America, Asia, and Africa became part of the poorer periphery. The center and periphery model dependency theories state that the development of capitalism into a world system has a geographical structure. The center and periphery model is useful not only on a global level but also from a more local standpoint, especially in understanding interdependency between the rich city and the poorer countryside. So both the center and the periphery of the world system include other centers and peripheries in their structures.

The establishment of center-periphery relationships is normalized within infrastructural development and associated labor, environmental, and human rights issues connected to uneven power structures. Space architecture and economies, as will be shown in the case studies, are not separate components of national and international development, but deeply integrated into natural security, economic, and militaristic ambitions. In this context, center-periphery modeling can be a useful tool to highlight uneven space development and dependencies.

Within a space resources context, center-periphery modeling explores the questions, “By whom and for whom?” as they pertain to infrastructural development for space economies, resource extraction, and access to space. Within these questions, as will be addressed in the case studies below, it is posited that space is an extension of terrestrial logistical infrastructure, from which the user derives power, and that knowledge of space and space resources is itself an extension of power (“A Brief History of Outer Space Cooperation” 50). This latter point furthers the Foucaldian power-knowledge theory that states if knowledge is an instrument of power, then the tools of knowledge acquisition and usage are also tools wielded to exert power and influence (Gutting and Oksala). Put explicitly, power exists in the acquisition and usage of space knowledge, space infrastructure, and space resources. In dependency theory terms, the outcomes of engineering design or scientific exploration in space contexts are shaped by the power dynamics that precede them, before any project even leaves Earth.

Case Studies: Baikonur and Quintuco

Space industries were birthed as national projects of the 20th century within the context of the US-Soviet Cold War and the reshaping of colonially-drawn borders in underdeveloped states along Cold War lines. Within this, infrastructural development, aid, and political support (or overhaul) became normalized features of the 20th century geopolitical environment. Novel technological and scientific dimensions of the era were superpowers’ development of military capabilities that extended beyond Earth’s planetary boundary for the first time. Today, superpowers use space to gain political, economic, and military advantage, with environmental and health consequences befalling those left out of decision-making processes. This section will briefly examine the environmental geopolitics of two sites relevant to space development: the city of Baikonur in Kazakhstan and China’s Quintuco space station in the Neuquén Province of Argentina.

Baikonur, Kazakhstan and the Altai Mountains of Mongolia

The Baikonur Cosmodrome was developed in the 1950s in Kazakhstan, a former member of the Soviet bloc, as a test center for the Soviet Union’s first intercontinental ballistic missile. Sputnik 1, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin’s first manned space flight, and many other significant human and technological achievements originated at this site. Today, the spaceport highlights several unique practices, opportunities, and challenges in bilateral relations of space development, including siting and ownership, power-knowledge sharing, and environmental issues.

When the Soviet Union fell and Kazakhstan formed as an independent republic in the 1990s, the parties found themselves in a unique arrangement. Kazakhstan inherited the Cosmodrome but had no “space program, scientific and technical personnel, [or] the necessary funding for maintaining a unique [space] complex” (Chukalova, et al). Kazakhstan was forced to lease the spaceport for a twenty-year term to Russia as a result. What began as uneasy negotiations became an example of space infrastructure as a form of bilateral international cooperation. It resulted in knowledge-sharing and cooperative building of space economies, with the Kazakh city given the status of a “Russian city of federal significance” for the lease period. Today, this lease extends to 2050, highlighting the interdependence of these countries in highly respected activities associated with space. As Chukalova et al. note in “The role of Baikonur in the context of military-political cooperation between Kazakhstan and Russia,”:

Participation in space activities largely determines the international prestige of any state, its economic and scientific and technical power. Many of the most important directions of the national economy, not to mention economic and military-strategic, are already unthinkable without the use of special space systems. Their use in many cases becomes economically profitable.

These internationally prestigious activities have come at a local environmental and human cost, however.

Approximately 2,500 tons of debris has landed in the Altai mountain range of Mongolia since the 1950s, directly along the flight path of rockets launching from Baikonur. During the Cold War, Russia took care to recover highly secretive technology along this route; today, they largely leave the pieces where they lie. Within the locality there, Russia offers compensation to residents only for damage that takes place outside the designated flight path zone; residents who live within it are given 24 hours notice to evacuate. An economy has emerged from local farmers and residents stripping landed debris and repurposing materials like light metals (including titanium, aluminum, and copper) for tools and sheds or resale. Residents endure less productive economic effects as well: the heat of the debris has caused wildfires, and the heptyl in fuel has been linked to illnesses from cancer to birth defects (Gentleman). “A whole industry has sprung up around the waste of the world’s richest nations as it rains periodically from the sky,” notes archivist and journalist, Paul Cooper. The economic benefit of this unofficial industry is juxtaposed by the increased likelihood of endocrine and blood disorders in the Altai region resulting from exposure to toxic chemicals and fuels (Giles). Journalist Jim Giles aptly comments on the cost of technological progress, stating, “The region asks us to contemplate what moral price our progress comes at, and who in the end gets to decide this cost” (Giles).

Within center-periphery framing, the Kazakh-Russian relationship highlights positive modern bilateral relations emerging from the land leasing of the Baikonur Cosmodrome by the peripheral Kazahkstan to the center Russia. In this instance, this has resulted in shared knowledge and international prestige, along with commercial and diplomatic benefits of operating the world’s busiest spaceport. This comes at the expense of those in the periphery within the Altai Mountains of Mongolia, however, where environmental and health consequences are underscored because recognizing them would disserve the dynamics at the center.

China’s Quintuco Base in Neuquén, Argentina

The case of Quintuco in Argentina offers a different point. In 2012, a 50-year rent-free lease agreement between Neuquén Province and the Chinese government emerged after being negotiated in secret. The Quintuco base, isolated from population centers and surrounded by mountains, offered Beijing “an ideal vantage point […] to monitor satellites and space missions around the clock.”  This would aid in China’s research on the far side of the moon and possible future extraction of Helium-3 (Londoño). The announcement came four years after a first-of-its-kind policy paper was published by China on its role in Latin America and the Caribbean. The 2008 paper outlined the Chinese government’s goals in the region, not incomparable to the 2013 Belt and Road Initiative announcement, including economic arrangements for industrial cooperation, infrastructure construction, resources, and energy cooperation, and aeronautics and astronautics. A full section was devoted to space cooperation, including communication and remote sensing satellites, infrastructure, education, and space technology application (“Full Text of China’s Policy Paper on Latin America and the Caribbean.”) While infrastructural arrangements are not new to bi- and multilateral development politics, and the construction of a satellite antenna has different impacts than a launch site on surrounding human and agricultural activities, questions of sovereignty and culpability still arise.

Critics of the facility point out the granting of Argentinean territory to China infringes on the state’s sovereignty, and argue that a Chinese-staffed space facility, controlled by the Chinese military, contradicts the stated intentions and purposes of the operations. In 2016, a project manager at the site said the parabolic antennas could not be used militarily because of their slow maneuvering, but the antennas were found to be “widely steerable” with the ability to “operate in tandem through the technique of interferometry to more precisely lock onto satellites and their signals” (Lee). In 2015, a former representative of Argentina to the Arms Trade Treaty, Ambassador Roberto García Moritán, said the antennas and telemetry “have dual use. This antenna will have the capacity to interfere with communications, electronic networks, electromagnetic systems; it has the capacity for receiving information about the launching of missiles and other space activities, including drones, and movement of strategic arms. It has the capacity to collect information of enormous sensitivity in the eventuality of a military competition” (Lee).

Adding to the issue of intention and transparency, multiple partners involved in the project are active participants in other Chinese military activities. A construction company that has operated in the South China Sea is responsible for site development, the facility’s operator is under a unit of the Chinese Army, and Xi’an Satellite Control Center, whose name is on the base, is considered by some to be the “nerve center of the [People’s Liberation Army]’s satellite tracking, telemetry, and control activities worldwide” (Lee). Further, while the 50-year rent and tax-free contract was signed in 2014 with the former Argentine president, earlier photography showed that the construction site had been under development for at least two months prior to Parliament’s approval (Lee).

It is naïve at best, in this context, for superpowers on the terrestrial stage to assume that purely scientific intentions and peaceful international cooperation underpin Chinese investment in space infrastructure abroad. In fact, China’s complex history with intellectual property rights, theft and lack of transparency around its anti-satellite testing hint at other political and militaristic aspirations at play (Huang and Smith; Gady). The further lack of transparency in political processes leading up to the announcement of the venture in Argentina signals worrying questions about the culpability of proxies in conflict concerning infrastructural development of space technology. History has shown the Cold War-era to be rife with proxy wars, political and economic upheaval, and espionage activities throughout the globe at the behest of larger (center) powers. It is also known that the United States used South America as a staging ground for its own hegemonic realizations. Therefore, while Latin American states may see China today as a more equitable partner – promoting development because of South-South cooperation and solidarity – it would be ingenuous to assume a Chinese partnership is a purely benevolent one ((“A Brief History of Outer Space Cooperation” 50).

While these case studies focus on bilateral, state-level arrangements, New Space, the emerging sector of commercial space ventures, will add interesting power dynamics to the mix. There may be a rise in space-faring abilities by emerging peripheral states that take advantage of New Space’s utilization of free-market economics and commercial access, rather than relying on huge government contracts and the space ambitions of current parties in office. In this way, New Space is lauded as something of an apolitical branch of the nouveau space race, but lending itself solely to market economics creates other risks as well.

The Privatization of Space

There are many pros and cons of the privatization of space that uniquely inform the development of emerging space industries, from competition influencing technological growth to the growing accessibility of former government-developed technologies into public-ready ones. The privatization of space economies does not change their underlying nature, though; corporations are accountable to shareholders in ways that governments are accountable to taxpayers. Since profitability is a driving factor in corporate decision-making, space companies will have to decide the extent to which they replicate the same open-loop cycles that have made infrastructure, energy, and transportation wasteful economies of scale today.

New Space has an opportunity to factor in terrestrial sustainability to siting considerations and address human dignity and environmental stewardship, as well as operational transparency, unlike the Baikonur and Quintuco cases. If these entities operate with a business as usual outlook, however, New Space’s power dynamics will look unfortunately like the same industrializing processes of the last two centuries, which gave us great technological advances at significant human and environmental costs.

Conclusion

Tomorrow’s astropolitics are deeply embedded in the geopolitics of the past and present. It is unlikely that political, economic, and social motivators will be absent from future state-level decision-making, as near space is such a critical component of terrestrial development and security strategy, and outer space holds valuable economic opportunity. It is with this sentiment that New Space holds the opportunity for investment and development values that reflect the critical global concerns of the 21st century, namely climate change and inequality. By applying the same concern for closed-loop engineered systems and enhanced technological outputs used to develop new products for space to the social and political systems that create those products terrestrially, New Space could emerge as an industry that holds the ambition and optimism of a new generation, serving a dual purpose as a scientific barrier breaker for both outer space and terrestrial challenges.

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