Even during times of conflict on the ground, space has historically been an arena of collaboration among nations. Trends in the past decade suggest that the nature of cooperation in space is shifting, and fallout from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has highlighted these changes.
In the past few years, groups of nations with similar strategic interests on Earth have come together to further their interests in space, forming what I call “Space blocs.” Despite tensions on the ground, both acted carefully to avoid causing crises and even cooperated on a number of projects in space.
As more countries developed their own space agencies, several international collaborative groups emerged. In 1998, the US and Russia joined efforts to build the International Space Station, which is now supported by 15 countries. The European Space Agency, which now includes 22 nations, could be considered among the first space blocs.
Countries that shared interests on the ground began coming together to pursue specific mission objectives in space, forming space blocs.
In the past five years, several new space blocs have emerged with various levels of space capabilities.
These include the African Space Agency, with 55 member states; the Latin American and Caribbean Space Agency, with 7 member states; and the Arab Space Coordination Group, with 12 Middle Eastern member states.
The mission aims to build a research station on the south pole of the moon with a supporting lunar space station called the Gateway.
Russia and China-along with a number of their allies on Earth-have not done so because some perceive the accords as an effort to expand the US-dominated international order to outer space.
The European Space Agency has even discontinued several joint projects it had planned with Russia and is instead expanding its partnerships with the US and Japan.
In addition to seeking power in space, countries are also using space blocs to strengthen their spheres of influence on the ground.
One example is the Asia-Pacific Space Cooperation Organization, which was formed in 2005. There has been tremendous growth of commercial activities in space in the past decade. As a result, some scholars see a future of space cooperation defined by shared commercial interests. Commercial enterprises are unlikely to dictate future international cooperation in space.
According to current international space law, any company that operates in space does so as an extension of-and under the jurisdiction of-its home nation’s government. The dominance of states over companies in space affairs has been starkly exemplified through the Ukraine crisis. As a result of state-imposed sanctions, many commercial space companies have stopped collaborating with Russia.
Given the current legal framework, it seems most likely that states-not commercial entities-will continue to dictate the rules in space.
There are many benefits when nations come together and form space blocs.
The growing rigidity of two alliances-the Triple Entente and the Triple Alliance-at the end of 19th century is often cited as the key trigger of World War I. A key lesson therein is that as long as existing space blocs remain flexible and open to all, cooperation will flourish and the world may yet avoid an open conflict in space.
Maintaining the focus on scientific goals and exchanges between and within space blocs-while keeping political rivalries at bay-will help to ensure the future of international cooperation in space.