Review of ‘The Future of Geography’ by Tim Marshall

When did a spacecraft from Earth first land on the Moon?

Who owns the Moon?

How many people have walked on the Moon?

How many flags are there on the Moon?

What legal frameworks regulate space activity and who enforces these frameworks?

Tim Marshall returns in ‘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’ and his insights and commentary on the dangers of astropolitics, could help us chart the new frontier of space.

Marshall structures the book highly effectively, paying homage to the scientists and thinking that has helped humanity get to this point in space exploration- then evaluating how each of the three main superpowers of the USA, Russia and China have progressed in their plans and what their ambitions might be- then finally exploring what tomorrow’s world might look like, as private companies and entrepreneurs race to put their stamp on the history books.

He acknowledges that ‘Space has shaped human life from our very beginning.’ He charts the human fascination with the stars from hunter-gatherer tribes to the Babylonians and Sumerians to the Greeks, 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. He focuses on 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 the desire to find out, to know more- and even to go there ourselves- has proved irresistible.’ He also warns that we need to ensure that we do not take our current insular political conflicts with us- that we cannot repeat the mistakes of the past and that advancing into space is for all humanity and should not be controlled by a single entity or a 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 is 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.’  Marshall explores in detail the decades following World War 2, when humanity took its first faltering steps into the cosmos.  ‘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.’ He notes the number of historical ‘firsts’ that the Russians had in their space progression, much to the Americans’ chagrin, and reminds his audience that Russia reached the moon first, albeit through a ‘hard-landing’, ‘Then in 1959 the Soviets had a hit, literally, when Luna 2 became the first spacecraft to reach the surface of the Moon.’ The Space Race that excited the 1960s, appeared to diminish soon after the successful landing, and notably, flag planting, of Apollo 11.Marshall comments that it was a historic global effort that helped Armstrong take that 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 almost a 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 entirety of the Earth. He acknowledges the reasons for the Space Race coming to an end when it did, as budgets and political pressures became important, but 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?

‘Apollo 17 was the last, leaving on 14 December 1972, and since then no one has been back.’

Location, location, location

In a fascinating manner, Marshall outlines the reasons for countries and ‘space superpowers’ to go back to the Moon and indeed continue with space activity. He compares space geography to Earth geography and notes that if an interested party controls access, then they can control the power.

‘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 160km- 2000km, is one of these key locations, owing to satellite engagement there. ‘Strategically, low Earth orbit is a potential ‘choke point’. ‘Low Earth orbit is an attractive piece of real estate because that’s where most satellites operate.’ He also identifies the 5 Lagrange points of our system as being another key tactical area. ‘The Lagrange points of the Earth-Sun system are advantageous positions to place satellites.’ Marshall indicates 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.’

In terms of a return to the Moon, polar exploration may be the focus of future visits with mining of resources, particularly helium-3, being the motivation behind space investment. ‘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 activitiesthat 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 the method and vehicle through which, space exploration can continue in a positive manner. ‘The ISS is a symbol of what can achieved in space through cooperation.’ Without global cooperation, his 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.’

Marshall continues the point that our current ‘space laws’ belong to another age. He 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 even 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, 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 they happen. ‘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. ‘There are other, more immediately pressing issues that also require international collaboration. A big one is space debris.’ As Sangeetha Abdu Jyothi, from the University of California notes, ‘To the best of my knowledge, there are no global agreements or plans to deal with a large-scale solar storm.’ The recent DART- Double Asteroid Redirection Test- development, which spent $325 million 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 8 billion inhabitants of planet Earth.

The Big Three

Marshall then dedicates a whole chapter to each of the Big 3 space superpowers of China, the USA and Russia and highlights their respective notable achievements and ambitions for space activity. ‘In 2019, the uncrewed Chang’e 4 became the first spacecraft to land on the far side of the moon.’ In perhaps, a 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, on the other hand, ‘plan to construct a Lunar Gateway Space Station near the Moon.’ Russia 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.

There is a growing number of countries and companies, which are trying to elbow their way into the ‘New World’ of space exploration. ‘While China, the USA and Russia are the three main players in space, many others are looking to increase their presence.’ Jeff Bezos has founded ‘Blue Origin’, Richard Branson has Virgin Galactic and Elon Musk has Space X. In addition, there are a host of countries from France, Germany, Japan, Australia, India, the UK, Israel, Iran, India and the UAE, who are all vying for projects, partnerships and prestige in a crowded marketplace. And 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 it has brought war with it. Space is no different and the potential battlefield is beginning to take shape.’ Marshall concludes in an even handed manner, by firstly acknowledging our history of conflict and war, ‘Given all recorded human history, 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 away from now- we may see the first human landing on the planet Mars and it is worth a moment of imagination.

How many people across the world will watch this globally unifying event?

In 1969, we left a message on the Moon that ‘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. We already have magnificent pioneers and amazing achievements. Where they went, and what they did, was incredibly hard.’

For their sakes, we have to follow.


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