In Accessory to War: The Unspoken Alliance Between Astrophysics and the Military (W.W. Norton, 2018), astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson (with co-author Avis Lange, a research associate at the Hayden Planetarium) relates the history of the relationship between scientists who seek to expand our knowledge of the universe and the strategists who seek to expand their dominance of it. Scientists and militarists aren’t the only actors in the development of technologies that both understand and exploit this knowledge. There are also, of course, capitalists and commercial enterprises that fund the research, development, and deployment of the products of that R&D, not all of which are as sinister as this book’s title and subtitle suggest.
Futurists represent another set of actors in this history play, beginning with the ancient astrologers who used their knowledge of the movement of celestial bodies to curry favor with the ruling class. In the 20th century, futurists were proponents of technologies such as radar and satellites that can serve either benign or militaristic purposes. Arthur C. Clarke, Herman Kahn, the RAND Corporation, and the “Skunk Works” unit of aerospace futurists at Lockheed Aircraft (developers of the U-2 reconnaissance plane) are among the futurists noted here.
Tyson draws a broad trend line leading to increased militarization of space. This militarization has been kept in check historically by cooperation among those pursuing and holding advanced technologies, which is no longer limited to the two superpowers of the Cold War and the Space Age. As the number of rivals grows, so do their threats to each other.
But the existential threats posed by humanity’s presence in space also are no longer limited to Earthly rivalries. In fact, Tyson suggests, space already is littered (literally) with threats in the form of debris—space junk. “It’s already up there,” he writes, “the inevitable but inadvertent result of smashups, explosions, rocket launches, space-walk maneuvers, the ordinary dumping of trash, and the inevitable demise of assorted spacecraft. … All harmless until they plow into the belly of a satellite or space station at an impact speed as much as ten times faster than a rifle bullet.”
Tyson suggests that efforts to track space junk, along with the current efforts to track and thwart threats from asteroids and other impactors, could help rival powers avert the existential threat wrought by the militarization of space. [Learn more at NASA.] Another avenue to prevent war is to develop ways to use the abundant resources in space—water from comets, for instance—so to alleviate one of the principal causes of wars: competition for increasingly scarce resources.
These are suggestions futurists have made almost since the beginning of the Space Age. Writing in The Futurist (December 1969), British physicist Freeman Dyson suggested the colonization of isolated floating city-states attached to comets. Physicist Gerard K. O’Neill, author of The High Frontier: Human Colonies in Space (William Morrow and Co., 1976), also saw space as an opportunity to solve problems of food, population, energy, and materials.
Accessory to War is comprehensively researched, accessibly written, and ultimately optimistic about our prospects—if we pool our talents and pull together.
Cindy Wagner is AAI Foresight's consulting editor. Contact her at CynthiaGWagner@gmail.com.