LATEST: Since this op-ed was written, Russia's Luna-25 probe “has ceased to exist following a collision with the Moon's surface.”  

After half a century, Russia has returned to the Moon to continue the mechanized exploration of our nearest celestial neighbor. Luna-25 is a robotic mission intended to land in the south polar region. It will carry out investigations on lunar geology in preparation for establishing a long-term human presence there. But it’s not the only country with an interest in this area of the Moon. India has its own lander on course to these grey desolate wastelands and the US, China and South Korea have their eyes on it too.

The motivation for this apparently strange obsession with the south pole is that scientists suspect that the craters there – kept permanently dark and cold because of the orbital properties of the Moon – may harbor ancient ice, a material that could be dug up, released from its rocky host material, and used to provide the liquid water and oxygen necessary to support human lunar settlements.

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These same orbital properties create just the right conditions to allow for permanently sunlit crater rims, good real estate on which to put your station compared to most of the Moon which oscillates between two weeks of baking sunlight and two weeks of frigid darkness.

The launch of Luna-25 at a time when Russia is engaged in a war against Ukraine will undoubtedly seem oddly incongruent to many people. But it leads to the point of this essay. 

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“Russia is banking on Europe and the West going soft, and some in Europe are playing along,” von der Leyen told the European Parliament.

What this feat of interplanetary engineering shows is that space is currently a largely open and wild frontier. No matter what the international zeitgeist might say, or try to say, spacecraft can be launched into this infinite recess with little possibility of other nations having any control of the nation doing the launching. There is nothing in the laws of either physics or politics which prevents someone waging war on Earth from launching missions into space. Throughout the Cold War, a litany of spacecraft from east and west flew into space in parallel with and in spite of tensions and conflicts on Earth.

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Recently there have been new attempts to create international frameworks to encourage good behavior in space. One such effort is called the “Artemis Accords”, initiated by the United States, which has 28 signatories, including Ukraine. The accords establish a framework for cooperation in the exploration and peaceful use of the Moon, Mars, and other planetary bodies. They are largely an extension of the Outer Space Treaty (OST), a Cold War-era agreement that sought to forestall the use of space for military purposes and to encourage the civilian development of this frontier.

The OST, and by extension the Artemis Accords, say nothing about the sorts of societies we want to create beyond Earth. That’s reasonable and not surprising. After all, in the 1960s, when the OST came into fruition, permanent human settlements were not yet possible. But as we expand our presence in space, so people will begin to build stations and with them, the first tentative permanent communities. What values and ideas those communities will propagate seems important.

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One could take the politically neutral view that we shouldn’t express strong opinions on the types of polities we prefer in space. We should leave that baggage back on Earth and set a new standard of peace. As a scientist myself, I would certainly prefer political neutrality in space. Let’s keep socialism (indeed any ‘ism’) away from those Martian rocks.

Rather, some might say, let’s confine ourselves to general statements about responsible behavior, facilitating peaceful assistance where necessary – exactly in the spirit of the Artemis Accords.

Yet the problem remains that this approach does not establish any principles on the fundamental sort of governance we wish to see throughout the solar system. Peaceful conduct and the sustainable use of space resources can equally be claimed by dictatorships on Earth, with their corresponding settlements beyond Earth, as much as they can be by liberal democracies.

Regardless of what we might wish for, the neutral view seems unrealistic, and in the final analysis, potentially even undesirable.

It is unrealistic because humans do not seem to miraculously improve when they leave Earth. There are some people who claim that we do. When we set out into space and look back at Earth in its minuteness and fragility, we undergo some sort of “overview effect” that makes us more globally aware and loving humans.  

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While I have no doubt that certain individuals do develop a new perspective on our terrestrial troubles and their insignificance, as some astronauts have attested, there is no convincing evidence that we suddenly lose any interest in being despots or tyrants – that the Earth’s atmosphere will represent a sharp demarcation between flawed and faulty humanity down here and human angels up there.

But more than the lack of realism, I would contend that space neutrality in political matters is ultimately undesirable, no matter how scientifically pure you want to be. I do not wish to live in a world where nations who launch wars of aggression on Earth, but to what they aspire for human settlements in space we remain oddly mute, encouraging the use of space to expand certain political systems and models of behavior without an opinion being uttered. Even worse, when those views are spoken, they are treated as disingenuous, against the neutral ethos of space exploration.

In space, the principles of freedom of expression and assembly, for example, matter. Accountable governance, equality before the law, a society of laws and not blind force or power, seem desirable. For anyone who holds these values to be dear, they are as essential on the Moon as they are on Earth. And one might point out that these values are the basis of societies in which free scientific enquiry flourishes. The notion that politics and science can be utterly separated is a specious one. Science is not segregated from the political environments in which we exist or seek to create, and especially not in space - just ask Wernher von Braun.

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What is to be done? One might say that tyranny can never emerge in space because otherwise no one would want to move there, but I think this is too simplistic. One does not need a despotic dystopia in space (which people would indeed avoid) for a settlement to represent the offshoot of a totalitarian regime or to propagate a fundamentally illiberal political and economic culture. Tyranny will undoubtedly follow us to the stars. This leads me to two conclusions.

First, we must think about how to develop free societies beyond Earth anew. It is not clear that the ideas of freedom can simply be taken and transplanted into the space frontier unmodified from our experiences on Earth. What are the conditions for different forms of freedom in space and how will they be modified by the extremities to be found there? Second, and this is a view that is likely to be less popular: we should dispel the utopian idea that we can forget about political philosophy in space and focus on science and peace.

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We need to state with clarity what sort of societies we want to create beyond Earth. If we do not, the indecision and lack of lucidity on these matters is far more likely to lead to anarchy and conflict than a bland hope we will all muddle through in a political vacuum and an uneasy status quo.

A faith that the unpopularity of tyranny beyond Earth will always lead to liberal paradises will equally encourage a lethargy towards innovative thinking about ways to mitigate and meliorate illiberal behavior in space.

For those unsettled by the idea of autocracies peering down on Earth from distant worlds, I think the answer is simple: let ideas win. We should explain with simplicity and confidence what sort of human organization we want beyond the home world. Then, let humanity decide which systems of governance they want to see emerge and spread through the solar system. But to do that, we must be unapologetic in stating what we prefer. Personally speaking, I would like to see liberal and vibrant democracies throughout the solar system.

Charles Cockell is Professor of Astrobiology at the University of Edinburgh.

The views expressed in this opinion article are the author’s and not necessarily those of Kyiv Post.

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