Crowded Orbits: Conflict and Cooperation in Space

  • Published

Crowded Orbits: Conflict and Cooperation in Space by James Clay Moltz. Columbia University Press, 2014, 240 pp.

Understanding the unique challenges of space proves difficult for many strategists, even those well versed in traditional, earthbound conflict and cooperation scenarios. In Crowded Orbits, James Clay Moltz provides an introduction to the basic hurdles within the space environment and across several political arenas. By emphasizing the importance of international cooperation to space, he tries to shed new light on this difficult area while keeping most topics at an introductory level. The book offers basic guidance and assumes that the reader has no previous experience with space topics or concerns. The introduction, flyleaf, and press release repeatedly refer to the text as a primer; however, they also suggest that it may provide more detailed analysis regarding further cooperative theories.

The author's thesis maintains that any potential space scenario will result in the emergence of a military hegemon, piecemeal agreements between various players, or dedicated international governance. He theorizes that all space conflict and cooperation proceed from the military's desire for control, an economic desire for wealth, or an altruistic, international-governance approach that seeks to solve humanity's future space challenges. Crowded Orbits begins by examining both the physical issues and political developments that led mankind into the space age. Other chapters explore military, civil, and commercial advancements before addressing the changes that various political structures created within the space environment. Finally, Moltz summarizes his initial arguments before concluding rather simply that conflict prevention remains everyone's responsibility.

Several strong points immediately appear within the text. All sections are clear and well marked by subject area, allowing easy reference throughout and a quick review if one wishes only to highlight an area rather than proceed from point to point. The repetition of most elements enhances rapid reference. Further, one can easily flip through the work without worrying about being dragged into specific details. The presence of multiple charts and graphs that compare physical characteristics such as launch capacity, first-ever space events, and existing booster-vehicle capability also facilitates easy reference. Additionally, Moltz uses numerous popular allusions to drive home his meanings. The clear section markings, useful charts, and popular approach all contribute to the text's value for readers who require only a cursory overview of space.

However, one wishes that the author had employed a more standardized approach to various high-level topics to permit an easier comparison of chapters. It is difficult to compare the advances that appear in the civil-approaches chapter to those in either the section on military strategies or the one on economic investment since no unified approach standardizes analysis. For example, the chapter on civilian space primarily evaluates development applications of various national agencies, devoting only a couple of pages to civilian theories. Contrastingly, the chapter on military development emphasizes military strategic theory, offering only a few paragraphs on military operational applications. Concentrating on either theory or application from one chapter to the next would emphasize understanding within the scenarios. This dichotomy might appeal to beginners but fails to adequately support Moltz's thesis.

Although the author repeatedly returns to the main points, one feels that he makes no attempt to expand any particular perspective. His own views about considering only international governance as a worthwhile approach lack sufficient evidence. Moltz spends more time on challenges arising from conflicted and crowded space orbits than on any actual conflict in space between either national militaries or civilian governments. Repeatedly, the text stresses that cooperation would be preferable to conflict, but one feels that the latter could be resolved quite adequately by a single hegemon as opposed to techniques of shared governance. The book presents no discussion regarding which method is preferable for either specific or grouped challenges. Moltz suggests no paths to follow in reaching particular goals; moreover, although he advocates that a shared space environment would be in humanity's best interest, the evidence is lacking.

The chapter on "Commercial Space Developments" seems the most useful. Moltz covers all of the areas in which companies seek economic growth, rapidly addressing communications, remote sensing, launch, mining, and energy without promoting any single position or specific development. Reviewing space problems, however, only highlights those areas already made evident in early chapters. The limited number of available orbits also drives radio frequency congestion and underlines the lack of any defined approach to new corporations within space. Without a military hegemon, piecemeal approach, or global governance, one can imagine the problems posed by the crowded environment. Although the economic potential is substantial, no methods for realizing that potential appear within the work.

Overall, Crowded Orbits is a worthwhile starting point for readers unfamiliar with either the space domain or the unique issues presented by today's international environment. It describes many countries' development methods and independent economic possibilities, but the absence of any standardized comparison prevents the advanced reader from following any specific launch path to a conclusion. Certainly, the discussion of problems such as congested orbits within the geostationary belt, limited launch capacity, and the failure to provide a unified global approach is useful. However, the lack of any solution beyond advocating further study severely limits the book's utility. One applauds Moltz's attempt to make a difficult topic accessible to beginners, but a more detailed look at any one section would have increased the text's value to intermediate and advanced students as well.

Lt Col Mark Peters
Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."