Outer space belongs to everyone and no one; at least, that’s what the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 says. On its face, this seems like an uncontroversial statement. But in the 1970s, a group of equatorial countries challenged this idea. Only the richest and most powerful countries can afford to reach outer space in the first place, they argued, so in principle, these nations controlled it. The protesting countries were ignored at the time, but to some, their warnings seem more urgent now that it isn’t just wealthy nations with space programs but also individual billionaires.
Duque, Alejo. “Original Declaration of 1976.” The Bogotá Declaration, July 24, 2009.
Durrani, Haris. “Is Spaceflight Colonialism?” The Nation, July 19, 2019.
Durrani, Haris. “The Bogota Declaration: A Case Study on Sovereignty, Empire, and the Commons in Outer Space,” Columbia Journal of Transnational Law.
“The Great Brazilian Sat-Hack Crackdown.” Wired, April 20, 2009.
“Invasion Espacial.” Semana, May 13, 1985.
“Outer Space Treaty Signed in Moscow.” British Pathe, YouTube, April 13, 2014.
“Ronaldo Corinthians Debut Goal.” YouTube, December 27, 2010.
Rand, Lisa Ruth. “Egalitarian Orbits: A New Regime for Geostationary Space,” University of Pennsylvania.
Rand, Lisa Ruth. “Neocolonial Space: Orbital Allocation In The Age of The New International Economic Order, 1971-1979.” Science History Institute (lunchtime lecture, February 26, 2020).
Stuart, Jill. “The Outer Space Treaty has been remarkably successful – but is it fit for the modern age?” The Conversation, January 27, 2017.
Taguchi, Suketaro. “The Complete Tokyo 1964 Olympics Film.” The Olympic Channel, The Tokyo Olympic Film Association, Youtube, November 8, 2013.
Alexis Pedrick: Prologue. The Brazilian Truckers.
Lisa Berry Drago: Sao Paolo, 2009.
Archival: Ronaldo on the run. He’s not gonna stop, I don’t think, Ronaldo. Here is Ronaldo! Well, we said Ronaldo was due a goal and there it is!
Lisa Berry Drago: It’s March 8th, 2009. The Brazilian soccer superstar, Ronaldo Luis Nazario del Lima, is playing his first game with his new team, Corinthians. He’s so famous, he’s simply known as Ronaldo or “O Fenômeno”, Portuguese for The Phenomenon. Ronaldo’s been playing for European teams since 1994 and fans are thrilled to have him back in his home country.
Archival: Here’s Ronaldo. Ronaldo on a run. Ronaldo in the area.
This is Marcel Suarez, a journalist in Brazil.
Marcelo Soares: Corinthians is a, is a very popular team in Sao Paolo. That’s the, the, the most popular team in Sao Paolo and one of the most popular teams in Brazil. Many of our its supporters are very humble people. Like the truckers.
Alexis Pedrick: Truck drivers are some of the biggest soccer fans in Brazil. They’re alone on the road for long stretches of time but they can listen to the games on their AM radios and talk to each other about the games on their truck radios. But their truck radios have limited ranges. So a lot of drivers get them rigged at roadside shops to stretch them.
Marcelo Soares: And there a guy or technician, and it doesn’t take much to be a technician, uh, on the roadside, he would get, uh, your antenna and roll wire on the coil to double the frequency. And they say well, it accesses the bolinha satellite. They only refer to it as Bolinha. Bolinha, Bolinha, Bolinha, which is little ball. It’s a little ball in the sky.
Lisa Berry Drago: A little ball in the sky. That’s what the truckers call the satellites that stretch their radio ranges. These roadside technicians are MacGyvering the truck drivers’ radios so that they can access satellites in the sky above Brazil. And it’s not just truck drivers that love these satellites. Tapping into them provides communication abilities for people in many parts of Brazil that don’t get cell phone reception, even deep in the Amazon.
Marcelo Soares: It’s the best transmission you can get for the price you pay.
Alexis Pedrick: Meaning after paying the roadside technician to rig your radio, it’s free. And drivers can talk to one another without fear of losing a signal. And they do, especially on game days.
Marcelo Soares: Soccer days were big on the satellite because the truckers were driving in the, the middle of the forest and they were listening to the, the game on the AM radio. And they are alone but the only people they have to talk to are other truck drivers using radio communication thi- uh, systems.
Lisa Berry Drago: And on March 8th, 2009, thousands of them tuned in to hear this.
Alexis Pedrick: Ronaldo has just scored his first goal back in Brazil. The crowd goes wild. Outside the stadium, it’s also complete mayhem. It’s basically a week long party. But 10 days later, the party came to an end. Brazilian Federal Police, in cooperation with the United States, arrested 39 people for illegally hijacking a US military satellite, AKA the bolinhas. The little balls in the sky. The arrests came as a shock to all the truckers and the countless other people who use the bolinha network to communicate with each other.
Marcelo Soares: Yeah it’s it’s a ball in the sky [laughs] that is a free for all. And they, they went for it. I don’t think many knew who owned the bolinha satellite.
Alexis Pedrick: Who owns the bolinha satellites? Turns out, it’s complicated. The specific satellite the truck drivers were tapping into was called the FLT STAT-8 Satellite. And it’s part of a constellation of eight military satellites that navy ships, submarines and airplanes use to communicate with each other. They were launched in the 1970s and 80s. Now some of them are still used. But they’re mostly phased out because the technology is old. But phasing out satellites doesn’t mean they’re brought back to earth. They’re usually just left in space. So in a way, the United States orbital trash became Brazil’s treasure.
Lisa Berry Drago: Alejo Duque is an amateur radio operator in Columbia, Brazil’s neighboring country to the northwest. He’s upset that the Brazilian authorities collaborated with the United States to detain their radio operators.
Alejo Duque: We are colonized in such a good way that we even enforce the incapacity to even think about reclaiming that because we live in this fear. We think it’s all illegal that we cannot even think about hijacking a satellite.
Lisa Berry Drago: Alejo wants other radio operators to hijack those satellites because he says that they’re in the orbit that rightfully belongs to equatorial countries like Columbia and Brazil. Shouldn’t the countries below the satellites have some claim to them?
Alejo Duque: So we could apply some civil disobedience and reclaim some of these technology and, simply use it. So yes, it’s, it’s subversive of course, completely, 100%. But in this planetary condition of technocratic control, we need to think, in terms of how can we reclaim our rights?
Alexis Pedrick: Latin American countries challenging ownership of space is nothing new. In fact, Alejo runs a website called the Bogota Declaration. It’s gained a following among space nerds because it’s 100% dedicated to a little known space treaty from the 1970s.
Lisa Berry Drago: The Bogota Declaration was the first time that developing countries challenged space faring superpowers and their control over orbit. They asked some really important questions like who gets to benefit from space exploration? Is it just nations with the technology and the money to get there first? Or should the countries below be able to stake some claims?
Alexis Pedrick: The Declaration also highlighted the inequities inherent to space exploration. Inequities that have only become more pronounced now that it’s not just governments exploring space but also individual billionaires. How will their actions in space be kept in check?
Lisa Berry Drago: This episode is all about challenging power in space. How it plays out in small grass roots ways like it did with the Brazilian truckers, but also how it unfolds in much bigger stages with much higher stakes.
Alexis Pedrick: I am Alexis Pedrick.
Lisa Berry Drago: And I am Lisa Berry Drago and this is Distillations.
Lisa Berry Drago: Chapter one. Geostationary Orbit.
Alexis Pedrick: To understand the Bogota Declaration and these satellite hijackings, we need to understand the orbit these satellites travel on.
Lisa Berry Drago: Arthur C. Clarke is one of the 20th century’s most renowned science fiction authors. He’s probably most famous for co-writing the screenplay to the film 2001: A Space Odyssey. But he was fascinated by outer space long before that. In 1945, he sent a letter to the editor of the technical magazine Wireless World suggesting that Nazi V2 Bomber Rockets could become artificial satellites.
Here’s Lisa Ruth Rand, a historian of science, technology and the environment, and an orbital space junk scholar at the Science History Institute.
Lisa Ruth Rand: Arthur C. Clarke was, you know, taking horrifying notes of all of the horror and terror that these newly developed V2 Rockets, which were a, you know, a German wartime technology, were, was they, they were wreaking destruction all over his native England. And in this kind of moment of optimism, to some extent, really was starting to imagine what, what a peace time use of this new technology could be.
Alexis Pedrick: He suggested that launching these would-be satellites to an altitude of 42,000 kilometers, 26,098 miles, would allow them to rotate alongside the earth. Meaning that a radio transmitter could transmit signals from a fixed point above the earth.
Lisa Berry Drago: And this was actually a big deal because, number one, this was 12 years before Sputnik was even launched. The visionary part of it was that he imagined that the satellite could basically travel along with the earth as it was rotating. And therefore, only one, or a handful of satellites, would be needed to have continuous transmission as opposed to a whole constellation of satellites.
Alexis Pedrick: The second big idea was the hypothesis that there was a region in orbit where this phenomenon, satellites rotating along with the earth, could happen. This region is now known as geostationary orbit and Clarke was only off by about 6000 kilometers.
Lisa Ruth Rand: And for that reason, geostationary orbit is also sometimes known as the Clarke Orbit to recognize that Arthur C. Clarke made this suggestion back when the very first rockets were flying and being used as, as weapons. That he envisioned this idea of a peace time use for a rocket, which ends, ultimately ends up coming to fruition.
Alexis Pedrick: This orbit is basically a sweet spot for these satellites. Those in lower orbit, like the ones being launched by SpaceX, travel faster than the earth’s rotation and therefore lose their signal frequently, which is why so many of them are needed. But you only need one, or a few, in geostationary orbit, to transmit a crisp, continuous signal.
Lisa Ruth Rand: An orbit that is 35,700 kilometers above the equator and objects in that orbit circle the earth at the same speed that the earth turns. So objects appear to be fixed above a point on the ground as opposed to going, as opposed to orbiting more quickly and going behind the earth, where you would have a break in service. So that orbit is extremely precious and there’s only 360 degrees of it.
Rigo Hernandez: So it’s like, uh, orbit real estate?
Lisa Ruth Rand: Ex- that is exactly, that’s exactly how I like to call it. Yeah. It’s orbital real estate.
Alexis Pedrick: And just like power struggles on land, there’s been a long dispute about just who has ownership over these 360 degrees. Who gets to put satellites up there?
Lisa Ruth Rand: Geo is still first come, first served basically. Although the barriers to entry are still so high that, ultimately, most of the satellites are outright owned by the United States, Russia and China. Mostly the United States and Russia.
Lisa Berry Drago: Arthur C. Clarke never thought it would happen in his lifetime. But just 19 years after his prediction, the United States sent Syncom-3 into orbit above the Pacific Ocean. The main purpose of this satellite was to broadcast the 1964 Olympics.
Archival: October the 10th, 1964. 2:00 in the afternoon. And the moment is finally alive. The moment we have been waiting for here in Tokyo. Greece, the first nation to ever hold Olympic competition, coming onto the playing field now on this beautiful sunshiny day in Tokyo with upwards to 83,000 people jam packed here at the National Stadium. Colorful contrast with the green infield and the brown clay and cinder track.
Lisa Ruth Rand: It’s a big deal because suddenly viewers in North America were able to see the games in real time as if they were halfway around the world. As if they, themselves, were sitting in the stands. And this is something we take for granted right now. But was unheard of then. That you would be able to have, to be able to see something happening in real time across halfway around the world.
Alexis Pedrick: Syncom 3 was proof of concept, that geostationary orbit worked. The 1964 Olympics were broadcast in North America in real time, all because of that precious orbital real estate over a handful of equatorial countries. Real estate that belonged to, well, who exactly?
Lisa Berry Drago: Chapter Two. Space Treaties.
Alexis Pedrick: We said that orbital real estate is a lot like land based real estate, but there’s one key difference. Space has no clear owner. And there aren’t laws that govern space either. Space is governed by treaties. And treaties are a lot different.
Lisa Ruth Rand: Most treaties are about norms, right? It’s a treaty, it’s not a law. Because when you have an international treaty, especially I always forget the number, is it 190 signatories to the Outer Space Treaty? There- there’s well over a hundred signatories to the Outer Space Treaty. Each of those signatory nations has its own legal regime. Has its own language. Legal and otherwise. You can’t really create a law when you’re talking about making a set of rules for how to engage when you’re dealing with over a hundred different nations with their own sovereignty and their own legal regimes. What you can do is create a set of norms.
The example I like to give when I am teaching this to students, right, is, you know, let’s say you’re in a, in an apartment with roommates. And one of your roommates … Well, I’ll give the gross one. One of your roommates just refuses to flush the toilet. Just refuses. Right? You can’t make a law saying you have to flush the toilet or we will arrest you. Right? But you can make that roommate’s life hard in other ways until they start doing what you want them to do. Right? If all of the other roommates are saying, “You need to flush the toilet or we will give you the cold shoulder. Or we will not agree to do our part of the chores elsewhere in the house.” You can think of those as sanctions, right? But there’s other- when you, when you build a norm, when you build a expectation of behavior, there’s ways of enforcing it that don’t involve policing.
Lisa Berry Drago: On January 27, 1967, the United States, the United Kingdom and the Soviet Union joined together at the United Nations to sign the Outer Space Treaty.
Archival: Without such a treaty, life on earth would be under continual threat. A nightmare existence. Soviet Ambassador Smonowski acted for Moscow. On the right sat the American. Other signings were made in Washington and Moscow. So far, 31 nations have joined in the treaty.
Lisa Ruth Rand: The Outer Space Treaty was notable in that it designated outer space as the common heritage of all humankind. No states or other entity can claim ownership over space itself, and that includes the moon and other celestial bodies.
Rigo Hernandez: That sounds great.
Lisa Ruth Rand: It sounds great. Yes! It absolutely sounds great. The Outer Space Treaty includes language that stipulates that space needs to be the common heritage of all humankind regardless of access to resources, regardless of access to technical knowledge. That this was truly meant to be egalitarian. And it’s a pretty short treaty but it’s, it was, it was broadly accepted. And it remains, you know, over 50 years later, the primary binding governance document for outer space.
Alexis Pedrick: Today, 110 countries have signed on as parties to the Outer Space Treaty which, like most treaties, basically runs on the honor system. And this is the basis of international space law.
Lisa Berry Drago: And this treaty connects back to our story about the Brazilian truckers because it has two major implications for geostationary orbit, that 360 degrees of space just about 36,000 kilometers above the equator. Lisa Ruth Rand, by the way, refers to this orbit as geo for short.
Lisa Ruth Rand: The Outer Space Treaty, one of the things that it doesn’t do is state explicitly where space begins, where earth ends and space begins. It kind of left, in some ways, that flexibility for those who wanted to criticize the document as a neo-colonial effort, flexibility to declare sovereignty over geo by characterizing geo as an earthly resource rather than a cosmic one.
Alexis Pedrick: In other words, countries directly below the geostationary orbit could make a claim that it belongs to them.
Lisa Berry Drago: The second implication of the Outer Space Treaty is that it gave the United Nations the authority to regulate which countries get to park their satellites in geostationary orbit. The UN gave one of its agencies, the International Telecommunication Union, or the ITU, the authority to act like a kind of orbital parking authority.
LIsa Ruth Rand: The ITU general meetings are where we see representatives of developing nations really exerting their concerns about a neo-colonial order being extended to outer space.
Alexis Pedrick: So, just to recap, there’s vague language in the Outer Space Treaty, which says that space belongs to everyone and no one. There’s a lack of clarity on where exactly earth ends and space begins. And, to top it off, it’s suddenly the 1970s and anti-colonialism has become a thing.
Lisa Ruth Rand: There were a lot of things happening in the 70s, right? Mainstream communities around the world were starting to pay attention to large scale pollution and to pay attention to both visible and invisible environmental damage, particularly the kind wrought by faceless authorities without the consent of the populations that they represented. Right? At the same time, when you get into the 70s, decolonization increases, independence movements increase. There are a lot of newly independent nations that are seeking to basically reclaim the rights to their resources and reclaim their own sovereignty after, after being subjected to colonialism for generations.
Lisa Berry Drago: And all of this is happening with the space race as a back drop. The moment is ripe for a confrontation over outer space. At the forefront was Columbia, which didn’t even have a space program. But it did have a prime position on the map. It’s one of three South American countries that straddles the equator, alongside Ecuador and Brazil.
Alexis Pedrick: Chapter Three. The Domain of Mankind.
Lisa Berry Drago: We mentioned that the UN’s International Telecommunications Union, AKA the ITU, is like the parking authority of space. They’re in charge of assigning and mediating the parking spots in geostationary orbit. And in the 1970s, the ITU had a series of meetings to address concerns about who gets to park where.
Lisa Ruth Rand: So at these ITU meetings beginning in the early 1970s, delegates from the Ivory Coast, from Indonesia, from Ecuador, they brought to the general assembly their concerns that as geo was being divvied up that, that privilege and preference would be given to those nations that already had the ability to access geo and that those 360 degrees would be full before newly independent nations could amass the resources, the, the technical knowledge and basically the ability to exploit their fair share.
Lisa Berry Drago: The ITU heard these complaints and in 1973 they decided to define geostationary orbit as a limited natural resource.
Lisa Ruth Rand: The fact that the convention was altered to explicitly define geo as a limited natural resource was one point where that agitation actually seemed to work. This is one example of this one particular international group identifying that a resource is limited remarkably far in advance of its depletion. That doesn’t always happen. But it happened here with geo.
Alexis Pedrick: Columbia pressed the issue. In 1975, the Columbia Minister of Foreign Affairs, Indalecio Liévano Aguirre, spoke in front of the UN’s general assembly and said there needed to be a balance between the needs of rich nations and the “pauperized masses” of the planet to have a lasting international order with regards to outer space.
This is Haris Durrani, a PhD candidate at Princeton who studies the history of space treaties.
Haris Durrani: And it’s funny, if you read, like, space law, general articles afterwards there’s, there’s one by an Argentinian space lawyer, Coca, he’s sympathetic but skeptical of it. He says, um, that when, uh, um, the Columbian delegate said that, eh- made these claims in the UN convention in 1975, in the UN general assembly, that there- he describes a stir in the room. Um, and how people were like, “What the- what the heck is this?” [laughs] It was kind of this shocking thing.
Lisa Berry Drago: Columbia did this same thing again and again in front of the United Nations. They increasingly spoke about geostationary orbit being part of Columbia sovereignty. And in 1976, a delegation of scientists, lawyers and diplomats from eight countries arrived in Bogota to challenge the status quo.
Chapter Four. The Bogota Declaration.
Alexis Pedrick: On November 29th, 1976, delegations from Brazil, Congo, Ecuador, Indonesia, Kenya, Uganda and what was then Zaire, gathered in Bogota to talk about geostationary orbit.
Haris Durrani: From my understanding it was a mix of lawyers, diplomats, politicians. Several of them were often also, um, professors of some kind, usually political science, international relations policy. But you also had engineers as well.
Lisa Berry Drago: We don’t know who exactly was there because so much of the documentation is buried in archives in Columbia. But what we do have is the document they left behind.
LIsa Ruth Rand: This declaration to me is just like gold. You couldn’t make this up as a historian. It’s- so basically, what they said was, first of all, that the Outer Space Treaty, which is still the dominant, governance document for how- for the international governance of outer space, that it was in itself a neo-colonial project because only wealthy, industrialized nations, like basically the United States and the Soviet Union, wrote it for themselves to benefit themselves. They were trying to designate geo not as part of space, which is governed by the Outer Space Treaty as the domain of all humankind, but rather part of earth because it’s unique properties are generated by the planet and therefore should be subject to the same sovereignty laws as air space.
Alexis Pedrick: Which would mean that geostationary orbit should belong to the countries directly below it.
Lisa Ruth Rand: The Bogota Declaration was, at least on its surface, violating the tenets of the Outer Space Treaty that stipulated that there could be no declaration of sovereignty over parts of orbit. But the Bogota Declaration’s drafters were very, I think it was- they kind of took a genius move by exploiting the fact that the Outer Space Treaty does not have a clear designation of where space begins to claim that geo, because of its special geophysical properties, that they argued were generated by the planet earth, should instead be considered part of earth rather than part of outer space. And therefore, subject to declarations of sovereignty as if they were part of earth or part of air space.
Lisa Berry Drago: It’s worth nothing that out of all the eight countries that signed on to the Bogota Declaration, only Indonesia had something resembling a space program, which was precisely their point. Their concern was the geostationary orbit was a limited natural resource and that by the time most of them got a space program, the parking lot would be full. It would be overcrowded by all the cars, I mean, satellites, of richer countries.
Alexis Pedrick: The Outer Space Treaty states that you can do whatever you want as long as you don’t interfere with others. But those signing the Bogota Declaration challenged that.
Haris Durrani: Global south position or w- what was thought of as the anti-colonial position, in which the Bogota Declaration was a part of many arguments being made about space law, that position emphasized positive freedom. The idea which emphasized duties. So saying it’s not just that everyone has the freedom to, you know, it- in a sort of blasé way, do whatever they want without being interfered with, but also that there is also a duty to assist others. And, and a duty to redistribute economic goods or, or services, or capabilities. So in this case, the, um, economic good was space flight. And they would d- redistributive duty that the Bogota Declaration was emphasizing, um, was the idea of sharing the- the capa- both the- not only space te- technologies of space flight itself, but also economic or scientific benefits brought about through space flight, whether that’s, you know, resource extraction or scientific discoveries.
Alexis Pedrick: The official response by the United Nations was that the Bogota Declaration violated the Outer Space Treaty. And therefore, it was not binding. The conclusion was actually kind of anticlimactic. You could say it was a failure. But that’s not necessarily how historians see it.
Haris Durrani: The disturbing and shocking quality of the Declaration in some ways made it a success. It put the, the issue on the table. The reason I call it, a failure is the fact that they don’t have their own satellites.
Lisa Ruth Rand: I would not say that it entirely failed. So it did no- I wouldn’t say it succeeded. It didn’t succeed because, geo is still considered to be part of outer space and still part of that egalitarian ethos of the Outer Space Treaty. However, I wouldn’t call it a failure because every year, starting in 1977 at the annual meeting of the UN’s Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space, the issue of egalitarian access to geo is brought up. Every year it’s considered. Some years there’s even a committee discussion about it. No concrete action has been taken so far, as I know, but every year since 1977 this issue has come up. So clearly the Bogota Declaration had an effect on the conversation about how outer space should be used. Even if no concrete action has been taken, it’s in the discourse. It’s in the conversation.
Lisa Berry Drago: It’s unclear exactly what the signers of the Bogota Declaration hoped it would achieve. But the text of the Declaration makes it very clear that they wanted the Outer Space Treaty to live up to its ideals.
Lisa Ruth Rand: I think that they were attempting to just really highlight the shortcomings of the Outer Space Treaty and the shortcomings of this larger, discussion about resource egalitarianism that was on the international stage at the moment and to really push back at these former and current colonial powers to note that you can say all you want about sharing everything in a more equal fashion but what are you gonna do to actually make that happen? Are you willing to relinquish some of your access, some of your power, in order to walk that walk?
Alexis Pedrick: Haris says that perhaps more profoundly, the Bogota Declaration should be thought of as an act of uprising.
Haris Durrani: One of my favorite anthropologists is Talal Asad who writes a lot of, sort of, critiques of anthropology and the western gaze. And there’s he has an interview somewhere where he’s having a debate with Edward Said, the famous theorist of Colonial Studies. And, uh, Edward- and they’re, they’re talking about how to resist empire. And Said keeps mentioning all these different ways. Oh, you know, you can, you can reform from within. You can have a violent resistance. You can do all these things. And then every, in response to every solution, Asad replies, “Oh, well, uh, that would not work for this reason. You know, there would be a counterrevolution here. The- the- this wouldn’t really succeed.”
And then finally Edward Said says … Because, you know, Asad is very attentive to the intractability of power and empire. And so finally, Edward Said says, “what the- basically, what the hell, man? Like, come on. Like what do you want me to say?” And Asad says [laughing], sort of resigns himself and says, “At the end of the day, all we can do is try to make them feel uncomfortable.”
And I think whether one agrees with that statement or not, I think that’s very much what the Declaration did. And it did very much make Americans, especially American lawyers, feel very uncomfortable. Even though they’re dismissing it, they take a lot of time to dismiss it. It’s shocking how much it disturbs them.
Lisa Berry Drago: It helps to contrast the Bogota Declaration with other space treaties because it shows where the power truly sits. Take, for example, the Moon Treaty of 1979. That treaty basically elaborates on the original Outer Space Treaty. And it asserts two things. One, that the moon cannot be claimed by any one country. And two, that its uses must be peaceful. That means no outer space military moon bases. It’s pretty straightforward, really just clarifying what the Outer Space Treaty already vaguely says. But what’s interesting is that only India, France, Guatemala and Romania signed it. The United States, Russia and the UK all passed on it.
Lisa Ruth Rand: None of the pow- more powerful nations that were involved in the signing, in the drafting and, and execution of the Outer Space Treaty were willing to sign on to the Moon Treaty. And that’s major, right? And the fact that the, the egalitarianism that’s so central to the Outer Space Treaty is limited in scope, right? Sure, it’s egalitarian as long as the powers that be say it is. And offer it as egalitarian, even in, just in, in word if not in practice. But when those outside of that hegemony attempt to, or rather at the outskirts of that power hub, attempt to create that egalitarian, egalitarian order themselves, that that’s when it becomes less actionable and less attractive to those who were able to draft the Outer Space Treaty.
Alexis Pedrick: When countries with less power propose ideas, they aren’t taken very seriously especially when it means that they might end up with more power as a result. So, even though the original Space Treaty claimed that equal access and power was its goal, it didn’t actually turn out that way.
Lisa Ruth Rand: I think that actually the Moon Treaty and Bogota, in some ways, are, are really important to juxtapose against each other. And it’s something that I’m working on right now and kind of trying to see how those two correspond to each other, correlate to each other, how they were, how they were both rejected, even though they were both intended to basically try to reduce the neo-colonial order of outer space.
And, I think, importantly, that they grew out of efforts by nations that did not hold power in outer space. That were in some cases, you know, really more closely aligned with an unaligned movement, right, than, with the main cold war superpowers. So, these are all interesting acts of resistance that ultimately required buy in from those in power and did not succeed in doing so. Which is, I think, where this idea of hijacking that Alejo brought up, right, and that you’re seeing in your research, is really crucial.
Because right, this is … We’re, we’re seeing this everywhere right now, right? Like there, there’s only so much that, that talking and proclamations can do and then ultimately, material acts of resistance have to take place. And the fact that this is happening in space, and has been happening, this isn’t new, is really fascinating, I think, and, and worth paying attention to because that’s often seen as this high tech domain that’s only the domain of states and increasingly hyper-wealthy individuals. But ultimately, truck drivers in Brazil are doing, are, are also doing that action.
Lisa Berry Drago: Back in Brazil, even after the joint crack down by the US and Brazilian authorities, the bolinha satellites are still being hijacked. It’s now part of the culture in Brazil. Ruth Rand says this is a form of uprising on a smaller scale than making a declaration to the UN, but one that has a more tangible and immediate impact.
Lisa Ruth Rand: Whether it’s writing a declaration or hijacking a satellite, either knowingly or unknowingly, these are all kind of interesting efforts at resistance that are varyingly effective. I think it’s kind of fascinating that the declaration was done at the sort of level of the international but the hijacking is done at the grass roots. And yet, one has, has had like a material effect and the other one hasn’t, right? Like one is, one was in some ways successful when the other one isn’t, which shows again that … And another interesting thing, I think, about that from my perspective is that there is such a thing, right, as grass roots space power. And I had not thought about that until this very specific moment.
Lisa Berry Drago: Columbia never forgot about its claim to its own slice of outer space. When they drafted their current constitution in 1991, they designated geostationary orbit as part of their sovereignty. Today, Columbia has its own space program. But it’s only launched three nano satellites and none into geostationary orbit.
Alexis Pedrick: The Bogota Declaration pointed out the problems with how outer space was governed in the 1970s. Now, those warnings are even more urgent. Today, it’s not just individual wealthy countries launching space missions. It’s individual people. Tech billionaires with their own space programs. If outer space is governed not by laws but by a series of norms, who will ensure that these individuals adhere to those norms? And what is at stake for the rest of us when they don’t?
Lisa Berry Drago: Thanks for listening to this episode of Distillations. Remember, Distillations is more than a podcast. It’s also a multimedia magazine. You can find our video, stories and every single podcast episode at Distillations.org. And you’ll also find podcast transcripts and show notes.
Alexis Pedrick: You can follow the Science History Institute on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram for news and updates about the podcast and everything else going on in our museum, library and research center.
Lisa Berry Drago: This episode was produced by Mariel Carr and Rigo Hernandez.
Alexis Pedrick: And it was mixed by James Morrison.
Lisa Berry Drago: The Science History Institute remains committed to revealing the role of science in our world. Please support our efforts at ScienceHistory.org/givenow.
Alexis Pedrick: For Distillations, I’m Alexis Pedrick-
Lisa Berry Drago: And I’m Lisa Berry Drago.
Alexis Pedrick: Thanks for listening.