Space vehicle concept

Book review: ‘The Future of Geography’ by Tim Marshall

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How politics in space will change our world.

From the author of the bestsellers ‘Prisoners of Geography’ and ‘The Power of Geography’, we now have Tim Marshall’s enlightening ‘The Future of Geography’ (Elliott & Thompson, £20, ISBN 9781783966875), extending his geopolitical series not only into an informal trilogy, but also into space. Those still thinking that geography is about capital cities and national flags are invited to visit the brave new world of the next phase of extraterrestrial human exploration, in which engineering and technology are the instruments of propulsion, survival and power.

With thousands of satellites already in low-Earth orbit (LEO), we’re used to the idea of mature technology circulating in space. But the 21st century has seen the emergence of private space-tech entrepreneurs who smell money in the stars, and it is a rare news cycle that rolls by without mention of another ‘Moon shot’ and its inevitable claim to be a step further towards Mars. Space, as Marshall observes, is the new geographical frontier.

Although we first went to the Moon back in the 1960s, today’s incarnation of space exploration is different, its rhetoric no longer centred on the ‘noble future of humanity’. As we start to realise that the Fourth Industrial Revolution has brought with it the technological crunch to do more than bring back a few rock samples, Marshall reports on a political landscape in which the ‘Big Three’ of China, the USA and Russia are competing at the vanguard not just of exploration, but also exploitation and conquest. Off-world mineral mining and colonisation aren’t the exclusive property of long-range futurists any more.

“Many of us still think of space as ‘out there’ and ‘in the future’,” says Marshall, a well-known presence on Sky and BBC as well as a conflict reporter from more than 40 countries. But it is “here and now,” with today’s astropolitics a far cry from science fiction, he says, because “the border to the great beyond is well within our reach” and “a place with geography which we need to understand”.

And we need to understand it fast if we’re to avoid history repeating itself, because “each time humanity has ventured into a new domain it has brought war with it”. Marshall reminds us how shipbuilding and aerospace gave us warships and fighter jets. For him, the mushrooming space technology sector is unlikely to follow a different trajectory. The “battlefield” as he calls it, is beginning to take shape: “tensions are already surfacing surrounding hotspots” such as Moon bases.

These tensions arise not just from geopolitics, but also from a parallel commercial imperative: “There’s money to be made in space, and people are out to get it.” So if you’re not worried about the prospect of a Star Wars future, you’ll need to get used to the idea of advertising being beamed across the firmament.

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