Dr Bleddyn E. Bowen’s “Original Sin: Power, Technology, and War in Outer Space” is a seminal work that critically dissects the evolution of space technology within the context of global power dynamics. Dr Bowen offers a profound exploration of the militarization and politicization of space, weaving a narrative that is as enlightening as it is unsettling about the colonial origins of the global space age.

This Book pivots around the ‘original sin’ of space technology that is rooted deeply in the machinations of war and power politics, which challenges the oft-romanticized view of space exploration as a noble endeavor benefiting all of humanity.

The book’s arguments are enriched and backed by Dr. Bowen’s specialization in space warfare and space-related international relations. He earned his PhD from Aberystwyth University, focusing on space power theory.

He is an experienced briefer covering space policy and security to prominent organizations like NATO, the European Space Agency, and the Pentagon. Moreover, he also serves on the advisory board of the UN Space Generation Advisory Council.

He has previously authored War in Space: Strategy, Spacepower, Geopolitics, published in 2020, based on his PhD thesis. Original Sin builds on his earlier work and expands the purview of his latest book by interweaving historical analysis with contemporary geopolitical discourse and making it accessible to a broader space-minded audience.

The book is divided into three compelling parts and eight chapters. Part I, “The Original Sin of Space Technology,” delves into the genesis of the global space age by establishing that space technology’s primary function was to wage nuclear war, not to realize the idealistic dreams of peaceful space exploration.

Dr Bowen grounds his thesis by chronicling the origins of space technology against the backdrop of the thermonuclear revolution, the proliferation of ICBMs, and the Cold War’s nuclear arms race. He highlights the complex dynamics between nuclear-missile military complexes and space programs across the erstwhile superpowers and the newer members of the prestigious space club.

Dr Bowen’s analysis of this inextricable linkage unravels the intertwined trajectories and imperial legacy of nuclear and space technology development, and how both fed into one another. Interestingly, his examination of the persistence of imperial and exploitative practices by the Western members of the space club paralleled the concurrent exploitation of the land and resources of the developing world following the thermonuclear revolution.

Part II, “The Maturation of Spacepower,” shifts the focus to the maturation and diversification of military space technologies. Dr Bowen compellingly makes the case that the transformation of space power from a luxury to a norm in military, political, and economic realms signifies a deepening of space technology’s original sin. In Part III, “Strategy in the Global Space Age,” the book reaches its zenith, offering a nuanced discussion on the strategic implications of space power.

Dr Bowen looks beyond the Cold War, examining the contemporary relevance of space in conventional warfare and counterinsurgency.

He posits that the increasing tempo of anti-satellite weapons development and testing in the 2010s was a manifestation of the geopolitical contestations shaping astropolitics.

Dr. Bowen’s work is centered on convincing readers that the development of space tech cannot be linked to the idealist pursuit of scientific research. During the Cold War, distinctions between the civil and military space programs were blurred and are currently even more so given that in each space-faring state, there are underlying military rationales for developing space tech or at least the latent military potential of dual-use technologies driving the development of their space programs. For instance, the book highlights how contemporary civilian satellites, regardless of their benign applications, have developed from earlier military satellites.

Furthermore,  Dr. Bowen counters the narrative of the stabilizing effect of satellites by arguing that any such effect has been essentially nullified by their tactical utility, which essentially made them destabilizing for global security. His assertion is hard to contest given the global race to field dual-use satellite constellations in Earth orbit. This leads to a paradoxical scenario where these satellites would essentially become orbiting ducks in space at the outbreak of any potential conflict.

In this regard, the book provides a fascinating and frightening account of the military applications of space systems in modern warfare and how they underpinned the advent of the Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA) in the 90s. Dr Bowen gives a layman’s overview of the diverse methods of space warfare, ranging from soft-kill to hard-kill techniques, for achieving the political objectives of war on Earth by imposing strategic effects from space.

He clears mainstream apocalyptic misconceptions regarding space warfare by highlighting its limitations and offering a sobering insight into how an actual space conflict would play out.

In particular, Dr Bowen puts forward an insightful analogy of a cosmic coastline with its specific opportunities and challenges. He asserts that the militarization of space continues to be a significant factor in modern warfare, challenging the reader to reconceptualize traditional notions of military strategy. Even those not from a military background would appreciate Dr Bowen’s application of Clausewitz’s strategies to modern space warfare, as he critiques the mainstream view of space as the ultimate high ground.

Dr Bowen’s work stands out for its critical analysis and challenge to the aforementioned conventional narratives in space literature. Particularly those that overlook the militarized nature of space activities while glorifying the “mutual benefits to all humankind” essence enshrined in the Outer Space Treaty. Moreover, it offers an insightful perspective on the intersection of space technology and global power politics.

By examining the historical and contemporary developments of space militarization, this book provides valuable insights into the strategic considerations of nations in space, which are crucial for understanding the evolving dynamics of astropolitics. Especially with the renewed global interest in space and popular mainstream notions of a new space race, as nations across the world are lining up space missions in the coming years.

Against this backdrop, this book has put forward a thought-provoking dilemma: whether a nation’s security is more effectively safeguarded and commercial interests advanced through open space systems that seamlessly integrate with allied systems, or if pursuing independence by developing proprietary space systems is more advantageous?

However, the core premise of this book that military or geopolitical rationales have been the driving forces behind space technology development lacks an appreciation of the historical reality of how similar revolutionary technologies, such as semiconductors or the development of the internet, were also backed by the military to advance military-politico interests. To his credit, Dr Bowen does acknowledge the limitations of the book’s materialist, technological, and strategic focus, inviting future research in areas such as gender, race, and diplomatic norms in astropolitics.

As stated earlier, the interlinkage between imperialism and astropolitics is heavily explored throughout every chapter of the book, shedding light on the dark side of humanity’s exploration of the cosmos by describing the plight of Indigenous communities from Baikonur in Central Asia to Woomera, Australia, who were displaced in the name of scientific and space research.

The book makes the reader ponder how the EU, US and USSR made life on Earth a hell for these communities in their pursuit to reach the heavens which was claimed to be in the beneficial interest of all people, adding insult to injury.

The book is thus not just an academic treatise but a call to reconsider our approach to space as Dr. Bowen tries to make the reader recognize the political, economic, and social consequences of the erstwhile and the contemporary “space race”. In doing so, his work cuts across scholarship ranging from Post-Colonialism, International Relations, Political Science, and Strategic Studies by offering an amalgamation of diverse perspectives that are presented in an accessible, insightful, and thought-provoking manner.

Dr Bowen urges that everyone should be part of the discussion on space technologies by repeatedly reiterating the central argument that space warfare and astropolitics are a continuation of terrestrial politics due to the original sin of space technologies. He stresses that only by recognising this reality, can humanity overcome the pitfalls of the global space age.

In Summation, Original Sin is a crucial addition to the discourse on space and international relations, as it demands a reckoning with the fundamental nature of our engagement with space and would certainly incite most readers’ interest in actively participating in this discussion. The book is hence recommended to everyone across the natural and social science divide who is interested in how great power competition influences global astropolitics and vice versa alongside their far-reaching multifaceted implications.

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