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The International Space Station is perhaps the best-known example of international cooperation in space, but there are many more cases, all of which have both advantages and disadvantages. (credit: NASA)

International cooperation and competition in space (part 1)

How—and why—should the United States proceed?

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The moment that humanity first passed beyond the Earth’s thin atmosphere, outer space became a subject of international politics, an arena characterized by the cooperative and competitive interactions that shape relations between states. The history of the “Space Age” is rife with examples of both: the race to the Moon, Apollo-Soyuz, Shuttle-Mir, and the International Space Station, along with several collaborative efforts on probes sent throughout the solar system. Likewise, space has served as a medium to directly support cooperation, competition, and strategic balancing between nations on Earth—as a means for treaty verification, to link economies, to enable warfighting and, as trends suggest, to potentially be a theater of war itself.

Cooperation (or, depending on perspective, competition) will be of redoubled significance as humanity pursues its space objectives through the coming century.

This fundamental facet of activity in space will remain essential well into the future, even if the dynamics of space activity are quickly evolving in the present. Far from the technological “battleground” between two competing superpowers that defined the genesis of the space age, outer space today involves numerous actors, both national and private, and will soon be shared by several more emerging space powers. Between traditional commercial operators whose services are pillars of the modern economy and new private ventures promising novel applications and markets, space is a vital sphere of economic activity. As international commons, it faces transnational challenges such as the proliferation of space debris, space weather, equitable allocation of limited spectrum, and legal uncertainties involving issues such as space property rights. Increasingly, space is, especially in the view of national security users, “congested, contested, and competitive.” Through these changing dynamics, the traditional lines between civil government, commercial, and defense space systems and actors have become blurred; unilateral space activities are gradually being replaced by bilateral, regional, and multinational activities. This all suggests that cooperation (or, depending on perspective, competition) will be of redoubled significance as humanity pursues its space objectives through the coming century.

Since its beginning, the United States’ space policy has balanced cooperative and competitive strategies which span the civil, commercial, and national security sectors. Fostering cooperation in space with international partners is described as an underlying objective of the country’s space endeavors. The 2010 National Space Policy, which today remains the guiding executive-level statement of the country’s space policy, notes that,

“From the outset of humanity’s ascent into space, this Nation declared its commitment to enhance the welfare of humankind by cooperating with others to maintain the freedom of space. The United States hereby renews its pledge of cooperation in the belief that with strengthened international collaboration and reinvigorated U.S. leadership, all nations and peoples space-faring and space-benefiting—will find their horizons broadened, their knowledge enhanced, and their lives greatly improved.”1

Of course, the same document also enshrines principles of space competition, if it be needed, by acknowledging that,

“The United States will employ a variety of measures to help assure the use of space for all responsible parties, and, consistent with the inherent right of self-defense, deter others from interference and attack, defend our space systems and contribute to the defense of allied space systems, and, if deterrence fails, defeat efforts to attack them.”2

The 2010 National Space Policy lays out specific directives to national departments and agencies that offer avenues for international cooperation. These include, in addition to other guidelines: promoting cost- and risk-sharing in international partnerships; enhancing the security and stability of behavior in space; reassuring allies of the US commitment to collective self-defense; strengthening partnerships in space surveillance and situational awareness; leading the development and adoption of international standards to minimize space debris; and participating in multilateral transparency and confidence-building measures for the peaceful use of space.

This constitutes a rather comprehensive list of opportunities for cooperation, even if the United States has not pursued their implementation in totality. As the political apparatus which develops and executes the United States’ space policy undergoes transition—with an incoming NASA administrator, a newly stood-up National Space Council, and talk of a pivot back to the Moon coming from the executive office—a reevaluation of these the strategic value of space cooperation and of these opportunities is appropriate (and, indeed, likely already underway.) In the coming years, what balance between cooperative and competitive approaches ought to be sought and how should that balance be managed? What domestic and international strategies are likely to be the most effective for achieving the objective of enhancing “the welfare of humankind by cooperating with others?” How should the United States leverage partnerships in space to best preserve and enhance its space leadership?

Why do we cooperate (and compete) in space?

These are significant—and challenging —questions. To begin to address them, a review of the purpose of international space cooperation and competition is needed. As a seminal topic of spaceflight, there’s been no shortage of discussion regarding why nations cooperate and compete in space. A broad body of literature, drawing from diverse theories of international relations and grand strategy, seeks to describe the various motivations and aims that drive nations and other actors to collaborate, and occasionally contend, with each other in space.

Even if space cooperation is pursued out of self-interest, the benefits that come from it are numerous and occasionally more appealing than those from unilateral action.

The field is too wide for this piece to describe in full, but several important recurring points can inform its analysis. Foremost is that, in the words of Scott Pace, current executive secretary of the National Space Council, “international space cooperation is not an end in itself, but a means of advancing national interests.”3 Or, as Kenneth Pedersen, former director of international affairs at NASA, once observed, “international space cooperation is not a charitable enterprise; countries cooperate because they judge it in their interest to do so.”4 Countries (and other actors such as companies) are inherently self-interested; their activity in and use of space serves a distinct goal—political, economic, scientific, or national security—that brings them benefit, international competitive advantage, and justifies the costs and complexities involved in a space program. This assumption should underlie all consideration of and decisions about potential partnerships and opportunities for cooperation; indeed, NASA policy on initiating international cooperation requires it, stating,

“Each cooperative activity must demonstrate a specific benefit to NASA or the United States. Such benefit may be in the form of data, services, or contribution to flight mission or operational infrastructure systems, or it may directly support broader U.S. policy or interests.”5

Even if space cooperation is pursued out of self-interest, the benefits that come from it are numerous and occasionally more appealing than those from unilateral action. First is that of cost and funding. Spaceflight is expensive; for many countries, the financial burden of an active space program is simply too much for them to pursue alone. Cost savings through cooperation takes various forms. They include “programmatic enhancement,” in which a country provides hardware to fly and operate on another’s craft; and “programmatic interdependence,” in which countries provide mission- and architecture-critical hardware for a shared project. Through such cooperation, actors can offer their core technological competencies without footing the bill for capabilities they don’t indigenously possess. Countries may also pursue cooperation through bilateral or multilateral data sharing and, of course, scientist-to-scientist collaboration and research. Considering the complexities of the 21st century’s probable space projects, such as human expeditions to the Moon or Mars, and the scope of addressing sizable challenges such as space debris through remediation or removal, spreading the burden of cost across multiple actors will likely be a necessity.

Next is that of programmatic stability and political consistency. Incorporating foreign partners into a space project provides it a level of political commitment that buffers it from cancellation, to the extent that domestic political leadership is unwilling to break international agreements. So long as the costs to diplomatic prestige and reputation that come with breaking or withdrawing from an agreement are greater than the costs and utility of that agreement, leaders will be hesitant to pursue an international program’s outright termination. Moreover, the financial cost savings described above can serve to make audacious yet costly projects more appealing to political leaders, who must balance space funding with other budgetary priorities.

While space cooperation may serve as diplomatic signaling and as “grease on the wheels” for a country seeking to achieve its foreign policy aims, it is more often an effect of developments in international relations than a direct cause.

Perhaps the most frequently cited benefit of space cooperation is the diplomatic cachet and control that it can provide. Space partnership is a valuable “soft power” tool. Participation in a multilateral space project increases the diplomatic influence of participating states upon each other. As such, countries use space cooperation to support their terrestrial diplomatic and geopolitical policies and aims. For example, the decision to involve Russia in the International Space Station was motivated considerably by both the United States’ desire to limit a diaspora of Russian rocket scientists following the collapse of the Soviet Union and to strengthen relations with the “new” Russia. This example, though, highlights the variable utility of space cooperation for diplomatic purposes: more utility is derived from partnering with a specific country depending on the context and importance of the partnering states’ relations in world politics. In the political environment that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russo-American cooperation in space was of greater immediate value than, as an example, pursuing Sino-American cooperation instead. To that end, the diplomatic benefit of space cooperation shifts and evolves with developments in world affairs.

It should be remembered that while space cooperation may serve as diplomatic signaling and as “grease on the wheels” for a country seeking to achieve its foreign policy aims, it is more often an effect of developments in international relations than a direct cause. While the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project was a marker and symbol of détente between the United States and Soviet Union, for example, it was neither the catalyst nor the primary driver. Likewise, American cooperation with—and, indeed, current reliance on, for crew transportation—Russia in the International Space Station neither prevented nor has stymied the reemergence and growth of tensions between the two countries.

Nonetheless, when coupled with an active diplomatic strategy on Earth, space cooperation can serve to strengthen a country’s foreign policy pursuits. And, through the process of establishing diplomatic channels and acclimating leaders to partners’ decision-making processes, institutional cultures, and standard operating procedures, it enables future cooperation between countries in space and on Earth—and, critically, builds trust.

Related to the diplomatic benefit of space cooperation, and arguably of more long-term utility, is cooperation to support norm- and international regime-building. Norms are mutually-accepted standards of proper or acceptable behavior that establish expectations and clarify misbehaviors; defining and defending norms helps to isolate, sanction, and limit bad behavior. This is particularly important in an environment such as space, where one actor’s misbehavior (through, for example, creating space debris) can have devastating consequences for the entire international community. While states are self-interested, maintaining an international regime that empowers them to pursue those interests—while disempowering those whose actions threaten the environment’s long-term stability and sustainability—is a compelling and important goal. As such, countries seek space partnerships and agreements with others who share at least vaguely similar values and principles to entrench them into widely accepted and lasting norms.

Cooperation in norm-setting is pursued through several methods: codification of principles in formal treaties and other legal instruments; voluntary international codes of conduct; and transparency and confidence-building measures (TCBMs). Likewise, the establishment of international regulatory regimes and entities enable the creation and oversight of rules that govern conduct of certain space activities and allow for fair competition and equitable access to space-derived benefits – such as spectrum allocation. States may also precondition partnership in a project or program on their potential partner’s buy-in on and adherence to certain norms.

And what of competition? Since the close of the Cold War, international space competition has shifted away from a superpower “race” to achieve notable “firsts” with civil space programs (though similar dynamics may still be seen among some emerging space powers, especially in the sphere of solar system exploration) to competition in the national security and commercial applications of space.

Over the recent decades, space has become an essential setting for military power projection. It is used for precision targeting, command and control, intelligence gathering, and maneuverability of weapons systems. For advanced militaries, national security space assets are integral to their warfighting capabilities and doctrines. For their potential adversaries, this reliance is increasingly viewed as a vulnerability that can be exploited through the development of counterspace capabilities, which include anti-satellite weapons, jammers, and hostile proximity-and-rendezvous space systems. Military competition in space will likely continue and evolve as countries cyclically develop the means to disable or destroy each other’s critical satellites and systems to defend or deter against such attacks.

Although there is utility in cooperating on scientific projects that increase knowledge about the cosmos, these projects do not provide the same direct competitive advantage that gains in political influence, economic power, or national security strength do.effect of developments in international relations than a direct cause.

Competition is inherent in the commercial sphere; commercial operators compete against each other and against foreign actors for customers and contracts. This is especially evident in the present day in the satellite communications, Earth imaging, and launch sectors. To support their domestic space industry, countries “compete” by establishing favorable regulatory environments, export control regimes, and/or subsidies that are conducive to commercial growth and overseas sales. They may also seek to involve the commercial sector in national projects and programs, occasionally at the expense of potential contributions that could have come from international partners. As the global commercial space sector blossoms, this competition – both on the part of the private operators and of their government regulators and sponsors – is bound to increase.

Notably, competition may also come through competing for partners. Countries with limited budgets need to make decisions regarding which programs they will get involved in and, as a corollary, the countries with which they will collaborate. For states seeking partners in an international project, offering attractive programmatic incentives or partnership schemes is a method to convince countries to join in lieu of other opportunities they could pursue. This may be most evident today in China’s aggressive push for partners in its upcoming modular space station.

The limits and drawbacks to cooperation

Of course, space cooperation is not without its limitations or drawbacks, some of which are significant; these too are valuable considerations for the future of the United States’ space policy vis-à-vis the international community.

First, space cooperation is often limited to scientific and exploratory endeavors whose primary purposes are not distinctly political, military, or economic. Again, states are self-interested: while there is utility in cooperating on scientific projects that increase knowledge about the cosmos, these projects do not provide the same direct competitive advantage that gains in political influence, economic power, or national security strength do. States are understandably hesitant to pursue projects that would bolster others’ competencies in these fields, possibly at the detriment of their own relative strength. Moreover, as partnership on a project often entails transfer of technology or knowledge, states are reluctant to “give away” sensitive military or economic information and capabilities. Of course, there are caveats. In the case of military partners and allies, for example, cooperation on military capabilities in space is a way to strengthen mutual defense and further deter attacks on national security space systems.

Next, international cooperation on a space project creates programmatic dependence on all partners, requiring each to deliver what they promised on time and within agreed parameters. This creates increased complexities and occasionally heightened costs for all partners in the program. If, for example, one nation fails to deliver in time, the others must bear the cost of the schedule slippage. This presents the issue of a program’s “critical path”: who is responsible for the program’s core systems and architecture? Keeping critical systems development within the purview of one nation, while others pursue supporting or ancillary systems and equipment, presents several benefits: reducing coordination costs and eliminating potential delays from partners’ funding, technical, or policy complications. Yet at the same time, this increases costs for the country pursuing the critical path. Likewise, it may signal a lack of trust or confidence in the capabilities of a project’s partners.

Space cooperation may also create increased complexities as first-time partners try to learn and navigate the other’s political systems, cultures, and decision-making processes pertaining to space. While this increases the prospect of long-term, multi-project cooperation and is valuable for opening continuing dialogue and mutual understanding, it nonetheless can present programmatic and operational challenges for the joint mission they’re trying to achieve.

Finally, and of growing importance with the proliferation of commercial space operators, countries pursuing cooperation with foreign governments risk reducing opportunities for partnership with their own domestic space industry. As commercial space technologies and services mature, an overlap in capability is emerging among the most advanced commercial space operators and civil space programs. If both domestic industry and foreign governments can offer a similar service or competency to a mission, determining whether to pursue a partnership or a commercial contract becomes a challenging task. Ultimately, that decision is informed by the perceived utility of each; depending on a nation’s strategic goals and policies, the benefits of an international partnership may or may not be of more value than the benefits of contracting a needed service or technology out to its domestic space industry. Nonetheless, depending on the decision, potential partners (or commercial service providers) may feel slighted or compelled to turn elsewhere. Striking an appropriate balance will present a difficult challenge for policymakers in the coming years, especially for those in countries with robust commercial space constituencies.


  1. “National Space Policy of the United States of America,” June 28, 2010, pg. 2.
  2. Ibid, pg. 3.
  3. Scott Pace, “Align U.S. Space Policy with National Interests,” SpaceNews, March 2015.
  4. Kenneth S Pedersen, “International Cooperation and Competition in Space: A Current Perspective”, 11 J. Space Law 21 (1983).
  5. NASA Policy Directive 1360.2B, “Initiation and Development of International Cooperation in Space and Aeronautics Programs,” August 2014.