The brave new world of space
by Aditya Chaturvedi
|National security and defense have been key motivations for space since the heyday of the Cold War.|
Some of episodes from the early days of the space race make it seem less like a sideshow to the Cold War, but instead a confrontation in its own right, impelled by classical motives of power politics, one-upmanship, and aiming to demonstrate the superiority of respective socio-political systems in that bygone era of bloc alignments and US capitalism versus Soviet communism.
Eisenhower’s somber speech on the USSR surpassing the free world in space technology gave the impetus for the formation of DARPA and NASA—two stellar American science and technology institutions—that have spawned innovation, unlocked value, and sparked dynamism across multiple sectors.
Perhaps un-ironically, David Graeber, the anthropologist, called the US space program the greatest accomplishment of Soviet communism. It was an allusion to the dialectical and inductive effect of technology rivalry.
Unlike the proxy wars waged in distant corners of the globe, this facet of the Cold War not only had a net positive enduring legacy, but created an entire ecosystem worth billions of dollars, which is at the kernel of most technology innovations and everyday applications. It also serves as a bedrock of connectivity, access, monitoring, and visualization.
While simultaneously, it has emerged as the next terrain of extending national influence, scientific prowess, and prestige.
National security and defense have been key motivations for space since the heyday of the Cold War. What unnerved the US about the launch of Sputnik 1 was the fact that it was launched aboard R-7 Semyorka, the world’s first intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM).
With this, Kremlin demonstrated not just its capability to reach the space, but also the ability to hit targets on US soil. This was, naturally, a cause for worry.
The dilemma between the use of space for peaceful purposes to reap socio-economic developments and advancing national developments, or to bolster defense capabilities, is an old one. Though increasingly, in today’s age of networked and hybrid warfare, the two need to complement each other and are not seen as mutually exclusive.
As Professor Arup Dasgupta, former deputy director of the Indian space agency ISRO, explains, the initial trajectories of the space programs of China and India were similar, but later Beijing geared it more towards missile programs.
However, since the advent of GNSS, near real-time information sharing, precise location-intelligence, accurate visualizations, profusion of geospatial data, and the increasing salience of geospatial intelligence in the ongoing Ukraine conflict, space has become inherent to defense and national security considerations. This is not just limited to the two former superpowers.
With leading countries such as the US, UK, France, and Japan creating space commands and space forces, and India recently launching its Defence Space Agency—though not going the full way to mobilize a designated Space Force—it is clear that focusing on space defense capabilities will be a major national priority.
Ever since the age of exploration and the scramble for territories, resources, and new markets in the 17th and 18th centuries, geography has been at the core of global politics. Its centrality is best summed up by the titles of two books: Revenge of Geography by Robert Kaplan, and Prisoners of Geography by Tim Marshall.
|The major difference between the “Space Race” and the “New Space” era is the unparalleled liberalization and unshackled access today.|
Navigating geographic constraints, finding a way around deadlocks, and exercising choices according to latitudes, longitudes, and natural barriers, is a fundamental prerequisite in geography. It isn’t an overstatement to say that “geography is destiny” in international relations.
Geopolitics is again in vogue today, perhaps for the first time since the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. What was perceived as the “end of history,” or the terminal end of nation-bloc politics, alliances, and gambits to extend global hegemony, has made a comeback. That comes today, though, with the rise of multipolarity and transactional alliances versus iron-clad ideological rigidity or political fealty.
Ancient Greeks described powers as either land-based (military), termed as Tellucracy, or sea-based (naval), called Thassalocracy. Taking a leaf from these, the foremost geopolitical thinkers of our era—Halford Mackinder (Heartland), Nicholas Spykman (Rimland), and Admiral Alfred Mahan ( Primacy of Sea)— outlined the behavior, choices, compulsions, and restraints of land powers and sea powers.
Space is the new determinant in this matrix, for civilian as well as military purposes. That’s why the boundaries of conventional geopolitics are being pushed towards astropolitics.
Space rivalries won’t be just for securing orbital space for satellites in the ever-congested low Earth orbit for Earth observation, remote monitoring, and reconnaissance, or to deploy spy satellites, but a bid for interplanetary exploration to look for rare earth minerals, water ice, helium, and more, or to conduct scientific experiments taking the advantage of microgravity.
“It’s believed that the moon contains reserves of silicon, titanium, rare earth metals and aluminum. Humanity is destined to spend more time there, digging beneath the surface in pursuit of these metals, which are used in vital modern technologies”, writes Tim Marshall. “Many countries have the incentive to go after them, especially those that don’t want to rely on China, which holds a third of the world’s known reserves.”
Mike Bechtel, chief futurist at Deloitte, says that space today is an “inflection point akin to the Age of Exploration.”
The original space race between the USA and USSR saw a series of Soviet firsts in space—satellite, dog, man, woman, Moon rover—and the US catching up and outstripping with the phenomenal Apollo 11 Moon landing in 1969 that cost over $30 billion and close to a decade to culminate.
The successful landing on the Moon changed the tack in the stiff rivalry, paving the way for competitive collaboration. This phase is best exemplified by the Apollo-Soyuz joint missions, mutual disarmaments, and, later on, the ISS (International Space Station), often held as the shining beacon of space cooperation even between countries with antagonistic policies or diverging interests.
The major difference between the “Space Race” and the “New Space” era is the unparalleled liberalization and unshackled access today. What was hitherto a monopoly of national space agencies, with core technology limited to only a handful of nations, has achieved the semblance of a level playing field where barriers to entry as well as cost of launches is drastically being reduced.
From just one satellite in orbit in 1957, to 50 put in orbit just by the USA by mid 1960s, today there are thousands of satellites orbiting the Earth. Most of these are by private companies, not government entities.
|Space has been a gamechanger, adding immense economic value.|
“We have entered into a new era of space exploration. There has been an incredible acceleration in the number of satellites in space. In the past decade, there has been tremendous increase in the number of satellites in orbit”, says Clayton Mowry, president of International Astronautical Federation (IAF).
“Today, the highest number of satellites in space are by SpaceX and OneWeb respectively, which are both private companies. New Space actors are looking at ways to utilize capability, creating a billion-dollar economy”, he adds.
This seamless transition from space being a restricted-access turf of national space agencies to a level playing field of entrepreneurship and innovation, is certainly one of the defining shifts in the past decades.
Be it mapping and navigation that powers the billion-dollar location economy, or the utility of satellite imagery and analytics for agriculture, infrastructure monitoring, planning and designing, or mining and metallurgy, space has been a gamechanger, adding immense economic value.
“The contours of our current space age include more diverse actors, both in terms of countries and private sector actors. All of them are aided by a lower cost of space access. As more and more countries have their own space agencies, space is no longer just about large countries and their interests”, believes Alexander MacDonald, chief economist at NASA.
In 2014, he authored a NASA report that said the US stands at the cusp of Second Space Age. “With increasing private sector involvement, commercial interests and the intrinsic motivations of individuals are increasingly become drivers of the industry. This creates both new challenges and new opportunities”, adds MacDonald.
According to a report by Brookings, currently 20 countries across four continents have civil space budgets of more than $100 million, while 70 countries have active space programs. “New companies are leveraging small satellites to build large broadband constellations including SpaceX, OneWeb, Telesat Canada, Samsung, and Boeing, among others”, says the report.
However, commercial interests and for-profit pursuits haven’t reduced the impact of geopolitical tussles in space. Instead they have become more prominent over the years, as China emerges as a spacefaring power with a series of its own firsts.
Apart from the ISS, which is set to be decommissioned in 2030, China is the only country in the world that has its own space station, Tiangong. However efforts are underway to build space stations, including by private companies such as Axiom Space, Blue Origin, and Voyager Space, as soon as 2027.
Russia, which launched the world’s first space station, Salyut-1 in 1971, and which operated Mir space station till 2001, also plans to launch its own new space station. Roscosmos, the country’s space agency, has invited BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) to be a part of their new space station program.
The launch of Luna-25, Russia’s first Moon mission since 1976, was replete with “Back to the USSR” symbolism. It conjured imagery of technological autarky, as if a throwback to the old space race. Vladimir Putin affirmed this by saying that the Soviet Union developed most of the cutting-edge tech despite sanctions.
However, Russia has become a shadow of its former self in space capability, despite maintaining an edge in powerful rockets, launchers, and an enviable space-defense ecosystem.
The Russian space sector has, off late, seen cost overruns, delays, and endemic corruption. In 2018, Alexei Kudrin, Russia’s former head of financial audit and ex-finance minister, red-flagged financial irregularities in the country’s space agency.
“We have big problems with Roscosmos. There is simply irrational spending, all sorts of violations of discipline. Procurement procedures are carried out incorrectly, prices are too high, a lot of funds are wasted on unfinished objects or on objects that are simply idle, funds in the accounts have not been used for months,” he said to news agency TASS in 2018.
With ever-increasing demand for space data, imagery, applications, and the need to secure space assets, the pie is growing. The NewSpace market, with its high specialization, is today more about collaboration, niche area expertise, and diversification.
Unarguably the most dazzling success story of New Space is SpaceX, founded and led by the maverick tech billionaire Elon Musk.
|Steady efforts towards weaponization, anti-satellite weapons, and electronic warfare measures to jam signals risks turning space into a contested arena of great power rivalries, and an extension of terrestrial saber-rattling.|
SpaceX rockets have largely become the standard workhorses for carrying US missions. The company is a vendor for NASA as well as the Department of Defense(DOD). Much of drastic cost-reduction in launches, which has broken down entry barriers, is attributable to technology advances, miniaturization, conducive policy frameworks, as well SpaceX being the trailblazer.
According to a recent report by BryceTech, in the second quarter of this year SpaceX lifted nearly ten times as much mass to orbit as its closest competitor, China. While SpaceX carried a payload of 214,095 kilograms to outer space, CASC carried 23,069 kilograms. Roscosmos came in third with 8,100 kilograms, followed by China National Space Agency (8,082 kilograms).
This picture is quite interesting. Clearly, more than 80% of the payload has been carried by SpaceX alone, and the gap between it and its nearest competitor is huge, which will take a long time to bridge. This gives USA an edge over China in terms of number of launches as well as the payload capacity.
With new agreeements such as the Artemis Accords and voluntary self-imposed bans on ASAT (anti-satellite weapon) testing, the US is articulating its new space doctrine, which includes a wide range of participants.
China has its own vision of space, which it describes as peaceful and aimed at socio-economic benefits. Beijing has long-standing space and technology outreach in Africa and Latin America.
In July, NASA chief Bill Nelson, on a visit to Brazil, offered the country NISAR satellite imagery to combat Amazon deforestation. Since 1999, Brazil’s Space Agency has a deep-seated partnership with China for agricultural and environmental monitoring.
China also plans to build a spaceport in Djibouti, in the strategic Horn of Africa, where Beijing already maintains a naval base. Earlier this year, the government of Djibouti signed an MoU with China’s Hong Kong Aerospace Technology Group (HKATG) to construct a space port.
Closer home in Asia, China supports space programs of Myanmar and Laos, allowing them access to its space facilities for civilian purposes. In 2021, an MoU was signed between Russia and China to build a lunar space station. As a result of US-led sanctions on Russia, space cooperation between Moscow and Beijing is poised to strengthen.
If the curtain of a “new cold war” gets drawn over the world, then what is seen as space competition between US and China would morph into more synergistic and interoperable collaboration between Russian and Chinese space efforts.
According to Satellite Industry Association estimates, there could be more than 100,000 commercial satellites in orbit by 2029. With such an increase, and with more nations vying to put them in orbit, space situational awareness, orbital sustainability, as well putting together a comprehensive framework for a “rules-based order” in space that governs the actions of state as well non-state actors is of paramount importance.
Though space is often referred as final frontier and common province, the steady efforts towards weaponization, anti-satellite weapons, and electronic warfare measures to jam signals risks turning it into a contested arena of great power rivalries, and an extension of terrestrial saber-rattling.
While the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 unequivocally states that space is a shared resource of all of humanity that shouldn’t be monopolized or restricted, more needs to be done to make the frameworks either widely acceptable to all spacefaring countries, or legally binding to the signatories.
The Artemis Accords is a step in the right direction, but it remains non-binding. A comprehensive mechanism still needs to be worked out to monitor and mandate space rules for all.
United Nations Committee on Peaceful Use of Outer Space (COPUOS) is another benchmark. It has over 100 signatories who commit to peaceful civilian use of space.
|We need to make rules for what Jah deems the “Wild West” of space: lack of regulations and a massive increase in the number of launches.|
“Just a few years back, over 90 countries signed an agreement on long-term sustainability guidelines. Now these countries need to make it a part of licensing and authorization for space activities”, says Moriba Jah, a renowned space environmentalist.
In the era of burgeoning private players and states liberalizing access, and divesting control, it may be said that it is hard to determine where the buck stops when it comes to being responsible space actors: with the governments, multi-lateral organizations, or private behemoths? But creating an enabling environment and setting up rules of conduct, safety, and security is the domain of states.
“Governments are ultimately responsible because they bear the legal liability for damage and harmful interference in outer space, as well for authorizing companies and organizations to engage in space activities”, adds Jah.
Drawing an analogy with the ITU (International Telecommunication Union) is responsible for radio frequency allocation to everyone in the world, some similar arrangement needs to be worked out for orbital capacity allocation as well.
We need to make rules for what Jah deems the “Wild West” of space: lack of regulations and a massive increase in the number of launches.
Another complexity in the New Space Race is precisely what lends vigor, vibrancy, and dynamism to it: the multitude of space actors and ambitious new entrants.
“Multiplicity of space players also adds to the complexity because different countries have varied motives for space exploration. Some may want to focus on national security, while others or economic benefits, or enhancing national prestige, or a mix of all. This makes it a little harder to secure agreement on many things between different space players”, asserts Brian Weeden, director of program planning at the Secure World Foundation.
He also stresses on the need to enhance space sustainability awareness among the end-users of space data, such as space application consumers and the geo-intelligence community.
Weeden also cites the example of the working group of COPUOS and its more than 100 nations, signifying that the awareness and will on space sustainability is already there.
Moribah Jah says that “there is no global coordination on how space is used, and no joint management of orbital space”, which allows countries to launch whenever they want, and from wherever till the time they incur ‘damages and harmful interference’, which remains ill-defined.
Dividends of space pay off not just in the form of direct benefits to millions of citizens via precise imagery and analytics, improved communication networks, and reliable early warning systems, but also the force multiplier effect on everyday consumer applications, and the boost to multiple sectors.
|It’s time to reexamine Apollo and extend its spirit of collaboration, targeted outcome-focused work, and solidarity beyond national frontiers.|
On the face of it, there seems to be little commonality between portable water purifiers and firefighter masks, except that both aim to prevent pollution. Yet both trace their genesis to the Apollo program. According to Tim Marshall, heat-resistant clothing, laptops, wireless headsets, LEDs lights, or memory-foam mattresses, can all trace their origins to the space race.
Apart from turbo-charging innovation and catalyzing technology permeation, space holds many other lessons for new business paradigms and sustainability endeavors.
Economist Mariana Mazzucato calls the Apollo space program the epitome of mission-oriented policy and innovation that should serve as a template for policymakers to deal with complex challenges. It’s time to reexamine Apollo and extend its spirit of collaboration, targeted outcome-focused work, and solidarity beyond national frontiers.
The global space economy is expected to hit the trillion-dollar mark by 2030, while space becomes an integral part of our lives today, from the most mundane applications to highly critical and classified defense operations.
The words of Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, the father of rocketry and cosmonautics—“Earth is the cradle of humanity, but we cannot remain in the cradle forever”—resonate as we prepare for a new epoch of technology transition.
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