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Review: The Future of Geography

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The Future of Geography: How the Competition in Space Will Change Our World
by Tim Marshall
Scribner, 2023
hardcover, 288 pp., illus.
ISBN 978-1-6680-3164-3

The “space race” hype is as strong today as ever—or, at least, since the original Space Race of the 1960s. Commentaries frequently assert that the United States is in a new space race, primarily with China, in topics ranging from military space activities to lunar exploration. Even NASA administrator Bill Nelson regularly argues that the US is in a new space race with China, particularly when testifying before Congress. But there is far less discussion about what exactly is involved with winning the race, and what rewards come with it.

A particularly egregious example of the book’s flaws is this sentence: “The ESA is firmly allied with the US and is part of the Artemis Accords Moonshot.”

Another person who has bought into the new space race rhetoric is British journalist Tim Marshall. “The three main powers are now in competition, locked in an arms race to ensure that neither of the others can call the shots” in space, he writes of China, Russia, and the United States in his new book The Future of Geography. The stakes, he argues, are just as great as past efforts to control the seas and skies on Earth.

Marshall is clearly deeply interested in the topic and wants to share what he’s learned with readers. Unfortunately, that means that many sections of the book are little more than regurgitations of the history of spaceflight and the capabilities of countries, from the major powers to those making their first steps into space. There is some analysis of the implications of those capabilities, including scenarios of potential conflicts in Earth orbit and on the Moon.

It’s also clear from reading the book that Marshall’s exuberance is far greater than his expertise. A particularly egregious example is this sentence in one of the later chapters of the book: “The ESA is firmly allied with the US and is part of the Artemis Accords Moonshot.” What, pray tell, is the “Artemis Accords Moonshot”? It seems a weird amalgamation of the Artemis lunar exploration effort and the Artemis Accords, two very separate efforts that he discusses at length earlier in the book. ESA is certainly part of Artemis, but is not, and cannot be, a signatory to the Accords, which is reserved for national governments. (Pedants will also note that “the ESA” is as off-pitch as “the NASA”—neither acronym takes a definite article—but at this point it’s piling on.)

That sentence is emblematic of the flaws of the book. Some are factual errors, like how lunar Gateway modules will be launched (only the first two will be launched on a single Falcon Heavy, rather than several such launches as he writes.) Others are far more serious: in a section on the Chinese-led International Lunar Research Station, he says the first phase will be “reconnaissance up to 2026, including three crewed missions.” There are, of course, no plans for Chinese crewed missions to the Moon before late this decade at the very earliest, and certainly not three by 2026. In a section on European space efforts, he notes that the UK remained a part of ESA (er, “the ESA”) after Brexit “but with ‘third country’ status.” In fact, the UK’s participation in ESA remained unchanged post-Brexit because ESA is separate from the EU.

Races imply the existence of a finish line and a reward for being the first to cross it, which have yet to be clearly defined here or anywhere else in the ongoing debate.

There are some interesting sections to the book. Marshall offers a detailed review of the Artemis Accords, examining its various provisions and potential challenges, like definitions of safety zones. But even here he missteps, writing that “China and Russia were specifically excluded” from the Accords, China because of the Wolf Amendment restricting NASA-China bilateral cooperation and Russia because “it was accused of tracking US spy satellites in a dangerous manner.” (Um, okay.) But there is nothing on the US side preventing either nation from signing the Accords; the Wolf Amendment, for example, does not apply here because China or any other nation can simply decide on their own to sign on (Iceland did that recently, signing the Accords and then notifying the US State Department, to the apparent surprise of both the State Department and NASA.) Geopolitics, of course, makes it very unlikely either nation will choose to join for the foreseeable future.

“A successful colonization of the Moon will give a country, or an alliance, advantages similar to those enjoyed by maritime powers in previous ages,” he claims, including “the potential wealth of the Moon and the ability to ship some of that wealth back home.” That problem with that analysis, though, is the need to emphasize the potential of that wealth, which remains unproven. What happens if the water ice deposits thought to exist at the lunar poles turn out to be smaller and/or more difficult to extract than expected? Other resources are also unclear (and let’s not get started about helium-3 given the lack of fusion reactors on Earth that can use it as fuel.) The advantages trumpeted by Marshall become far less clear.

While there certainly is competition, both civil and military, in space between the US and China and Russia, the case for a true “space race” isn’t made in The Future of Geography. Races imply the existence of a finish line and a reward for being the first to cross it, which have yet to be clearly defined here or anywhere else in the ongoing debate.

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