There is no doubt that the world is in a new space age. In the last ten years, the world has witnessed rapid development in space technology and rapidly growing tensions between world powers. The same principles define the geopolitics of space as those on the ground. What sets space apart is the fact there is no solid geography. Instead of thinking of physical areas covering thousands of kilometres, we must think of orbital paths and control areas like the moon and comets.
Competition in space is not new by any means and was a defining part of the cold war. The start of the space race happened when Russia launched the first satellite, known as Sputnik. For decades the Soviet Union and the United States competed in their space and satellite programs. Unlike previous space races, progress is being made by private companies. Companies like blue origin and space x are arguably leading the U.S.’s newfound progress in space. Despite being private companies, they are also acting as vessels of geopolitical power. Partnerships between NASA and these companies are prime examples of public-private partnerships that help further national political interests in space. Space X regularly carries out contracts for NASA and the U.S. government. Private space companies such as RocketLab, Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic are all making substantial progress in space. However, these companies are not only acting as corporate companies.
The majority of these companies are U.S.-based and often receive funding or support through partnerships with the U.S. government. These public-private partnerships are essential to understanding the geopolitics competition in space. While the United States may not be funding NASA as strongly as in the past, it encourages private actors to conduct research and development in partnership with the government. The U.S. government then leverages these connections to further its geopolitical interests in space. This nation is not alone in this strategy; Israel company SpaceIL recently launched the first privately funded mission to the moon despite the mission being carried out in partnership with SpaceX.
The privatization of the space industry leaves major questions regarding the role of the military-industrial complex. Particularly as space has been a domain of major competition between world powers in the past.
Space is becoming an increasingly tense military front for many countries too. Space and high altitude technology such as satellites and some drones are critical components of modern warfare. Therefore if a country holds dominance in space, it can use that dominance to affect the ground’s battles. Major powers are already thinking in this way, with Russia recently being accused of test-firing a projectile from a satellite. The United States also has projects such as the X-37B low orbit UAV. The X-37B is a reusable robotic aircraft that is run by a branch of the U.S. air force, it recently landed after spending over 2 years in space. The missions it carries out are classified, so there is much speculation on the plane’s role. China is also a key player in space, having launched a prototype attempt space station called Tiangong-1, which was active between September 2011 to April 2018. China is now aiming to place their second space station in orbit this year.
Space is full of critical resources, and this is a large reason that both private and public actors are rushing to develop their space programmes. Rare minerals are often found on asteroids in close proximity to earth, and actors are rushing to figure out how to transport these back to earth for use. A security concept called ‘Anti-access/area denial’ or A2D2 is becoming more common in the geopolitics of space. If a country can deny another state’s satellite access to an area of space, this has implications for battles and competition. Space is more and more becoming the new frontier of competition.
While much of the technological progress in space has positive implications for research and technological development, the world should watch closely to ensure that the rule of law and respect for the human race’s desires in space is preserved. The world should watch closely to ensure that great power competition doesn’t spill over into open conflict, either on the ground or in orbit. At the end of the day, the geopolitics of space is largely the same as those on the ground; there are just no clearly defined boundaries to limit this competition. And that is where the worry lies. A clash in space benefits no one. And the world needs to take this to heart when observing the new space race.