There’s something different about modern space policy. For the past 40 or so years, space related headlines tended to revolve around yet another shuttle mission, or perhaps pictures from a telescope or probe. Yet, in the last few years, everything seems to have changed. SpaceX and other private companies are the face of space exploration, as NASA almost drops behind in public prominence. They have achieved amazing innovations, and now, previously unimaginable projects are being openly discussed by space experts. After a private company docked with the I.S.S., space tourism has become a real possibility. Private companies are tackling the challenge of capturing asteroids for resource acquisition, and the U.S. plans to return to the Moon.
However, changes to U.S. space policy cannot be solely defined by these new targets; the changes run deeper than surface images might show. The reason that the goals of space exploration are changing is because the bedrock of space policy is shifting in a way that hasn’t happened since the Cold War. To understand what is happening, it is important to understand the rise of space exploration during that conflict — the competition known as the Space Race.
The exploration of space began as a military endeavor. The first missiles were designed during World War 2, with the express purpose of striking civilian populations that were otherwise inaccessible to standard bombing runs. It was only after the war was won that America, head bloody but unbowed, began repurposing its swords as plowshares. Yet the fundamental technology of space exploration remained a military tool, and that reality has shaped U.S. space policy ever since. Rockets never stopped being tools of war — rather, the composition of war changed around them.
The Space Race served two specific purposes to both parties. First, it showed the supremacy of their particular economic system; by achieving a herculean feat such as landing on the moon, it was shown by example that great resources could be efficiently mustered toward a challenging task. Second, it would theoretically illustrate the nation’s technological supremacy.
This last point is especially important because space vehicles are what policy experts term a “dual-use technology”. While the term is nebulous, in general it refers to technology that has both a civilian use and a military use. To understand why the Space Race was so important to both powers, all you need to do is look at a space rocket. To convert a spacecraft into an intercontinental ballistic missile, all one needs to do is change the payload and alter the trajectory of the rocket’s travel. While other technologies, nuclear energy most notably, have a similar dual-use aspect, with space the danger is incredibly stark because of how simple it is to alter. By showing off their space supremacy, what each nation was actually doing was showing off their nuclear missile capabilities.
Yet the same aspect that made the competition important made it dangerous. If the race to develop space missile technology was actually a race to develop nuclear missile technology, that meant the loser of such a competition would be at a strategic disadvantage. It also meant that the Space Race could be quickly converted into a nuclear showdown. Additionally, during the Space Race neither party knew what the outcome would be, nor how feasible certain ideas were — thus, there was the extra risk that the first nation to the moon would gain a territorial advantage and be able to plant nuclear assets beyond Earth.
Given the potential high stakes of the competition, and the ease of escalating the conflict into something nuclear, the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. were invested in making sure the competition remained one of technical expertise and national pride. The solution was reached together. As the parties didn’t know who would win, they decided to set certain things off the playing field entirely. This was codified in U.N. treaties — an illustration of how both parties bought in, given the strict divide in the institution. The 1967 Outer Space Treaty established that nuclear weapons could not be put in space and banned the claiming of national sovereignty over space territory and resources. While these clauses were nominally an embodiment of a certain ethical code (space was to be explored peacefully), this was unusual in the history of international law — two parties to a conflict agreed to mutually limit the victor’s spoils. It was achieved because, although both nations may have taken extra-terrestrial territory if given the opportunity, they recognized that such aspirations were much more long-term, and the immediate gains (and risks) were to be found in the area of missile development and national competition. And thus the claiming of space resources and the militarization of space real-estate was relinquished. This mutual forbearance allowed for the competition’s stakes to be lowered, and the risk of nuclear escalation to be likewise diminished.
Following the end of the Cold War, the U.S. stepped back from space exploration. The pressing national security risk was no longer pressing. Power was handed off to space agencies, which were given smaller mandates and now had the power to actually fulfill the normative goals of exploration and discovery. International regulatory organizations began to develop — governmental coordination on Earth to allow for economic competition in space.
However, there has been a cross-administration shift in U.S. space policy. Space policy already tends to be cross-administration by default, given that space policy is generally managed by nonpartisan technical experts and the timeline of any given project outlasts a presidential term, but this shift was notable for its scale. Starting in the Obama administration and continuing through the Trump administration, the U.S. has begun to directly challenge the international legal framework that it itself created.
What changed? The basic idea is this: new technologies and capabilities dramatically increased the value of space, for both economic gain and national security. All of these new opportunities are premised around the ability to access and claim parts of space — the one thing the previous treaties placed off the table. At the same time, the rise of China as a competitor has pushed the U.S. to not only attempt to access these opportunities, but to approach space as an area of international competition that requires a nationalistic and mercantilist approach.
To start, this change did not cause privatization (the U.S. has always depended on space contractors), but it may have been caused by it. The entrance of new companies onto the space scene opened up completely new economic opportunities in space — SpaceX (cheap delivery to space), Blue Origin (asteroid mining), and Virgin Galactic (space tourism) each depend on a completely new business model, which in turn is dependent on technology that was just developed. None of those three areas of economic development could have been feasibly pursued in the Space Race; thus, the stars have become a completely new economic opportunity.
With the dawn of the new millennium, cyber-technology has integrated itself into every facet of society. While “the cloud” and other cyber concepts seem amorphous, the ultimate physical infrastructure of the cyber world is our system of satellites. In the late twentieth century satellites were important for their role in television, but in the modern era it is not simply entertainment that is dependent on them – it is the entire economic system. Physical satellites, and the space real estate they take up, are the backbone of the world we know. Companies like SpaceX make access to space to place satellites much easier, and with increased access to space comes an increased ability to use force in space.
China’s policy reflects this. Over the course of the 21st century, China has tested increasingly capable “satellite-killing” weapons. These technologies are able to strike and destroy space-based targets. While the tech is still in its infancy, it has developed year by year – it is understandable in this context and with the importance of the satellite network that the U.S. has begun to step away from the previous legal standard that no nation should militarize space, as seen in the authorization of the Pentagon’s research into space-based missile defense programs and the exclusion of China from space science coordination and joint space activities passed by Congress in the Obama administration, and the creation of the Space Force under President Trump with Space Policy Directive-4.
Satellite real estate is not the only important economic aspect of the modern space environment. Another is asteroid acquisition. Economists and planetary scientists estimate that there could be literally quintillions of dollars worth of rare earth minerals in the various asteroids within our solar system. President Obama authorized an asteroid redirect mission in 2010 to develop the basic technologies of acquisition, although with budget issues in NASA the administration eventually turned to private actors as the path to asteroids. In 2015, under the Obama administration, Congress passed the U.S. Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act, which allows for the possibility of private companies claiming resources in space. Like with the continuation and expansion of the Obama era challenge to Chinese military actions in space,President Trump signed the executive order “Encouraging International Support for the Recovery and Use of Space Resources”in 2020, expanding the Obama-era law and provided support for its implementation. The U.S. not only allowed private U.S.-based companies to claim space resources, a legal gray area in the international legal framework that the U.S. itself created, it began supporting them directly.
At the same time, both administrations began to direct support towards the access of other opportunities in space, such as space tourism, which rely on the general development of effective space launch vehicles. China has never cooperated with the U.S. in standard space missions, unlike post-Soviet Russia who did so despite major fluctuations in the relationship with the U.S., however that non-cooperation has historically come in the form of refusing to share information. Now, when access to space is the backbone of new industries like tourism, China has shifted to actively opposing U.S. space efforts. This can be seen in the Chinese establishment of the Asia-Pacific Space Cooperation Organization as a direct challenge to the U.S.-backed Asia-Pacific Regional Space Agency Forum (a forum that has received U.S. support through both the Obama and Trump administrations).
Both the Obama and Trump administrations, despite their differences in virtually every aspect of policy, have shared a few common lines in their space policy. First, both agreed (in broad strokes) with expanding military capabilities in space to project power and defend satellites. Second, both supported and expanded the ability of U.S.-backed private actors to claim resources and other economic opportunities in space.
Why is this shift so major? Consider the two things the U.S. put off the table in order to allow for safe space competition: resource/territory acquisition and militarization. Those are the two things that the U.S. has placed back on the table, in a complete reversal of its prior stance — something done by two administrations that are as diametrically opposed as anything else in American politics.
It might be reasonable to assume that the existing space laws will serve the same purpose as during the Space Race — why challenge them so completely? The problem is that now the competition is about something new — before, resource acquisition and militarization could be put off the table because it was in the long-term. It was not physically possible to do much as the technology simply had yet to be developed. We could barely get to space, let alone militarize or claim it. The idea of mining asteroids was ludicrous and cybertechnology wasn’t even a dream. A competition there would ultimately be self-destructive; it would consume too many resources, and would elevate the stakes of the conflict from simple national pride and into something worth much more.
All of those resources are now accessible, so that bargain can no longer hold. Accordingly, the U.S. has rejected it.
The competition is now explicitly about accessing these new economic opportunities and military advantages, and not about competing economic systems. While the U.S. may be cognizant of the dangers of escalation, it has nothing else to remove from the table; if it doesn’t compete, then China will definitely obtain a major advantage.
This is an important geopolitical shift, not only because of the risk of escalation, but also because space is the physical infrastructure of our cyber-connected world. Without a stable satellite system, the world functionally collapses, which makes it worrying when competition in that arena begins to escalate. Before, we were able to use the Space Race as a guideline for how competitions in space play out safely. However, the Space Race simply isn’t a usable model anymore, as the fundamentals of space policy have changed. We no longer have history to guide us. We are going where no one has gone before.
Featured Image Source: Alvexo News