Space is getting crowded. A growing number of space science missions aimed at improving the basic understanding of planetary science have been launched or proposed in the past few years. Such missions have been part of spaceflight since its advent but long were launched only by traditional space powers: the United States, Europe and Russia. Today, a new set of players has entered the arena, launching missions to the moon, the asteroids and other planetary bodies. China, Japan and India in particular all have performed, attempted or announced missions to Mars in the past three years.
The proliferating global use of space will be a defining feature of the 21st century, and scientific missions are only one part of this trend. Access to space will be essential for nations to pursue both military and economic objectives, and those depending on this technology will no longer want to be reliant on partners to help launch missions. In the coming decades, access to and control of space will be of greater import to national affairs, even as the skies become increasingly competitive.
A diverse range of motivations is driving the current push into space, which counts Japan, China, South Korea, India, North Korea and Iran, among others, as its newest competitors. Many of these newcomers are concentrated in Asia, led by South Korea and Japan, two of the world's most technologically advanced nations. This gives them the means to develop the know-how needed to build space-based systems, leveraging expertise in areas such as shipbuilding to expand into the aerospace sector and compete with other commercial launch providers. It also means that it is important for them to gain access to space-based systems, foreign or otherwise, in order to maintain their economic — and potentially military — edge.
As numerous powers enter space, the United States is pursuing two potentially competing goals. One is to redefine its military doctrine on space as carried out by the United States Space Command and the Air Force Space Command to attend to the diversifying array of new programs. At the same time, as with the seas, the United States has been working to maintain space's status as a public good, and now recognizes that it can no longer effectively restrict access to space. Washington must instead focus its strategic interest on maintaining its place as the world's industrial and innovation powerhouse to remain one step ahead of competitors emerging across the globe.