Space is getting crowded. An increasing number of space science missions aimed at improving basic understanding of planetary science have been launched or proposed in the past few years. These 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 have all 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 science missions are only one part of this trend. Access to space will be essential in order 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. Japan, India, China, Iran, North Korea and South Korea are all working to advance their space-launch proficiency. Soon, others will join them. Turkey, Brazil and Argentina will also likely pursue and gain this capability going forward. In the coming decades, access to and control of space will be an increasingly important aspect of national affairs, even as the skies become increasingly competitive.
The Space Race Evolves
Analogies are often made between the early Cold War-era space race and the competing national projects of the early 21st century. But this analogy is flawed. Despite high levels of competition among emerging powers, the bipolar environment that pitted the United States against the Soviet Union was fundamentally different from the complex jockeying for position underway today.
Space assets have long been key strategic elements for countries seeking to maintain a military edge. Despite the number of high-profile manned missions in 1950s and 1960s aimed at collecting scientific data, the drivers behind space programs of that era were nationalistic and strategic concerns. The initial Cold War push into space was spurred by military interests and fueled by massive government expenditures aimed at addressing those interests. Economic benefits were an add-on effect and not a driving motivator.
Access to space became paramount in the early days of the Cold War, with the United States initially helping Western Europe compete with its communist neighbors. Europe, however, soon found that it could not rely even on its close ally to provide indefinite, unrestricted assistance in launching missions. In 1965, a National Security Action Memorandum was issued prohibiting the United States from helping foreign nations develop their own communications satellite constellations. This policy was applied two years later when the United States refused to launch communication satellites developed by European powers, although the project was spearheaded by France and West Germany. Eventually, Washington capitulated, saying the launch was acceptable as long as the satellites were experimental.
This episode made it clear to Europe that it needed to develop its own launch capabilities or be subject to shifting geopolitical considerations, even in the context of the unbreakable Western alliance of the Cold War. So in 1973, Western European partners began work on the Ariane rocket program. The European Space Agency, established in 1975, has continued apace and is now pursuing its own navigational network, named Galileo. A similar split occurred on the other side of the Cold War ideological divide, with China initiating its own space program in 1960 amid deteriorating relations with the Soviet Union.
The end of the Cold War, however, marked the beginning of a shift in space programs from primarily military to include commercial applications. When the divide between the Eastern and Western blocs fell, Russia and Ukraine inherited the Soviet Union's space capabilities. They quickly moved to attract commercial launch opportunities from previously off-limits markets. At the same time, the United States began to deregulate its space launch industry, allowing for private launch providers. These new companies have become vital to the U.S. space strategy.
Europe and, eventually, China and Japan also offered alternative options for launch. With the increased supply of options, the cost of access to space plummeted — as did the restrictions on launches. The interconnected world, enhanced by the rise of the Internet, developed numerous new commercial applications for space technology, including imaging, GPS and satellite communication. The space industry is now thriving and highly competitive, attracting both emerging and established technological and industrial powers. Whereas the Soviet, Chinese and U.S. space programs were built on massive military expenditures, the new entrants into space have gained access relatively cheaply. This has underpinned the rise in space science missions that do not reap immediate monetary rewards.
Emerging Space Powers
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. General science and technological research, academic and development systems in those nations are perhaps rivaled only by those in the United States, giving these institutions an interest in space science studies as well as general earth studies. 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. Japan is at the forefront of research on how to remove space debris littering orbit through its Space Tethered Autonomous Robotic Satellite-2, a giant magnetic space net.
But Tokyo and Seoul are not developing their capabilities entirely for commercial reasons. As Beijing has adopted a more aggressive regional military posture, it has developed a corresponding interest in space technology to help with terrestrial navigation, among other applications. Regional rivals Japan and South Korea are in the same position as Western Europe during the Cold War. They cannot remain entirely reliant on U.S. goodwill and, for this reason, are developing military applications for space technology in tandem with their commercial developments.
South Korea's space capability currently lags behind that of both Japan and China, but its nascent programs will likely develop quickly over the next decade. Naro-1, Seoul's first entirely domestically developed launch system, was first deployed in 2013, and already the Korea Aerospace Research Institute has outlined ambitious plans for a moon lander by 2020.
Looking beyond the Asia-Pacific region, India's longstanding space program is at a juncture. New Delhi currently possesses the capability to cheaply launch missions into space, but these are limited in terms of cargo capacity. Both of India's missions to the moon and Mars carried small payloads. India has the potential to become a low-cost launch provider to willing partners if it can increase this capacity and has also been focusing on missions closer to earth devoted exclusively to science.
The space programs of North Korea and Iran are distinctly different than those of their Asian peers. For most of these powers, space access is motivated by numerous strategic and economic factors. This is not the case for Pyongyang or Tehran. Their space programs are meant to alleviate pressure from the West and from regional rivals. Iran needs to balance against Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, while North Korea must consider Japan and South Korea. Of the two, North Korea's program is the most advanced, serving primarily to support missile development in its quest to mount a credible nuclear weapons deterrent.
Iran, by contrast, is not on par with any of the emerging space powers and is far behind even North Korea. Tehran's program is squarely under the control of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which holds hardline military and nationalist interests. Tehran fought to ensure that its missile program stayed out of the nuclear deal with the West. This means that Iran can test technology related to intercontinental ballistic missiles, including the new Simorgh launch vehicle, without risking fresh sanctions. With hardliners losing ground in key institutions, they will push to exert their influence in the sectors they still control, namely missile and space programs.
The Reigning Superpower
As numerous powers enter space, the United States is pursuing two possibly 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 deal with the increasing array of new programs. This will mean militarizing space to defend vital systems in ways not seen since the middle of the Cold War, including anti-satellite weapons demonstrations and research into directed energy weapons capable of damaging critical components of satellites or blinding them.
At the same time, as with the seas, the United States has been working to maintain space's status as a public good. The rise of U.S.-based aerospace firm SpaceX and other private launch providers is driving down the cost of access and making it easier for all to get involved. Private interest in spaceflight has surged, and includes Netherlands-based MarsOne, which hopes to put the first people on Mars, and commercial spaceflight companies Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin. From a U.S. strategic perspective, Washington is more willing to allow other countries to construct satellites but wants to maintain dominance in actual access to space through the launch capabilities of companies such as SpaceX.
The United States now recognizes that it can no longer effectively restrict access to space. This is simply because launch capabilities are now generally available from several private and government providers. Instead, Washington must pin its strategic interest on maintaining its current advantage as the world's industrial and innovation powerhouse to remain one step ahead of competitors emerging across the globe.