Global Affairs

Watch This Space: how the new Space Race is different from the first

Late on Friday night, as Oxford students worked, dozed, or staggered out of the pub, mission controllers at Beijing’s China National Space Administration (CNSA) set a new milestone in the new space race. At 23.18, the Zhurong rover touched down successfully on Mars’s Utopia Planitia basin. This makes China the third nation to land a rover on the Red Planet, with only the  USA and USSR preceding them. The probe which transported Zhurong, called Tianwen-1, set its own record, being the first probe carrying both an orbiter, lander and rover to enter Martian orbit. 

Mars is a major flashpoint for the new space race, but not the only one. Technological improvement and returning to the Moon are also key objectives. CNSA has also contemplated visits to Jupiter and Venus, and launching rockets from the Moon itself. It launched two space laboratories, Tiangong-1 and 2, in 2011 and 2016 respectively, and it has not shied away from more ambitious projects. A fully-fledged space station is currently scheduled for a 2022 launch, and the Long March 9 super-heavy lift concept aims by 2030 to almost double the cargo-carrying capacity of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy. The US was caught napping as CNSA’s space programme lifted off. After the retirement of NASA’s space shuttle programme in 2011, US astronauts have had to use Russian Soyuz rockets to reach the International Space Station. This platform is itself due to be mothballed after NASA funding dries up in 2024. However, NASA recently confirmed a $3bn contract with Elon Musk’s SpaceX to return US astronauts to the Moon by the end of the decade. In February, NASA landed its own Perseverance rover, complete with the Mars Helicopter, in Mars’s Jezero Crater. 

It all seems strangely cyclical: where once the US competed in space against the USSR, it now does the same with the PRC (People’s Republic of China), its new superpower rival. Separate blocs have, arguably, already been carved out following China’s agreement with Russia to build a moon base together by 2036. The scheme invites any interested nations to join as well, signalling a challenge to the formerly American-led order in space. 

Technological advances since the Cold War mean space as a domain has more practical usages than during the first space race, rather than simply being symbolic of soft power. Modern societies use satellites in roles ranging from obvious navigation and communications functions, to stock market transactions and time-keeping. Human presence in space has become indispensable to that on earth. A permanent, expansive involvement in space will likely emerge in coming decades to maintain these key assets.

This becomes likelier as the militarisation of space accelerates. If peer-to-peer competition increases in the coming decades, disabling each other’s space assets will be a critical way to destabilise not only the military, but also societal integrity of rival states. It is the belief of China’s Academy of Military Sciences, for instance, that ‘whoever is the strongman of military space will be the ruler of the battlefield.’ For this reason, numerous militaries have instituted space-fighting arms. The US has its own contiguous Space Force (est. 2018), the Chinese a Strategic Support Force (responsible for space, cyber and electronic warfare) which was created in 2015. The UK has followed: last month, UK Space Command became operational. The importance of space now is not just the superpower prestige granted by landing on Mars or the Moon. It also lies in the strategic advantages that come with extra-terrestrial superiority. The importance of improving, expanding, and defending those assets will necessitate spending into the long-term. This is not merely some 2020s “space fad”. Space has become a domain of geostrategic competition. A nation’s command of space technology now has direct consequences for its ability to maintain key infrastructure and defend and deter peer-level adversaries.

The new space race is highly multipolar. The European Space Agency (in partnership with Russia), India and even the small United Arab Emirates have all already sent probes to Mars. Israel has also expressed interest in doing so. There are many reasons aside from military competition to invest in space exploration. For these smaller nations to compete with China and the US in this arena, such a disproportionate sum would be required that such cost would probably outstrip any dividends. There are vast differences in scale. The US and China now spend $15bn and $8bn respectively per year on space exploration and technology; whereas India, for example, successfully introduced its Mangalyaan probe into Martian orbit all for a cost of $74m.

Instead many missions, like the UAE’s Hope mission and India’s Mangalyaan, are for scientific exploration. Others in the future may prioritise mining. Valuable rare earth elements platinum, titanium, scandium and yttrium have been found on the Moon, which would find key uses in industry and command high prices if sold by its miners. As such, Chinese sources have postulated an “Earth-moon space economic zone” worth $10 trillion by 2050. There is now a far wider spectrum of competitors in space, as well as far wider tangible incentives that have inspired them to reach for the stars and stay there.

Private industry involvement complicates the multipolarity. In the US there are three main competitors: Elon Musk’s SpaceX, Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, and the joint Boeing-Lockheed Martin enterprise the United Launch Alliance. Even in China, previously notorious for state monopolies, competition has been opened. Half of China’s 78 private space companies have been founded since 2014. Private competition has always featured heavily in space exploration. Historically, 85-90% of NASA’s budget went towards private contracts. The difference now is the degree of power private industry has over space infrastructure. It was from SpaceX that came the reusable Falcon 9 launcher that has slashed the price of space travel sevenfold. Private centres of innovation can set the pace, not just national governments. As such, political priorities will not always predominate; scientific exploration, or profiting from extra-terrestrial resources, will factor in ever more. This may have a limiting effect on the ability of a single country to enforce a monopoly in space. SpaceX currently operates 25% of all satellites orbiting the Earth which gives Musk’s company a great degree of influence when it comes to setting priorities for future space policies. There are a myriad of agendas at work that make this Space Race potentially far more complex than the first. It is not a repeat of the Cold War space race, where lumbering superpowers square up to each other in front of the whole world. Smaller, nimbler contestants like SpaceX will have their own role in technological innovation and mediating the balance of spacepower.

Indeed, there is no single goal everyone is running towards in space. These range from scientific exploration to filming movies. There are overlapping pull factors, and overlapping “races”. What is clear is that the untapped potential of space is immeasurable. More direct applications are becoming available and participation in space exploration is growing rapidly. Private and public institutions are finding more reasons to invest in it. The many advantages of having a presence in space mean this new race will not be a superficial symbolic contest but a real concern for the exercise of hard power and technological innovation. Investors have Just this last year, venture capital investment in space firms increased by 95%. Watch this space – many people already are.

Image credit