Outer Space: A New Frontier in Geopolitics

Kazi Rhid | 07 June 2023
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The space race has been an issue on the geopolitical table ever since the launch of Sputnik by the Soviet Space Agency in 1957. It triggered a domino effect that resulted in the Apollo 11 mission which had the first humans on the moon. Though since then the space frontier has been stagnant for quite a few decades, the Soviet Union’s downfall and a lot of other factors contributed to this sequence of events. Until the commercialization of space explorations started by companies such as SpaceX and Blue Origin since the early 2000s. Energy and technology have been two of the major resources that everyone is running towards in this century. The recent safe landing and reuse of rockets have ensured that it could be possible to go out into space and get resources and come back to Earth. A lot of optimism has been thrown around for these reasons but at the same time, it raises the question of what the big players in the space race focus on. In terms of sharing these resources in the future and the political debate that comes with it. Since there isn’t any land to draw borders on in space, the two-dimensional geo-politics suddenly becomes three-dimensional astro-politics.

The two key players in this new age of the space race are the USA and China. Though Russia and the European Space Agency(ESA) also have their own influence the two mentioned first are the ones who are making the most impact. The first steps of commercialization of space travel have been taken by the USA, currently, all of the private space companies are based in the USA, with the exception of SpaceIL which is based in Israel. The Chinese space program has been mostly a military endeavour, but on May 30th of 2023, the Chinese Space Agency sent their first civilian to space. This shows the prospect of China having a go at the commercialization of this sector as well, as evident by the technology sector they are very fast to adapt to the new changes in the geopolitical climate of innovation when needed. Also, they launched their own space station alike the International Space Station(ISS) into orbit named Tiangong-1 in April of 2021, which is set to be functioning by the end of 2024, while the ISS of NASA is set to be decommissioned at the end of this decade. Russia has been another player in the space race but not as much as its predecessor USSR. The recent sanctions by the USA and European Union on Russia have resulted in Roscosmos Director General Dmitry Rogozin insinuating that Russian withdrawal could cause the ISS to de-orbit due to a lack of re-boost capabilities. The ESA has shown keen interest in the possibility of mining asteroids in order to extract resources. The government of Luxembourg has pledged to support research and start-ups focused on space exploration and extra-terrestrial resource extraction with funding of approximately USD $225 million.

Which brings the next point forward, what is the point of going to space in the first place? With scientific development, the future draws closer to a time when we can mine astroids instead of our own planet. The implications could be huge, fracking and mining would come to a halt if the commercialization of asteroid mining is viable. One of the leading problems of energy could be solved with new source materials for batteries that would revolutionize the technology space. New nuclear fuels like Helium 3 would mean renewable energy for centuries with no effects on the climate. The possibilities could only be limited by imagination in terms of new technology. If it goes by the trajectory of communication technology in the past three decades, by 2060 a lot of uncertainty regarding energy and resources would no longer be an issue.

The difficulty is, collaboration between nations is not something we see that much, especially in terms of sharing resources, they are not very altruistic. Instead, the purpose of the space race mostly seems to be to increase the efficiency of military tools. US-based companies are mostly taking contracts from the government, SpaceX has taken contracts with the US military that would ensure weapons delivery to anywhere in the world within a matter of hours. The attempt to militarize space technology has resulted in the USA to be exclusive in sharing their technology. In 2011, Republican Congressman Frank Wolf introduced a bill to bar NASA and all other American agencies from working with Chinese organizations due to security concerns that the Chinese might be using the knowledge from NASA to develop long range ballistic missiles. Russia has also used their space program to enhance ballistic missile accuracy, these types of tests show an ominous sign for the future. Even in the best-case scenario of focusing on resource utilization, the question arises of a shift in the geopolitical sphere, how the new power structures with larger resources behave, how would it benefit the least developed and developing countries that can’t have a space program of themselves remains to be seen. 

Kazi Rhid  
Research Intern, Centre for Governance Studies