since humanity first passed beyond Earth’s thin atmosphere, outer space has
become another arena of international politics. Space has served as a medium to
directly support cooperation, competition, and strategic balancing between
nations on Earth – as a means for treaty verification, to link economies, to
enable warfighting and, as trends suggest, to potentially be a theatre of war
Whilst Singapore’s light polluted night sky doesn’t
necessarily offer us a very good view of the stars above us, an occasional
glimpse of its ethereal beauty testifies to the absolute wonder that there are
hundred-billions of galaxies out there.
However, to borrow from Douglas Adams “looking
up into the night sky is looking into infinity- distance incomprehensible and
therefore meaningless.” Which is quite right of course, knowledge that
there exists beyond us hundred-billions of galaxies is meaningless to the
average man without knowledge of what those hundred-billions of galaxies are
and what they mean to us. So for those of us who crave discovery, it also means
there are hundred-billions of galaxies for mankind to venture out and explore.
Unlike great adventurers and explorers of old,
one can’t simply Christopher Colombus their way to a new planet and
accidentally discover a new land in space thinking it to be another. Space
exploration requires rigorous amounts of research, data collection, training,
technology and needless to say- money.
The Dawn of the Space Era
Space exploration has always been fraught with political
undercurrents and economic contention, the late 1950s,
saw space become another dramatic arena for the Cold-War competition, dubbed
the “space race” each side sought to prove the superiority of its technology,
its military firepower and–by extension–its political-economic system.
landing on the moon, the United States effectively “won” the space race that
had begun with Sputnik’s launch in 1957. From beginning to end, the American
public’s attention was captivated by the space race, and the various
developments by the Soviet and U.S. space programs were heavily covered in the
frenzy of interest was further encouraged by the new medium of television. Astronauts
soon came to be seen as the ultimate American heroes, whom earth-bound men and
women seemed to enjoy lived vicariously through. Soviets, in turn, were
pictured as the ultimate villains, with their massive, relentless efforts to
surpass America and prove the power of the communist system.
Interestingly, what with
Trump’s signing of Space Directive #1 on December 11th there
seems to be a renaissance underway in space. It formally implements as policy
what Vice President Pence announced at the first meeting of the National Space
Council in October: that NASA will focus its human spaceflight efforts on a
return to the Moon, and then onto Mars.
Perhaps aware of how John F Kennedy’s presidency
is still associated with his vision of putting a man on the moon by the end of
the 1960s, Trump may be alive to the political symbolism of pushing back
frontiers in space. The question is, in doing so is Trump signalling an era of
a new space race?
In considering this possibility, it is
imperative to note that although grand ambitions of reaching Mars first may
seem to chime with Trump’s brand of nationalism and conjure images of the stars
and stripes being planted on the red planet, achieving this would involve major
international cooperation. Matter of fact, a US-led coalition would possibly
include Europe, Russia, India, Japan and China, as well as emerging space
nations the United Arab Emirates, South Korea and Saudi Arabia! Would this need
for cooperation prevent the eventuality of the space race or has it just
changed the dynamics of what the space race was?
Well, it’s safe to say that space hasn’t become
the utopic ideal of friendly diplomatic handshakes and international
cooperation. After all international space cooperation is not a charitable
enterprise; countries cooperate because they judge it in their interest to do
so. Thus, we can see international space cooperation not as an end in itself,
but a means of advancing national interests. Sadly, international space
cooperation has become yet another pawn in man’s power-politics game of chess.
In fact, NASA policy on initiating international
cooperation requires it, stating, “Each cooperative activity must demonstrate a specific benefit to NASA
or the United States. Such benefit may be in the form of data, services, or
contribution to flight mission or operational infrastructure systems, or it may
directly support broader U.S. policy or interests.”
As self-serving as this policy may seem, there
is actually quite a lot of practicality to it. What with the limited resources
and the high costs of space exploration, there needs to be a certain fiscal
discipline which focuses these limited resources on only those things that are
really necessary. Currently, according to Buzz Aldrin, the United States spends
over $6bn on programmes that they do not need to get to Mars. That obviously
doesn’t look too good to the general American public who would rather see those
resources channelled into programmes that would more directly benefit them.
Whilst modern space exploration definitely
strays from the Cold War’s need to prove economic dominance which resulted in
the two superpowers bearing the financial burdens alone, it doesn’t mean that
it isn’t still as political as it used to be. In fact, with foreign partners involved,
it provides it a level of political commitment that buffers from cancellation,
making domestic political leadership unwilling to break international
So long as the costs to diplomatic prestige,
reputation and international recognition that come with breaking or withdrawing
from an agreement are greater than the costs and utility of that agreement,
world leaders will be reluctant to pursue an international program’s outright
But perhaps the most frequently cited benefit of
space cooperation is the diplomatic cachet and control that it can provide;
space partnership is a valuable “soft power” tool. Participation in a multilateral
space project increases the diplomatic influence of participating states upon
each other. As such, countries use space cooperation to support their
terrestrial diplomatic and geopolitical policies and aims.
example, in involving Russia in the International Space Station the United
States’ desired to limit the diaspora of Russian rocket scientists following
the collapse of the Soviet Union whilst also strengthening relations with the
“new” Russia. Emphasising the variable utility of space cooperation for
diplomatic purposes; where it can be observed that more utility is derived from
partnering with a specific country depending on the context and importance of
the partnering states’ relations in world politics.
case, Russo-American cooperation in space was of greater immediate value
following the collapse of the Soviet Union than, as an example, pursuing
Sino-American cooperation instead. To that end, the diplomatic benefit of space
cooperation shifts and evolves with developments in world affairs, which then
begs the question of what the future holds for space exploration.
To Infinity and Beyond : Commercializing
Unsurprisingly, decades after
man’s “small step” on the moon – and far from the technological “battleground”
between two competing superpowers that defined the genesis of the space age
– outer space today involves numerous actors, both national and private,
and will soon be shared by several more emerging space powers and will continue
to do so far into the future. Which of course may prove problematic over the
course of time.
Through these changing dynamics, the traditional
lines between civil/government, commercial, and defense space systems and
actors have become blurred. Unilateral space
activities are gradually being replaced by bilateral, regional, and
multinational activities. Suggesting that cooperation (or, depending on
perspective, competition) will be of redoubled significance as humanity pursues
its space objectives through the coming century.
evident in the present day in the satellite communications, Earth imaging, and
launch sectors competition is inherent in the commercial sphere; commercial
operators compete against each other and against foreign actors for customers
and contracts. As the global commercial space sector blossoms, this competition
– both on the part of the private operators and of their government regulators
and sponsors – is bound to increase.
Notably, competition may also come through competing for partners.
Countries with limited budgets need to make decisions regarding which programs
they will get involved in and, as a corollary, the countries with which they
will collaborate. For states seeking partners in an international project,
offering attractive programmatic incentives or partnership schemes is a method
to convince countries to join in lieu of other opportunities they could pursue.
This may be most evident today in China’s aggressive push for partners in its
upcoming modular space station.
To Infinity and Beyond : Weaponizing Space
Furthermore, space has become an essential
setting for military power projection – used for precision targeting, command
and control, intelligence gathering, and manoeuvrability of weapons systems.
For advanced militaries, national security space assets are integral to their
warfighting capabilities and doctrines.
potential adversaries, this reliance is increasingly viewed as a vulnerability
that can be exploited through the development of counter-space capabilities,
which include anti-satellite weapons, jammers, and hostile
proximity-and-rendezvous space systems. Military competition in space will
likely continue and evolve as countries cyclically develop the means to disable
or destroy each other’s critical satellites and systems to defend or deter
against such attacks.
For instance, Beijing’s recent space activities indicate that it
is developing co-orbital anti-satellite systems to target U.S. space
assets. These co-orbital anti-satellite systems consist of a satellite “armed
with a weapon such as an explosive charge, fragmentation device, kinetic energy
weapon, laser, radio frequency weapon, jammer, or robotic arm.” Besides the
“hard-kill” methods, Beijing is also testing soft-kill methods to incapacitate
enemy satellites. For instance, China has been acquiring a number of
foreign and indigenous ground-based satellite jammers since the mid-2000s. This
new fourth arena of warfare may bring about more unsettling problems than its
predecessors, however it is only through failure and challenge that mankind
To Infinity and Beyond : Enterprising Space
Even more so when considering, that the benefits
that come from programmatic stability and political consistency will also allow
for the pursuit of cooperation through bilateral or multilateral data sharing.
This in turn will translate to an increase in scientist-to-scientist
collaboration and research in the future. Countries will no longer find
themselves struggling alone with the challenges of space, through the
collaboration of knowledge capital we may see the progression of various fields
of academic study.
Truthfully, the United State’s proposed Mars
project in itself has several potential long-term benefits. In addition to the
likelihood of further spinoff technologies (like infrared ear thermometers,
freeze dried food, fire retardant coatings for aircraft as well as a number of
advanced medical technology, which were invented by or based on technology
invented by NASA), such a project would inspire future generations to pursue
careers in the STEM fields.
So while this new era of space
exploration isn’t a head-to-head space race of sorts between nations vying to prove
nationalistic predominance over one another, the new space race will see
political leaders vying for leadership and control of the political
implications and consequences of space exploration. Knowledge, technology and
capital will truly be what define the key shareholders of mankind’s venture
into the infinity that is space. The backbone of the new space era’s success
will be determined on how future generations are prepared for it, on the
ability of governments to balance and regulate commercialisation as well as in
equipping ourselves for the fourth arena of warfare space.
One thing’s for sure as much as we try to
anticipate the boundaries of space exploration, the universe will continue to
surprise us, new political problems will continue to become black-holes to our
plans and more solutions will need to found. The expanse of space is big, mind-
bogglingly so, the potential of future space exploration then is only limited
to man’s imaginations and its creative use of resources.