‘Space race’ narrative rooted in Cold War logic ignores most significant development in space arena over past decade, namely emergence of extremely large, rapidly expanding commercial space sector.
When I was growing up in the 1970s, the space arena was dominated by the two rival Cold War superpowers, the US and the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), and space accomplishments were invariably characterized in the media as one or other country gaining a momentary advantage in the “space race” between these two Cold War rivals.
After the Apollo moon landings in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the public perception in the West, at any rate, was that the US had “won” the space race, and the word “race” dropped out of the public narrative on space. The words “international cooperation” started being used more frequently in the 1970s and 1980s to describe space activities involving the two superpowers, like the Apollo-Soyuz project in 1975, and the cooperative space programs of the USSR and US with their respective East and West bloc allies.
With the end of the Cold War in December 1991, international cooperation in space strengthened greatly and this has been a dominant theme in the era of the International Space Station, which is indeed the pinnacle of international cooperation, with 15 nations operating the largest structure ever built in space. Space also became much more about providing societal benefits to people on the ground than about projecting political prestige and military power. Space applications are now deeply embedded in the modern information society, supporting economic prosperity, safety and security, and enriching the daily lives of billions of ordinary citizens around the globe.
However, with the re-emergence of great power rivalry between the US, China, and Russia in the 21st century, we are once again seeing the term “space race” re-entering the space narrative.
Is it a race? If so, a race among whom? And to what purpose?
The concept of a race implies a contest between rivals to be the first to reach an objective. An important characteristic of a race is that the rivals must agree on the objective. Otherwise, it is not a race. In the case of the Cold War space race, the objective was a human landing on the moon. In the current context of global space activities, there is not a single, common objective that all rivals are attempting to reach. Also, a race usually involves a fixed number of contenders, roughly on par, like an Olympic sprint. That, too, was the case in the Space Race of the 1960s, where the US and the Soviet Union were roughly on par with each other, and the final outcome was difficult to predict with confidence. However, in today’s space arena, we find many actors, with very different levels of capability and very different ambitions and goals, so it is more like an athletics day at school with multiple field events going on at the same time, rather than one single race in which all contestants compete for the same prize.
For some, the “space race idiom is just part of a broader narrative of the so-called “Second Cold War,” a term that has been used to describe the tense relations between the US and China and, similarly, between the US and Russia, the primary successor state of the former Soviet Union, which took part in the original Cold War. Proponents of this use of the “space race” idiom normally refer to the rivalry among these space superpowers to access and use the “high ground” of space for military purposes.
Increasing space capabilities
In recent years, we have seen more militaries recognizing that space capabilities are essential for deterrence and defense. For example, in 2019, the North Atlantic Organization (NATO) adopted a space policy that recognizes space as a new operational domain, alongside air, land, maritime, and cyberspace. This policy guides NATO’s approach to space and aims to ensure adequate space-based support for the alliance’s operations and missions in such areas as communications, navigation, and intelligence. Naturally, such a posture is seen as threatening by non-NATO powers, especially China and Russia, who have increased their space cooperation in recent years. This is an example of the classic security dilemma, where steps taken by one actor to protect itself from a perceived threat are seen as threatening by other actors, and a vicious spiral ensues.
However, a “space race” narrative rooted in a Cold War logic ignores the most significant development in the space arena over the past decade, namely the emergence of an extremely large and rapidly expanding commercial space sector. Whereas during the original Cold War, space activities were dominated by States, the situation in space is now completely different. Today, the number of commercial satellites in space dwarfs the number of State-owned satellites, and this difference will only increase in the coming years.
According to industry analysts, the value of the global space economy in 2022 was about $546 billion, of which commercial space accounted for roughly 80%. The space economy is projected by some analysts to reach $1 trillion within the next decade, with most of this growth being driven by commercial space activities.
Space race between commercial space actors
One might then posit that the space race is really a race among the commercial space actors, not state actors. We can see evidence of this in the scramble for the deployment of very large satellite constellations in low Earth orbit (LEO) by commercial actors such as SpaceX’s Starlink, with a planned fleet of 42,000 satellites. China is now also entering the fray with its plans to deploy a 13,000-satellite LEO broadband constellation, referred to as “Guowang,” or national network, to rival Starlink and other Western low Earth orbit constellations. These systems are adding tens of thousands of new satellites to the already congested low Earth orbits, raising concerns about the risk of collisions in space that could generate a cascade of debris, rendering certain orbits unusable. But this is just the tip of the iceberg.
Different commercial actors around the world are scrambling for access to orbit and have announced plans for space systems that could lead to an aggregate increase of over 100,000 new satellites in space over the coming decade. All of these new satellites will be in addition to the 34,000 debris objects already in space large enough to be tracked (about 10 cm in size and larger) and the estimated 1 million or more objects too small to track, which also poses a collision risk to active satellites and human spaceflight. Even if only a small fraction (say 10%) of these projects succeeds, that would still be a game changer in terms of how the world governs space activities and manages all the traffic in space to avoid collisions.
Race against time
We can summarize the current situation in space by saying that space is becoming increasingly congested with active satellites, increasingly contaminated with space debris, and increasingly contested by state and commercial actors alike. These trends highlight the need to strengthen the existing legal frameworks for the governance of space activities that were developed in the early days of the Space Age in the 1960s and 1970s, when the space arena was very different from what it is today. These frameworks continue to provide the legal foundations for space activities, but they need to be expanded to apply to new contexts and circumstances not foreseen 60 years ago. And we need to do this quickly, because the situation in orbit is becoming more concerning by the day. Operators of satellites and the International Space Station already have to execute collision avoidance maneuvers on a regular basis. The International Space Station, the Space Shuttle and a number of satellites have been struck by smaller debris fragments in orbit, fortunately without catastrophic damage or loss of life to date. In 2009, there was a collision between two satellites in orbit, one an active communications satellite and the other a derelict satellite, which generated thousands of debris fragments, many of which remain in orbit to this day. Such collisions are likely to happen more frequently in the future unless we take drastic steps to mitigate space debris and manage space traffic.
So, the new “space race” is really a race against time for all of us to manage the Earth’s orbital environment before it becomes unusable due to orbital congestion and collisions. This is a race that all of humanity stands to win or lose collectively. We will all win by developing the necessary collaborative governance and regulatory frameworks, common standards for safe and sustainable space activities, and investment and insurance tools and market access levers to promote responsible and sustainable commercial space activities. If we fail to do this, future generations will lose the access to space that we have come to take for granted today. It is a race against time.