Geopolitics of space exploration: what’s at stake?

The space race that began back in the 1960s is not over. With many actors interested in space exploration, we are now witnessing the beginning of new competition among the world’s major political powers and corporations.

Fifty years ago, the Soviet Union and the United States were trying to outdo each other and dominate space. Today, the US, Russia, China, the EU, and numerous privately owned corporations such as SpaceX and Blue Origin are competing for space dominance. What are their goals, and what does this competition mean for geopolitics here on Earth?

The simple answer to the first question is profit and power — these are the main reasons why the world’s leading countries and companies are shooting for the stars. However, there’s no clear answer as to what this new era of space exploration will mean for your average Jane and Joe and what is at stake here on Earth.

What’s at Stake with Space Exploration?

Military Domination

The first thing people consider when thinking about the consequences of space exploration is military domination: the one who controls space controls Earth. Space is the ultimate high ground of military strategy, a place from where you can see the whole world, gather intelligence, find targets, and eliminate them on land and on sea. Weapons in space would provide leverage to sway the balance of power on the entire planet.

Valuable Resources

Space industry actors are also looking to the Moon and Mars for valuable resources. There’s no saying what minerals might be out there. Naturally, whenever there are resources at stake, there’s competition. Space mining would have an unprecedented impact on the global economy, just like the exploration of the New World and its vast resources reshaped the European economy half a millennium ago.

Symbolic Power

The first artificial object in space, the first animal in space, the first man in space, the first woman in space, the first man on the Moon: These were not just important events. These were huge displays of power, political stunts that showed potential opponents what a country was capable of.

With the competition that fierce and the stakes that high, what are the chances for successful cooperation between countries? Could world powers unite for the sake of humanity and collaborate to achieve new heights in space?

Is There Room for Cooperation in Space?

The short answer is yes; there is room for cooperation in space — even between countries like the US and Russia, who have seemed to be in a state of perpetual conflict for the past half a century.

One example of such cooperation is the International Space Station (ISS), the most politically complex space exploration project in history.

The Space Station was a joint project by space agencies from the United States, Russia, Europe, Japan, and Canada, combining the effort of countries from previously rival military blocks. Overcoming political polarisation, the countries collaborated to enable long-term space exploration. Since 1998, the ISS has housed astronauts from 18 countries. Now, the Russian plan to quit the ISS and end over 20 years of cooperation threatens to escalate political rivalries once again.

Historically, the US and China have been rivals; yet with China getting stronger in the space industry, there’s potential for cooperation. Though a civilian agency created to advance international cooperation, NASA must receive congressional approval for joint ventures with China. The Trump administration held firm to the idea of rivalry.

Despite the severe economic and military competition between the countries, Biden’s advisors have argued that collaboration on space exploration is vital. A present-day US–China space partnership might resemble US–Soviet cooperation during the Cold War and decrease tension in space exploration. Additionally, it might limit Chinese cooperation with Russia and ultimately change the political landscape on Earth.

We are not too far from becoming a spacefaring civilisation, and we need to cooperate if we want to succeed. For example, NASA keeps cooperating with long-standing allies such as the EU, Canada, and Japan. Not so long ago, Perseverance landed on Mars as an outstanding example of how Europe and NASA can work together to secure the future. According to Biden, sending a rover to Mars and bringing it back to Earth through joint effort is an effective sign that European–American cooperation can overcome any challenges.

Europe and the European Space Agency are also ready to cooperate even with former rivals. Consider BepiColombo, a mission by the European Space Agency and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency to conduct a comprehensive study of Mercury. Or pay attention to the ExoMars programme launched by the European Space Agency and Russian Roscosmos in 2016 to explore signs of past life on Mars. Despite tensions between the West and the East, countries have found common ground for cooperation.

Such examples of cooperation between countries in space, where the very notion of sovereign nation-states seems somewhat blurred, are a promise of a peaceful future in space and a beacon of hope for those who dream of seeing humankind travelling among the stars. Of course, if there’s anything that might make people cooperate, it’s the promise of profit. And space offers endless opportunity.

Space Industry Commercialisation: What Does It Bring?

There’s money in space, and people are out to get it. The commercialisation of space has been unfolding for decades, and this trend will grow more significant in the near future.

Cooperation between SpaceX and Exolaunch is a prime example of companies in the US and Europe working together. Exolaunch and SpaceX launched their first rideshare mission that carried 30 contracted satellites to orbit in 2020 — the record number of satellites carried in one go.

Rocket Factory Augsburg (RFA) in Germany seems to be making some serious progress as well. They recently announced a successful test of a full-scale staged combustion engine and claimed to be the ninth in the world to develop such an engine cycle. In reality, the startup strongly relies on Ukrainian-manufactured engines; yet, RFA was quiet about Ukrainian involvement until a journalist revealed the truth.

Based in Redmond, California, RBC Signals offers another example of successful cross-border cooperation between companies. RBC Signals started with the involvement of a Russian native, and its investors came from China, Mexico, the Middle East, and Singapore, with the latest round of funding coming from around 15 investors, some of them outside the US.

Consider also Rocket Lab, headquartered in New Zealand and with a launchpad in the US. During an investment round, the space startup raised money from the Chinese DCVC fund, among other investors. Space commercialisation leaves borders out of the game. As such instances of cooperation become more common, the future for space exploration looks bright despite the borders and political conflicts on Earth.

It is crucial to remember that the stakes for space exploration are high: We are talking about global economic and military domination, which is why everybody wants to win. However, if any of us wants to succeed in the long run, we need to cooperate and collaborate rather than focus on earning billions of dollars. With a human-crewed mission to Mars likely to happen in the near future, we will become a true multi-planetary species. There’s much to look forward to, and our hopes are for a better future for humanity, both here on Earth and out among the stars.