A New Space Race is On, But Will it be Peaceful or Militarized?
Both the private and public sector are competing in a new 21st-century space race, but will space just become the next militarized zone?
From President Trump telling NASA to revisit the moon by 2024, to India’s recent satellite test and China landing on the moon, to the billionaire competition between Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, the 21st-century space race is heating up fast.
In an interview with Foreign Policy, Freshmen Representative Michael Waltz (R-Fl), Congress’ first Green Beret, discussed the importance of space for the future of the United States. Waltz is a supporter of developing a “Space Force” wing of the U.S. military, saying:
“The moon is going to be at the center of this. The Israelis just launched, the Indians are planning to launch to the moon, the Chinese just did to the back side of the room. It’s always worth remembering that the Chinese do not have a civilian NASA exploration component. It’s pure military. … So it’s a domain that we need to be competitive in and maintain leadership in.”
Waltz argued space is important for everything from GPS to banking, and that its infrastructure must be overhauled to accommodate the most recent cutting edge technology. The congressman also expressed enthusiasm about the activity of the private sector in space exploration.
Space Race of Billionaires
Private commercial actors like Elon Musk’s SpaceX, Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, and Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic are at the head of the space race, even before nation-states motivated by national pride and the potential for multi-trillion dollar industries in asteroid mining and planetary colonization.
“Whatever we have evolved into hundreds of thousands of years from now, we’ll look at these decades as when the human race moved off the planet,” said Peter Diamandis, chairman of the X-Prize Foundation, who launched a $10 million dollar competition in 1996 for the first first private actor to send a rocket into suborbital space.
Jeff Bezos recently announced Project Kuiper, an ambitious plan to send more than 3,000 satellites into low orbit in order to provide broadband access to impoverished regions. Elon Musk announced plans for a similar project in 2015, leading Musk to deride his competitor as a “copy cat.”
It wasn’t the first time Musk has chastised his rival. In 2015, Bezos’ Blue Origin successfully landed a rocket that had been launched into space. “The rarest of beasts – a used rocket,” Bezos tweeted, posting a video of its “historic” rocket landing. “Not quite ‘rarest,’ SpaceX Grasshopper rocket did 6 suborbital flights 3 years ago & is still around,” Musk responded.
While SpaceX has been a step ahead of its competitors, Bezos has hired multiple former SpaceX employees and could be playing the long game against Musk.
President Trump Encourages Space Race Competition
President Trump has encouraged the interstellar competition of the billionaires, saying:
“You know, I’ve always said that rich guys seem to like rockets,” Trump said. “So all of those rich guys that are dying for our real estate to launch their rockets, we won’t charge you too much, just go ahead. If you beat us to Mars, we’ll be very happy and you’ll be even more famous.”
Beyond private actors, Japan is using robotic spacecraft for cosmic exploration, Russia is developing a heavy-lift rocket, China is trying to develop a long-term presence on the Moon, the UAE plans to have a spacecraft orbiting Mars by 2021, Israel’s SpaceIL’s attempt to land a spacecraft on the Moon, and India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi has said he wants to put humans in space within four years.
Modi’s ambitions were illustrated when India shot down one of its own satellites in a test on March 27, leading Prime Minister Modi to tweeting, “India stands tall as a space power!” Only the U.S., Russia, and China have previously shown the ability to destroy targets in space. NASA criticized India’s recent anti-satellite test, saying it created debris that could damage the International Space Station.
According to World Politics Review, India’s controversial satellite test shows the need for a new international space treaty to regulate the competition between the diverse actors seeking to explore the cosmos. Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson told Axios that we are now becoming “spacefaring nations,” and that space exploration could either be a peaceful enterprise or dangerous new frontier of militarism, depending on the norms that are established now.