The High Stakes of Space Power

August 13, 2019

Space power will become as significant in shaping human affairs as geopolitical power. (Originally published in the New Delhi Sunday Guardian)

After an early thrill ride in the 1960s, followed by a sleepy coasting, space is again abuzz with activity. This time it is different—radically different—and the labels show it: “NewSpace”, “Space 2.0” or “The Second Space Age”. There are now many more players, much more money, vastly better technology, bigger interests, greater risks, grander visions.

The best parallel is with the Internet of 2019 compared to that of 1999, but in the case of space the shift has been more sudden. In a few short years new technologies have bridged important economic gaps and have unlocked the field for a wide range of commercial actors. Extraordinary projects—such as mega-constellations of thousands of small satellites—which were on no one’s radar ten years ago have now become viable and are in fact being delivered. The use of satellite data has likewise exploded both in terms of demand and in terms of applications and service providers.

Most importantly, space infrastructure has become thoroughly enmeshed with the global economy in a similar manner to the Internet. A self-reinforcing evolutionary cycle has emerged between human activity on earth and in space: they drive each other both in terms of economic value and in terms of mutual dependency. The financial scale of space is also rapidly expanding. Already the “space economy” is worth over $350bn globally; within the next 30 years it is estimated to surpass the $1tn mark—without taking into account any large-scale exploitation of the tremendous mineral resources present on accessible celestial bodies. There is now a gold rush in space, and the minimalistic international law currently applicable in this domain makes it a quasi-free-for-all in the purest sense of the “wild west”.

Space 2.0 is about everyone—be they states, international organisations, private companies or, not unlikely, future rogue actors—now scrambling to secure a piece of the action. The primary motivation in the Second Space Age, that gives it its distinctive scope and character, is commercial profit. This has overturned the military and national prestige incentives that drove the First Space Age—but not by much. Security and classical geopolitical calculations remain at the heart of all leading space powers’ orbital endeavours, precisely because of the growing economic and military interdependencies between “terran” and space affairs.

Where is this all leading? What are the implications of this epochal rise of space power? What forms will it take? How will it be used? The possibilities of space have transformed so quickly, the technology is fully understood by so few, and the entire domain is so literally alien to human experience that we are severely underequipped to work out what’s really going on—let alone to make the best and safest use of space power.

Yet space power will become, within our lifetime, as significant in shaping human affairs as classic geopolitical power. This convergence is inevitable, even based solely on trends observable today—let alone future groundbreaking technological advances which are sure to happen. Conceiving of national (and global corporate) strategy purely on a geopolitical basis, i.e. in the “old way”, will become a categorical error as space and “terran” affairs will have merged into a single strategic continuum.

Those who can make sense of Space 2.0 and develop shrewd, effective ways to wield space power in the coming decades, will increasingly be at great advantage to their competitors—in economic, scientific, military and ultimately, political terms. Their prize will not only be leadership in the endless immensity of space, but dominance of the Earth. Late-21st century world order will inevitably rest on radically different geostrategic foundations and power-parameters than anything so far in history.

Yet there are innumerable challenges to be surmounted along the way by would-be great Space Powers. Expensive investment must be directed into the right projects and technologies at the right time and in the right sequence. Domestic space industrial sectors and infrastructure must be developed at pace in the teeth of cutthroat international competition. Talent and skills must be nurtured and/or attracted from abroad. Security threats and outright attacks must be fended off, with backup systems ready to kick-in. International norms and standards (such as space traffic management) regulating behaviour and liabilities in the “global commons” of Earth’s orbit must be shaped to one’s advantage as much as possible. Most importantly, the people must be inspired to back their country’s space destiny as a critical national endeavour (China is already leading the pack in this regard).

All this requires organisation, vision, leadership, strategy. Space policy decision-making within government must be streamlined, and put in accord with industry. And a bit further down the line overly successful private space companies will need to be restrained. The incredible complexity of space security and defence considerations, always updated to account for new technologies and threats, must be woven throughout all national planning. Space is a novel domain, which, uniquely in human experience, exists exclusively as a function of technology yet is also subject to the laws of physics. This puts a premium on new strategic concepts and theories of space power being discovered and perfected to support the use these capabilities to maximum effect in national interest. The stakes of space power are very high indeed.


  • Gabriel Elefteriu is Head of Space Policy at Policy Exchange, the leading UK think tank. This article is written in a personal capacity.

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