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The politics of the new space race

Tim Marshall’s The Future of Geography shows how great powers – and Elon Musk – are looking to the stars for the key to commercial and military dominance on Earth.

By Lawrence Freedman

As an eight-year-old in October 1957, I recall listening to Radio Moscow broadcasting the beep-beep-beep of Sputnik 1, the first Earth satellite, on my brother’s tinny transistor radio. The Americans’ embarrassment at being beaten by this first dramatic move in what became the space race was compounded a few weeks later when the US Vanguard rocket barely managed to rise a single metre before it fell back and exploded. I also recall a playground ditty (to the tune of Perry Como’s “Catch a Falling Star”) – “Catch a falling Sputnik, put it in a matchbox, send it to the USA”.

At issue was not just the success of the supposedly backwards Soviets but the military implications of their apparent lead in rocket technology. The power that could take a satellite into space could also send a nuclear warhead across continents. As imaginations leapt ahead, the science fiction of spaceships and interplanetary expeditions started to be spoken of as real possibilities. Military strategists always thought the strategic advantages were to be found on the high ground – and what could be higher than outer space? A struggle for space dominance was a natural corollary of the intense geopolitical rivalry of the Cold War.

The Soviets kept their early lead when, in 1961, Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space. Frustrated, President Kennedy raised the stakes. He announced that the US would get a man on the moon by the end of the decade and bring him back to Earth. This ambition was realised with a few months to spare. The Soviet programme, hampered by accidents and inefficiencies, faltered. Once the US had succeeded, the Kremlin concluded that there was no point in coming second and abandoned its effort.

There were six American moon landings in all, but by 1972 they had lost their novelty. No one has been back since. The next stage of manned space exploration was dominated by the space shuttle and orbital space stations, and a generally more cooperative international approach. Outer space continues to be governed by an international treaty established in 1967, which prohibits national appropriation and placing weapons of mass destruction in space. It never actually made much sense to put weapons in space so long as the targets to be attacked remained on Earth.

[See also: Carlo Rovelli: “Einstein made more mistakes than anyone”]

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What did make sense, however, was to use space to support military operations on land. As Sputnik travelled high above numerous countries, including the US, without any possibility of interference, it created its own precedent. Outer space could be separated from airspace. Satellites were not trespassing when they passed over another country’s territory. Yet they could photograph military developments on that territory.

In May 1960, the Soviets shot down a U-2 American spy plane to stop it taking pictures of sensitive sites. They could do nothing a year later when an American satellite took pictures of those sites, and were soon able to report that, contrary to previous assumptions, the US was ahead in the missile race. This was a development of huge strategic importance. The location and character of some vital assets could no longer be kept secret. Yet, arguably, because reconnaissance satellites revealed the weaknesses as well as strengths of opponents they discouraged alarmism. They also became the basis for arms control agreements because a satellite image could now do the verification, without inspectors needing to visit suspicious sites.

Satellites were soon meeting the military’s needs by supporting both surveillance of enemy capabilities and navigation, weather forecasting and communications. Over time these services became available to civilians. We now depend on them when we need to know where we are, what is around us, and how to get somewhere else. They are essential to the standard functions on a smartphone. Because the commercial possibilities are as important as the military ones, more satellites are now launched by private companies than by governments. At the same time, numerous countries want some presence in space. Israel and the UAE are both showing that countries do not have to be big to have an influential space programme.

The complexity of the current situation is well described in Tim Marshall’s latest book. This builds on his previous works on the influence of geography on the conduct of international affairs. Now he looks to the heavens and warns us how the intense geopolitical rivalries of the moment are shaping a new space race. He worries that the cooperative endeavour symbolised by the International Space Station is now giving way to more intense competition for resources and strategic points, for which the 1967 Outer Space Treaty provides inadequate guidance.

[See also: Putin’s war in Ukraine threatens to spark a new space race]

Marshall is an engaging writer, good at explaining the science as well as the politics, and with an eye for a telling fact. He demonstrates just how busy space has become and the range of countries and companies involved. He argues that only a few can go for the big strategic prizes – a settlement on the moon or even Mars and the extraction of rare minerals, or the ability to take out satellites that might be guiding enemy armies. Having inherited the Soviet programme, Russia is still an important player, but this is another area where its challenge is fading as its calamitous war in Ukraine saps its strength. The big competition is between the United States and China – a latecomer to the field but now an energetic and ambitious player.

Marshall makes the case for reviving the cooperative approach. This is not only because the conventions governing space activity are poorly developed and need updating, but also because there are big challenges that need collective action. One of the most important is to deal with the ever increasing amount of debris that clutters the upper atmosphere. Another is to prepare for the possibility, however remote, that a large meteorite will crash into the Earth and do to us what an earlier one did to the dinosaurs. He also worries about warfare in space, coming up with some scenarios for how the major powers might attack each other’s satellites to stop them supporting ground armies.

Anti-satellite weapons are being developed and if there was a big war there would be temptations to use them. As we saw with Russian action at the start of its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, however, the most logical place to mess with support from space is where it reaches the ground. Russia did this through jamming and cyberattacks to disable the modems connected to the Viasat satellite communications network upon which Ukraine relied.

At this point rescue came in the form of Elon Musk’s SpaceX company, which sent some 10,000 high-speed terminals to connect with its Starlink satellites in low Earth orbit. Soon, the Ukrainians were using these terminals for their military operations as well as to keep their government and vital services online. They could take intelligence, often provided by US satellites, and with their Starlink terminals guide drones and direct their artillery. Russian attempts to jam them failed. Yet the importance of Starlink also led Musk to worry about his role in the conflict. He placed restrictions on Ukraine’s ability to use his satellites for purposes other than the defence of its own territory.

Musk has a prominent role in Marshall’s book. Those who fret about his control of Twitter might note his influence in the space business. In 2010, SpaceX became the first private company to launch, operate and recover a spacecraft. It now ferries American astronauts to the International Space Station and Musk is looking forward to a module that could land on Mars. SpaceX currently has more than 3,000 satellites in operation, but plans to deploy some 42,000.

The Washington Post recently carried a story about how much China sees SpaceX as a threat. Its role in Ukraine is leading Beijing to sponsor research on how to limit the company’s impact in the event of war. China’s technology lags behind that of SpaceX, and it plans to launch 13,000 low-orbit satellites of its own. This part of space, however, is crowded, both because of Starlink and other programmes, such as those led by Amazon and Boeing. This means that there may be insufficient access for the Chinese to open frequencies in low orbit.

As SpaceX’s military roles develop further – the Pentagon has used SpaceX’s reusable launch vehicles to deploy satellites ­– it is working on a new project, Starshield, to address national security needs away from other commercial ventures. This raises questions about the potential conflict between Musk’s interests and those of the states his company supports. Musk is also, for example, looking to build a factory for his Tesla cars in China.

Musk has set a target of landing a man on Mars by the end of this decade and imagines a colony there by the middle of the century. Ambitious plans for space travel seem to be a pastime for bored billionaires. Jeff Bezos, the former Amazon CEO, wants to build giant domed cities to orbit Earth as an alternative to establishing colonies on the moon and Mars, and is already involved in space tourism. On 21 April, SpaceX’s powerful Starship rocket, which is being developed to get astronauts back on the moon, exploded soon after launch. Similarly, Richard Branson owns Virgin Galactic, which has concentrated on sub-orbital tourism, and used a rocket launched from an aircraft to get just above the Earth’s boundary. A spin-off, Virgin Orbit, which uses this method to get satellites into orbit, failed with its first UK launch and has since gone into administration.

[See also: Richard Branson’s ship of fools]

Branson may yet survive this setback. But it is one thing to lose a number of satellites in a failed launch and quite another to lose human beings. The 1986 Space Shuttle Challenger disaster set the programme back three years while the faults were rectified. In his epilogue Marshall says it is “certain” that we will “continue to venture ever further from Earth” and that eventually we will settle on the moon and live on Mars. We are awaiting the “technological accelerators that will drive changes that we cannot yet imagine”. Perhaps it is fun to speculate about what parts of science fiction might come true. For the moment, however, what makes the difference is not where our imaginations lead us further into space, but the extent to which satellites can affect our enjoyment of peace and the conduct of war here on Earth.

The Future of Geography: How Power and Politics in Space Will Change Our World
Tim Marshall
Elliott & Thompson, 320pp, £20

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This article appears in the 03 May 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Beneath the Crown