The starry evening sky above Los Angeles on December 22 looked ordinary until a strange white figure emerged from the city skyline. It looked like two small objects shrouded in a bright cloud. Millions were stunned by the sight — some thought it was a comet or even a UFO. But others knew SpaceX had scheduled its 18th and final launch of the year that day, and they recognized the thing barreling into space as the Falcon 9 rocket.
Half a century ago, such a rocket would have been part of the initial exploratory missions into space that only the U.S. and the Soviet Union could muster. Now, SpaceX is one of a crowd of actors eyeing the skies, rather than the sea, for economic, security and scientific gains, armed with different stages of technology. The growth of a wide range of commercial and state entities in space has created an opportunity for international cooperation, but politics closer to the ground are threatening efforts to produce a peaceful, stable and secure outer space environment.
It’s the commercial sector — more than governments — leading the development of space technology, says Victoria Samson, the Secure World Foundation’s Washington office director. Businesses are “now the driver of most space applications,” and miniature satellites “are being deployed in orbit on behalf of universities, high schools and even middle schools,” resulting in what some have called the “democratization” of space, a Mitchell Institute policy paper published in December says. At the same time, more than 80 countries currently either own or operate a satellite, and because “the politics of space don’t occur in a vacuum,” as Samson says, tensions on Earth will be reflected in the skies above and beyond. Countries are recognizing the vulnerability and advantages of operating in space.
[China and Russia] are building those capabilities to challenge the United States of America, to challenge our allies and to change the balance of power in the world.
U.S. Air Force Gen. John Hyten
The U.S. is currently trying to navigate these challenges with Russia and China, says Henry Hertzfeld, research professor of space policy and international affairs at George Washington University. Russia and the U.S. have a history of cooperative space exploration that continues today. But because of America’s tensions on Earth with Russia and China — a more recent space power — the U.S. is convinced their emerging capabilities pose a threat. “[China and Russia] are building those capabilities to challenge the United States of America, to challenge our allies and to change the balance of power in the world,” U.S. Air Force Gen. John Hyten said at the 2017 Reagan National Defense Forum.
India and China are battling to try and sell low-cost space technology and satellite launch facilities to smaller developing nations, recognizing the economic benefits — and geopolitical clout — that this brings. India has launched 164 foreign satellites since July 2015 after launching just 45 over the previous 16 years. China is sweeping up contracts to launch satellites for South American and African nations, says Dublin-based space analyst and author Brian Harvey. And because the technology involved in launching satellites is also useful in shooting long-range missiles, the growing space programs of North Korea and Iran worry neighbors who may be more advanced in space technology — like South Korea and Israel.
“We believe Iran is refining its missile-launch capabilities under the garb of a space program, and that is something we are watching carefully,” says Isaac Ben-Israel, chairman of the Israel Space Agency.
Ironically, it was during the Cold War that the U.S. and the erstwhile Soviet Union signed up for what remains the marquee symbol of space cooperation, even as they each tried to edge ahead of the other — the USSR sending the first man into space, the U.S. the first man on the moon. The International Space Station (ISS), which NASA spokesperson Stephanie Schierholz calls the “crown jewel” of international cooperation, helps the two countries to maintain working research and personal relations. But, in the last few years, “the Russians are sometimes taking a hard line, almost a reflection of attitudes during the Cold War,” Hertzfeld says. “It’s not an open environment of close cooperation at the moment.”
China is more of an obstacle. Federal U.S. law prohibits NASA from working with the Chinese government on space issues, and China is largely excluded from the ISS. But that hasn’t stopped the country from carving out its own place in orbit. It created its own satellite navigation system called Beidou, landed for the first time on the moon in 2013 and demonstrated its anti-sat capability in 2007 by shooting down one of its own satellites.
The U.S. isn’t sitting idle. Last summer, President Donald Trump revived the National Space Council, which announced in a directive in December that NASA’s efforts will focus on sending an astronaut to the moon. It’s a stepping stone for eventually getting to Mars that the council hopes will create more options for international collaboration.
NASA’s Schierholz also says international efforts will be “absolutely essential” for more ambitious space efforts. “The acting NASA administrator, Robert Lightfoot, has actively said journeys to Mars will not be accomplished without everyone working together,” she says. Other groups, like the Second World Foundation and the U.N.’s Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space, work to encourage peaceful uses of outer space. Even the U.S. and China moved toward collaboration when a SpaceX cargo craft carried a Chinese experiment to the ISS in June.
Hertzfeld says the nonviolent history of space exploration thus far, paired with the thought that making a mess in space hurts everyone, may allow mutual interests to rise above disagreements that could lead to conflict. But for much of that history, space was mostly just that — space. Now it’s crowded like never before, with no traffic cops to regulate.