Home / Latest Articles / Are we in a second ‘space race’? Understanding the contemporary space domain

Are we in a second ‘space race’? Understanding the contemporary space domain

12 October, 2021

By Jack Davies – Junior Fellow

The recent explosion of activity in space has been interpreted by some as evidence of a new or second ‘space race’. The term calls back to the initial period of intense competition between the US and USSR in space exploration and development during the Cold War. Beginning in the 1950s the rival superpowers contended to be the first to reach certain goals, both in service of international pride and prestige and military advantage.

The latter is sometimes overlooked in the public imagination but is central to any deeper understanding of the space race. Advancements in strategically vital ballistic missile technology, as well as the design, development and deployment of space-based surveillance and missile early-warning systems underwrote the enormous state interest and investment in space, enabling the US and USSR’s pursuit of more publicly oriented ideologically symbolic goals of human spaceflight.

The Context Today

At first glance there do appear to be substantial parallels between the space race and today’s context with, as Luke Harding notes in the Guardian, ‘The frantic tempo of the China National Space Administration’s (CNSA) recent programme being reminiscent of the scramble to put the first man in space and land on the Moon.’ As during the Cold War, the strategic environment in space today is dominated overtly by competition rather than cooperation. This situation is of course not unique to space, yet astropolitics is subordinate to geopolitics, and space is in some ways uniquely susceptible to rising tensions and the return of great power politics. Indeed, as a domain of strategic affairs space-based assets, infrastructure and spacepower more generally have become essential for modern military and economic power, with the potential use or denial of satellite-based capabilities being a vital concern in conflict.

Yet contemporary competition in space is not limited to the military sphere, with economic interests playing a major role in driving activities too. Unlike the first space race, in which economic benefits were mainly derived indirectly from technological advancements in telecommunications, computing and solar power, modern space activity is oriented primarily around the direct generation and extraction of value from space products and services and space infrastructure and support industries.

This expansion of economic activity has fuelled a significant increase in space development, with the global space economy growing to over $420 billion in 2019, of which commercial revenue accounted for $330 billion ($217 billion and $119 billion for space products and services and space infrastructure and support industries respectively). Unlike many other sectors, this activity was not slowed by the COVID pandemic, in fact it greatly accelerated. The total number of spacecraft deployed during 2020 tripled from that of 2019, with deployment of commercial satellites increasing a staggering 477% from one year to the next (driven in large part by SpaceX’s Starlink launches). Benefitting from reducing launch costs per kg of material paired with a positive feedback loop of increasing private investment, the global space sector is projected to rake in over $1 trillion by 2040, a promising prospect for entrepreneurial capitalists and states alike.

Indeed, the expansion of non-state actors engaging in space affairs, fuelled by this immense economic promise, is one of the key differences between the space race of the 1950s-70s and the situation today. Non-state commercial activity in space is not new, having its origins at least as far back as the 1980s and 90s, however the step-change reduction in the cost of access to orbit, as well as the development of ever-smaller satellite technologies, has enabled a proliferation of these actors in the industry: a development known as ‘new space’.

New Activities Across All Orbits

With this context in mind, it is important to consider the full spectrum of space activities actors are engaging in. Beginning with exploration and human spaceflight, the hallmark of the space race, the three recent Mars missions (the US’s Perseverance rover, China’s Tianwen-1 orbiter and Zhurong rover, and the UAE’s Hope orbiter), all launched during the July 2020 window, evoke parallels of competing missions during the Cold War. Similarly, the enduring prize of achieving the first crewed mission to Mars (and indeed the first semi-permanent Mars base) may not necessarily hold immediate strategic significance but will almost certainly be interpreted through the lens of national technological, cultural and ideological contest.

Yet closer to home something altogether different from these exploration missions is underway: the beginnings of sustained human presence beyond Earth orbit. Competing plans for human outputs on the Moon by China and Russia on the one hand, and the US and its allies under the Artemis Program on the other. Both efforts are aimed at establishing a long-term presence, both as a launch pad for further exploration missions beyond the Moon, as well as to enable development for potential economic, and possible military, activities on the lunar surface and in orbit. There is prestige in being the ‘first’ to achieve this goal, however the initial establishment of these lunar bases marks only the beginning of the value participating states will expect to gain.

Last but not least we turn to Earth’s orbit itself, the environment most immediately relevant for geopolitical activities. Here, too, actors have engaged in an explosion of activities with both economic and military implications. A full accounting of these is beyond the scope of this article, however some indicative examples can be found in (i) the development and deployment of satellite mega-constellations in low-Earth orbit (LEO), (ii) the pursuit of on-orbit servicing, and (iii) the diplomatic progress made to address the challenge of space debris.

As previously noted, denying the use of space and space-based assets would have a significant debilitating impact for an adversary’s economy and military. The interruption of satellite-based communications, navigation and timing services, and surveillance capabilities which collectively support both critical national infrastructure and military functioning would be a major blow during a hypothetical conflict between technologically advanced states. Consequently, it should perhaps not be surprising that a number of states (including the US and China) have been in possession of kinetic ‘hit-to-kill’ anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons for decades now.

The extreme vulnerability of highly expensive legacy satellites to relatively inexpensive missiles has long been a major source of concern for policymakers and military planners alike, however, recent advances in satellite technology have shifted the balance in the opposite direction. Satellite (mega-) constellations, comprised of hundreds, thousands or tens of thousands of individual units operating in orbiting networks, introduce an undeniable advantage for their developers; mass redundancy at cheap(er) costs. This has proven to be an attractive prospect for the US, with the recently established Space Development Agency (SDA; set up outside of existing bureaucratic structures in order to leverage the advantages of a more flexible and fast-moving industry to military acquisition process) having convinced the Pentagon of the value of mass-produced small-size satellites deployed in constellations of hundreds or thousands of units.

To a certain extent satellite constellations promise to render kinetic ASAT weapons obsolete, at least insofar as they are able to replace the functions of more specialised, unique and expensive satellites currently planned or in use. SDA Director Derek Tournear notes that it would likely cost more to shoot down any single unit of a satellite constellation than it does to produce and deploy the satellite itself, inverting the cost-benefit ratio that was previously in place. Additionally, as Sandra Erwin of SpaceNews writes, ‘Even if one or a handful of satellites were destroyed, a proliferated network of hundreds could continue to function.’

Yet this is not to say that such systems are invulnerable. In particular, the possibility of cyber-attacks introducing unique vulnerabilities to networked systems is a major concern, one which the SDA is seeking to find enduring solutions to (e.g., via bespoke encryption solutions). What this reflects is a changing perspective on the part of space-faring powers to begin to take seriously the prospect of war in space, in which space-based assets will be probable, not possible targets – a novel perspective since at least the end of the Cold War.

Likewise, the pursuit of on-orbit servicing, meaning the use of space-based assets to service (e.g. repair) others while in orbit, is indicative of actors seeking to move towards a model of space development that is more economically sustainable, predicated on sustained focus and oriented towards long-term strategies and goals. Just as the development of re-useable rocket boosters is recognised as indicative of a maturing of space affairs, so too is on-orbit servicing a sign of a step-change in how humanity interacts with the space domain.

Finally, the growing awareness of space debris as a primary shared concern for all space-faring nations, and the resultant increase in diplomatic efforts to seek long-term solutions to it, is yet another sign that contemporary activities are moving beyond mere zero-sum competition and towards a more sustained approach to space. The production of debris has been a growing problem in space for decades now, with projections estimating that cascading collisions and break-up events in orbit could lead to an uncontrollable exponential increase in the number of junk objects in orbit within the next half century or so, rendering space unsafe, unusable and unnavigable for all – the Kesseler syndrome.

Indeed in just the past few months the world has seen the first indication that this process may be beginning, with the Chinese Yunhai 1-02 satellite having been struck by a 4-inch piece of debris from a Zenit-2 rocket used to launch the Tselina-2 spy satellite in 1996, in turn producing at least 37 new debris objects. This collision, the first such known since 2009 when the non-operational Kosmos-2251 satellite struck Iridium 33, may not have spawned the thousands of trackable objects produced by the earlier event, however, it is nonetheless a harbinger of an era in which it will become increasingly difficult to avoid the many hundreds of thousands of small pieces of debris already in orbit.

Accordingly, space debris was on the agenda at this year’s G7 summit in the UK, with an agreement being reached to develop common standards (presumably to supplement the existing voluntary Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee (IADC) guidelines) for the sustainable use of space, including coordinated space traffic management (analogous in some ways to air traffic management). Again, these developments are indicative of a long-term perspective on space development, as much oriented towards setting sustainable standards in anticipation of an increasing expansion of development as for addressing today’s challenges.

Contemporary Space Affairs: Here to Stay

Having considered the context and activities of contemporary space affairs, is it accurate to describe these as a new ‘space race’?

Certainly, there are some aspects that fit the ‘race’ frame, most notably those activities oriented towards exploration or the rush among commercial actors to take advantage of newly exposed opportunities in the global space industry before it becomes economically saturated. Nonetheless, these activities must be located within the wider context of a general build-up by an increasing spectrum of actors towards long-term, sustained space development. This build-up, while certainly spearheaded by the competing superpowers of the US and China, is aimed at permanent and enduring development and exploitation of space, both for strategic affairs and for economic gain.

To the extent that space is coming under increasing military scrutiny, this could reasonably be explained as a balancing of its development with its long-undervalued importance. Space is a strategically vital domain, and so the drive to renew space-based military capabilities in light of both the dynamic geopolitical and threat environment on Earth and extensive technological advancements is not only understandable, but indeed should be expected.

Finally, it is worth highlighting that ascribing the framing of a ‘space race’ to contemporary affairs may result in negative of unintended consequences. The first of these is that, while US/China relations are dominated by competition, space development demands a relatively high degree of coordination, if not cooperation, to sustain. These actors will necessarily need to account for one another both in orbit (e.g., regarding space debris, space traffic management, congestion of LEO) an on celestial bodies (e.g., finding common understandings for acceptable conduct on the lunar surface). Secondly, while there are some high-profile ‘goals’ that can be readily attained in isolated and self-contained missions, the majority of space activities involve open-ended development, the attainment of which does not prevent any other actor from doing the same, and the value of which is not diminished once they do. Framing space development in terms of a ‘race’ implies an end point and could undermine the long-term perspectives that are needed to ensure sustainable use of space for the benefit of all.

SpaceX Falcon Heavy boosters landing (Source: SpaceX/Public Domain)


About Jack Davies

Jack Davies is a Junior Fellow at the Human Security Centre. He holds an MA in International Relations from the University of Birmingham, specialising in contemporary conflict and international law. He has worked on a number of research projects at the Institute for Conflict, Cooperation and Security including an investigation of the legality and legitimacy of armed drone strikes, on which he is currently co-authoring a book. His research interests include emerging and disruptive technologies in conflict, macrostrategy and existential risk, inter-state competition in and the weaponization of space, and environmental security.