Late last month, the new head of Russia’s space agency announced that Russian crews will leave the International Space Station at the end of 2024. This decision abandons a long tradition of scientific cooperation as powerful countries begin to compete through anti-satellite warfare—a capability Russia, China, and the United States have already tested.
Russia’s ominous announcement follows the first images from the James Webb telescope, a triumph of human engineering. We live in a renaissance of cosmic curiosity—the advent of commercial space flights, NASA’s return to Venus, plans to further explore the moon and Mars. A pivot from cooperation to conflict now would be tragic.
Space has long been a domain for international rivalry. The US and USSR were fierce competitors in space during the Cold War. The International Space Station has nevertheless served as a model for cooperation. But the current diplomatic breakdown between Russia and the United States makes it harder to develop common rules for further space activity.
The US might have contributed to this breakdown. The Trump administration’s creation of a Space Force was criticized last summer as a “direct threat to peace” by China, and interpreted by Russia as turning space into a “theater of military operations.”
When I asked the Space Force’s current head, Gen. John Raymond, how the US could avoid provoking or propelling an arms race in space, he replied in the language of deterrence and working with allies. “We train together, we exercise together, we operate capabilities together, we war-game together, we message together, we’re developing norms of behavior together.” If a man with a hammer only sees nails, perhaps it might be natural for a general to think war-gaming would prevent the militarization of space.
“If we develop this,” Raymond concluded, “we’re going to help identify those that are running the red lights.” As if serving as global policeman were not enough, the US might soon find itself committed to enforcing a rules-based interplanetary order. From globo-cop to astro-cop?
This isn’t a mere theoretical concern. Late last week, debris from a 25-ton rocket booster from China crashed into the Indian Ocean in an uncontrolled reentry—the third in three years. The rocket from which it had sprung was en route to the Tiangong space station, which China built after the United States prevented it from joining the International Space Station.
The incident illustrates both the desire to establish some basic norms of communication and cooperation—and the difficulty in actually doing so. Following the crash, NASA administrator Bill Nelson insisted that “all spacefaring nations should follow established best practices” to share information on the trajectory of incoming debris, especially for heavy hardware like the Chinese rocket “which carry a significant risk of loss of life and property.” But given the increasingly competitive and confrontational posture between these countries, such practices have yet to be established, let alone voluntarily observed.
In fact, China accused the United States of bad sportsmanship, saying its news media “deliberately exaggerate and exaggerate…obviously with bad intentions.” Along with Russia’s defection from the International Space Station, and the station’s failure to attract India, France, and Germany to join (in part because it’s seen as “an assertion of US primacy”), any spirit of extraterrestrial cooperation that may have once existed appears to have succumbed to the cold logic of international politics.
Yet while international tensions in space are currently high, they’re not as high as during the Cold War, when the United States and Soviet Union battled for space supremacy under the threat of nuclear Armageddon. The launch of Sputnik, the world’s first satellite, in 1957 caused widespread panic among both the American public and policy-makers. The public’s fears of an imminent attack from space forced President Eisenhower to respond.
The result was a transformation of the US into what the historian Walter McDougall called a “civilian technocracy” to counter the success of Soviet technocracy. The synthesis of government and new technology to compete with the Soviets ushered in an explosion of R&D funding, underlining the belief—a legacy of the Second World War—that Washington actually could marshal the nation’s resources to solve whatever challenge might arise. Only a few years after Sputnik, President Kennedy argued that the race to the moon was a way “to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills.” But our skills were not only measured against ourselves, of course—they were being compared to Moscow’s achievements.
The technological revolution that grew out of the space race did make Americans’ lives easier—advanced computers are used in virtually every sector of the global economy, while GPS helps us navigate the world. Even today, one justification for the money poured into space research is the promise of constant innovation. Originally funded for a military purpose, these technologies have demonstrated their capability to focus brutal precision on the ground in recent wars. Satellite-guided missiles devastated Iraq and Afghanistan during the Global War on Terror, a development that helped inspire Beijing to develop anti-satellite missiles.
Despite the military and competitive origins of space exploration, there has also always been the hope that otherworldly exploration might bring nations together. In a press conference with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, President Ronald Reagan asked whether the USSR would come to America’s aid were it attacked by aliens—Gorbachev assured Reagan the Cold War would be put on pause. Beyond private jokes and hypotheticals, even amid Cold War rivalry both countries demonstrated a willingness to pursue peace, including symbolic moments such as the famous Apollo-Soyuz “handshake in space” rendezvous that paved the way for the International Space Station. Four decades later, we seem to be losing our capacity for international cooperation in this domain.
Younger Americans who came of age after the Cold War, and didn’t experience the advent of US primacy, appear less enchanted with the military aspects of history’s space race. A survey by my organization, the Eurasia Group Foundation, found Americans under 30 years old to be the least likely of any age group to support the creation of the Space Force. Many of these younger respondents presumably voted for President Biden, and some might have been surprised when the president decided to keep the new service branch—a pet project of his predecessor—fully intact, with his full support.
Anything that begins as a frontier can become contested territory. The exploration of oceans led to piracy and then navies, and the creation of cyberspace led to cyber espionage and cyber warfare. Given how satellites surveil and navigate missiles, governments have a legitimate interest in space as a war-fighting domain. But while space might be infinite, the attention and resources of governments are finite.
President Biden frequently quotes his father as saying, “Don’t tell me what you value—show me your budget, and I’ll tell you what you value.” The White House’s proposed 2023 defense budget requested more than $23 billion for the Space Force, which would make the branch better funded than NASA was this year. This calls to mind a quote from John Malkovich’s character, Dr. Mallory, scientific adviser to the fictitious Space Force in the eponymous Netflix comedy series: “I would like to know why my science budget pales in comparison to his orgy of death.” Here’s hoping the characterization by the neurotic Dr. Mallory is comic hyperbole—and not graphic prophecy.