The New Space Race

Half a century since the Apollo 11 moon landing, space continues to be one of the foremost areas of geopolitical expansion and the projection of national capabilities. The UK is not alone in launching an ambitious space strategy: in November 2019, NATO foreign ministers recognised space as a new operational domain for the establishment of international governance and infrastructure. As ‘Global Britain’ becomes a reality, space and the new space race will become a key frontier for the UK’s redefinition of its role in the world.

But with space becoming increasingly important  in many ways – both in terms of developing new technology and in providing a new frontier for development and research – a new space race, of sorts, appears inevitable. Dr Alice Bunn, Director of International Programmes at the UK Space Agency, noted this at the BFPG’s  recent event on the future of UK foreign policy in space, arguing that “we’re coming back full circle – (Donald) Trump is laying out his plans for boots on the moon and China is showing huge capabilities. We are coming back to a more competitive space.”

But the ‘new space race’ won’t be as binary as the US-Russia Cold War contest to be the first to put man on the moon of the 60s. For example, both Dr Bunn and Liz Seward, Senior Strategist for Airbus Europe  pointed to the capabilities of India – which recently successfully launched an earth observation spy satellite. The new satellite can take high-resolution images during any time of the day, even under cloudy conditions, which will boost India’s all-weather surveillance capabilities.

Since the original space race of the 1960s, the world has changed in major ways. What back then was a battle for space supremacy between two competing ideologies, now incorporates not only governments around the world, but individuals and organisations. Elon Musk, soon after his company SpaceX launched the most powerful working rocket in the world into space – launching a Musk-owned Tesla into orbit – said: “We want a new space race. Races are exciting.” According to John Logsdon, founder of the Space Policy Institute: “SpaceX has challenged the traditional launch industry in the United States and in Europe and in China and in Russia.”

Space reflects more than the increased ability of billionaires to launch rockets into space – it’s a microcosm of the ever-changing balance of power back down on Earth. Taking Brexit as an examle, the panellists at our recent event noticed that whilst the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union has not magically opened doors for the UK space sector, it has massively increased the political will to ramp up our capabilities in space. As I wrote in a previous BFPG blog on space, the Conservative Party made a pledge to establish the UK’s first ‘Space Command’ in their December 2019 general election manifesto, and several Ministers have since made calls for the UK to embrace space as a ‘new frontier’ in foreign policy. Spaceports have been proposed, and plans for new satellite systems drafted.

But that blog also noted that the comments made by Dr Bunn and Liz Seward – on the idea that the new space race will not be binary – is already proving true. Certainly, the UK’s ambition is being matched across Europe. Sweden, for example, has committed to starting rocket launches from Kiruna by 2022. Norway aims to beat that – and has 2020 in its sights. Portugal matches the UK’s space ambitions – and aims to open a spaceport in the Azores. France, Germany and Italy all spend a substantial amount more than the UK does on space exploration. 

50 years since the first moon landing, space still ignites the imagination of millions around the world. As the global economy grows and becomes more cooperative, the space race is changing – but it’s still there. With individuals, governments, organisations and more involved in the rapidly developing sector, Britain can have a huge role to play in writing the rulebook and convening exciting new coalitions.

Matt Gillow

Matt is the Communications & Events Manager at the British Foreign Policy Group.