Over the past several months, as China began building its own space station in low-Earth orbit and collaborating with Russia on an asteroid mission and new lunar base, some in the United States have expressed concerns that a new space race is on. Cold War-style rhetoric has cropped up in media reports and government statements alike—and not for the first time. The establishment of the U.S. Space Force in 2019, for example, was largely justified as a response to the alleged weaponization of space by China and Russia, both of which in turn saw the new American military branch as a threat to peace.
Yet the geopolitics of space today are far more complex than this “Cold War 2.0” narrative would make them seem. Today, more than 70 nations have space programs, including 14 with the capacity to launch from their own territories. Moreover, in what has been known as “NewSpace” for some time now, commercial players are leading the pack, building and innovating faster than government programs.
Access to space has become far cheaper and easier—and more appealing—than it was just a decade ago. Space-based technologies are an integral part of modern life, used for communications, navigation, weather and climate tracking, disaster response, banking and finance, and so much more. Militaries rely on the space domain for those same purposes, as well as for intelligence gathering, targeting and the deployment of weapons on land, at sea and in the air. All of this has made space a lucrative commercial sector, estimated to be worth $423 billion in 2021, and it is one of the few industries that has expanded during the coronavirus pandemic. Most countries in the world are users of space-based services, so it stands to reason that every country wants to be a part of this economy.