Space, the (Increasingly Congested) Final Frontier

Photo: Astronaut Franklin R. Chang-Diaz works with a grapple fixture during extravehicular activity to perform work on the International Space Station. Credit: NASA.
Photo: Astronaut Franklin R. Chang-Diaz works with a grapple fixture during extravehicular activity to perform work on the International Space Station. Credit: NASA.

The transatlantic community needs to continue to ensure that policymakers are directly joined by practitioners of science and technology.

“People have hated politicians as long as there have been politicians. But the truth is, we’re the ones that make this all possible.” So says the fictionalized version of Nixon-era NASA Administrator Thomas O. Paine in the drama For All Mankind, which recently wrapped up its second season on AppleTV+.

The quip is meant to underline the strong political support needed for basic space science research and exploration to become a reality. Of course, there is truth to the statement and it was especially true during the Cold War-era depicted in the show, since in those decades it was primarily nation states and the politicians that ran them who set the scope of space ambition.

But the statement also overlooks an important and pressing reality for our decade: that practitioners of science and technology themselves need to be direct contributors to the policy planning process. Indeed, the key role that science and technology play in every aspect of the burgeoning, multidisciplinary field of space diplomacy makes it increasingly vital for scientists to help shape the trajectory of national security and diplomatic engagement concerning global space policy, not just those from traditional foreign affairs backgrounds.

Science and technology are central to every aspect of activities in space, access to which is becoming globally democratized among both nation states and commercial entities, and at breakneck pace. Only through a science-driven policy approach with scientists and technologists sitting directly among senior diplomats and national security professionals can leaders make decisions beneficial to global security while forging strong space regulatory norms.

Viewed in this context, For All Mankind has provided an ambitious and often thought-provoking retelling of history that has real parallels to our current decade. The show, though not without narrative flaws, depicts an alternative history of America’s space endeavors — one in which the Apollo program was beaten to the moon by the Soviet Union. This historical twist leads the space race to effectively never end, and results in permanent basing of both American astronauts and Soviet cosmonauts near the lunar south pole by the mid 1970s. The proximity of the two rival superpowers camped out around the same crater provides everything needed for the show’s writers to imagine all the geopolitical and national security intrigue that might have taken place if this version of the 20th century were realized.

But perhaps the writers won’t need to do as much imagining for their next seasons since the geopolitical, technical, and commercial dynamics that are developing worldwide appear set to usher in a new, faster-moving, and more complex off-planet environment.  The next decade may indeed make the U.S.-Soviet space race of the Cold War-era look elementary in comparison.

Gone is the era when America’s NASA and Russia’s Roscosmos dominated both competition and cooperation in space. After all, in the past year alone: The China National Space Administration (CNSA) has launched and then sent personnel to the core module of its new space station (sparking global anxiety about the uncontrolled reentry of its Long March 5B booster rocket in the process.) The United Arab Emirates successfully deployed a satellite probe in Martian orbit within weeks of the latest U.S. and first Chinese lander mission to the red planet. And Elon Musk’s SpaceX has continued to deploy its mega-constellation of internet-service-providing Starlink satellites in Earth orbit, setting the stage for a showdown with Beijing’s planned StarNet system in the next few years that is destined to dwarf the scale and stakes of the current Huawei/5G debate.

As an ever-greater diversity of state and commercial actors have entered the space arena with new and groundbreaking missions and technologies, a confluence of technical and geostrategic trends (that should have come as no surprise to Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin) have placed in question for the first time Russia’s global role above our atmosphere. No statement better encapsulates this reality than the threats and complaints expressed by Roscosmos current chief, Dimitry Rogozin, in a speech to Duma members earlier this month ahead of the Geneva summit meeting between Presidents Joe Biden and Putin.

In the address, Rogozin threatened to end its support for the International Space Station (ISS) in 2025 unless the United States lifts sanctions — Russian space contractors and imports of space technology with potential dual military use were targeted after Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014. At the same time, Rogozin lamented that: “We have more than enough rockets, but nothing to launch them with . . .we have spacecraft that are nearly assembled, but they lack one specific microchip set that we have no way of purchasing because of the sanctions.” Rogozin’s complaint reflects the reality that Western sanctions on the Russian Federation are indeed effective, and flies in the face of usual Kremlin talking points aimed at downplaying their impact.

The situation facing Roscosmos and Rogozin (who was among the first Russian officials to be sanctioned by the U.S. and EU in 2014 while serving as Deputy Prime Minister) extends beyond technology supply chain issues owing to sanctions. Roscosmos’ annual budget has steadily dwindled along with Russian GDP since 2014, given Russian economic woes spurred by both transatlantic sanctions and the decline and prolonged instability of global hydrocarbon prices. In 2014, Roscosmos’ budget was reportedly about $5 billion or roughly 28% of NASA’s in the same year. As of 2020, Roscosmos’ budget dropped as low as $1.7 billion, which amounted to just 7.5% of NASA’s financial year 2020 spending.

Compounding these budgetary woes were the (entirely predictable) knock-on effects resulting from the successful technology demonstration by Elon Musk’s SpaceX of its human spaceflight capability last year. Recall that the retirement of NASA’s space shuttle fleet in July 2011 left the American space agency without its own human spaceflight capability for nearly a decade. As a result, the U.S. faced the politically inconvenient reality of needing to pay Roscosmos nearly $80 million per seat for NASA astronauts to hitch a ride on the Russian Soyuz capsule to and from the ISS. So when NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken blasted off aboard Musk’s SpaceX Crew Dragon Demo-2 mission in May 2020, Roscosmos’ monopoly on human space launch options for the United States was broken, potentially losing the agency upwards of $200 million annually in hard currency payments in the process.  While NASA has proposed a barter system with Roscosmos in which Crew Dragon and Soyuz seats could be swapped as in-kind payments, the offer is likely of tertiary importance to Rogozin compared to the loss of once guaranteed annual income.

The geopolitical importance of the moment was not lost on Musk, who quipped that “the trampoline is working!” following the successful 2020 launch. Rogozin will have understood the barb – following the post-Crimea U.S. sanctions, he stated that, “after analyzing the sanctions against our space industry, I suggest to the USA to bring their astronauts to the ISS using a trampoline.”

Verbal jousting aside, the emergence of a reliable American commercial human space launch capability has had the perhaps inevitable impact of throwing into question the dynamics of U.S.-Russian space cooperation of recent decades. For example, when NASA invited Roscosmos to become a founding partner of the Artemis Accords, a collection of space agencies aimed at laying out regulatory norms and practical cooperation ahead of NASA’s planned return to the lunar surface as a part of its Project Artemis in 2024, Rogozin demurred. The Roscosmos chief dismissed the arrangement as a “political project” that he views as “similar to NATO.” Thus far, the Artemis Accords have attracted interest largely from key global democracies, with signatories currently including: the U.S., Australia, Canada, Japan, Luxembourg, Italy, the UK, the United Arab Emirates, Ukraine, South Korea, New Zealand, and Brazil.

For its part, Russia currently appears to favor a competitive approach, signaling a preference for alignment with China’s space program, with Rogozin saying last year that Russia “respects their results” and declaring that China “is definitely our partner” in the future. Following this vow, earlier this year, in an apparent rebuff to the Artemis Accords program, Roscosmos signed a preliminary agreement with CNSA aimed at establishing a joint research station on the lunar surface by the early-to-mid 2030s.

In the near term, Rogozin this month expressed interest in sending Russian cosmonauts to China’s Tianhe space station, another signal from the Kremlin aimed to raise pressure on the U.S. Russia sanctions program by bolstering Rogozin’s ISS threat. However, the U.S. must also consider the technical realities associated with these political declarations. Case in point: the orbital inclination of the Tianhe module makes it technically difficult for existing Soyuz spacecraft to reach the station from most of Russia’s existing cosmodromes, barring a prohibitive use of fuel or the design of a new Russian space vehicle. And although Roscosmos reportedly requested that CNSA launch the Tianhe at an orbital inclination more suitable for Russian participation, China has proceeded with its own plans.

With these emerging global space exploration dynamics in mind, the transatlantic community needs to continue to ensure that policymakers — “the ones that make this all possible” — are directly joined by practitioners of science and technology to distinguish between political blandishments and practical capabilities going forward. And as NASA’s famous motto from the Apollo era that “For All Mankind” is set in reminds us: “Failure is not an option.”

June 30, 2021