I read that India recently made news by launching 104 satellites from a single rocket. I’d always thought of the space race as a showdown between Russia and the United States, but it seems like the field’s gotten more crowded. What’s happening these days?
The glories of the Cold War space race may be behind us, but plenty of nations are still looking to leave Earth behind. Russia’s space program has hit some hiccups in recent years, but it continues and is still seeking to cooperate with NASA. And the United States, for its own part, still has ambitious projects in the works, including a NASA mission to capture and redirect an asteroid in the 2020s. The Trump administration is reportedly aiming to accelerate such efforts.
China, meanwhile, has stepped up its own space game in a big way in the 21st century. While it lagged behind during the height of the space race, it’s since grown to the point where it has repeatedly put its own astronauts into space. Its ambitions include a planned trip to the dark side of the moon and a promise to put humans on Mars in the near future.
But it’s not just Russia, China, and the United States, right? It seems like there are others in the game.
Lots of them! The European Space Agency, for one, remains a prominent player. Japan put up a military communications satellite of its own in January. You already mentioned India’s own thing. Nigeria has a surprisingly robust space program, enough so that it’s aiming to put a human in space by 2030. And the United Arab Emirates has laid out an ambitious 100-year plan to set up human habitation on Mars by 2117.
Meanwhile, more and more private organizations are getting into the space game, often in collaboration with established governmental institutions. That includes companies such as Elon Musk’s SpaceX, which has successfully launched quite a few missions to the International Space Station. Some of Donald Trump’s advisers seem to have bought into those efforts.
There are, of course, those who are building bridges between nationalistic and private ambitions, perhaps most notably Luxembourg, which is betting on asteroid mining.
Is it so crazy? Sure, it’s a tiny country, but as Wired points out, it’s “a bit analogous to a utopian space colony: small, confined, welcoming of outsiders, well-off, politically and psychologically stable.” It’s also uncommonly wealthy, and it wants to help others get even richer by guaranteeing their ownership of anything that they might extract from extraterrestrial objects.
And Luxembourg isn’t alone in the asteroid business. While it’s aiming to attract private companies (most notably, Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries), NASA is engaging in its own investigations. It recently funded a robotic investigatory mission to Psyche, which the Atlantic’s Marina Koren describes as an asteroid “made of metallic nickel and iron … about the size of Massachusetts.” (Disclosure: Arizona State University, which is a partner with New America and Slate in Future Tense, is connected with the Psyche project.) The goal there is mostly to learn more about the science of planet formation, but, as Koren notes, Psyche itself might well be worth trillions of dollars, in rare metals such as nickel and platinum. The idea is that they’d be far more plentifully available than they are on Earth. For Luxembourg, at least, getting involved still seems to be a relatively low-risk investment, with a potentially enormous upside, assuming any of these ideas ever come to fruition.
Don’t we have enough problems on Earth? In what universe is any of this worth doing?
For countries that aren’t existing superpowers, getting in the space game can be a way to stand up for themselves and their own interests. Nigeria, for example, has launched its own satellites and has reportedly used them variously to beef up its agricultural programs and deployed them in regional conflicts for monitoring purposes. That lets this relatively small country rely a little less on more established powers.
That seems practical enough, but you said that Nigeria was trying to put people in space. What’s the advantage of that—for Nigeria or any other country?
That’s harder to answer, no matter which country you’re talking about. One standard answer you hear is that it really is about prestige. As Koren writes in the Atlantic, “Inside China, space activities, civil and military, are used to stoke nationalist sentiment,” a conceit that likely holds for other countries as well. While some argue that there are only limited scientific advantages to human space flight, the political and strategic benefits may be considerable. That’s doubly true when you’re talking about accomplishing truly new feats, such as successfully landing a human on Mars or, better yet, setting up some sort of colony there.
Others, like former Lockheed Martin CEO Norm Augustine, for example, suggest that ambition itself is important. Putting humans in space—and keeping them alive once they’re up there—is a tremendously difficult accomplishment. But the hard work of overcoming those challenges may lead to other innovations along the way, since it gives people something to work toward.
Is this all about competition, or is there cooperation, too?
In many ways, the new space race is about nationalism—everyone wants to show what they’re capable of, and to pull it off first. Of course, we seem to be in a moment in which nationalism is on the rise. But there’s a long history of cooperation in space, the most powerful representation of which remains the International Space Station, which is operated by Europe, the United States, Russia, Canada, and Japan. But terrestrial concerns can interfere with even the most stellar friendships, as we found when Russia threatened to block U.S. access to the International Space Station in retaliation for sanctions imposed by the Obama administration in response to Russian electoral interference. That’s all to say, it’s hard to know how the intergovernmental politics of space will play out in the decades ahead.
But there’s only so much funding to go around. If we fixate on getting people out of orbit, don’t we risk distracting ourselves from other projects?
We very well might. If we fixate on resurrecting the old glories of the space race, we may end up taking away from the important, practical stuff that NASA is doing right now, most notably its efforts to monitor climate change.
Are there international laws for this? If I found my way to Mars, could I just build a house on Olympus Mons and call it my own?
Space law, which is absolutely a real thing, has a long and complex history, much of which comes down to the Outer Space Treaty, which a bunch of countries—including the U.S. and the USSR—signed back in 1967. Among other things, it states, “Outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means.” In essence, that means signatory nations can’t just plant a flag on Mars and assert that it’s part of their territory—and nongovernmental organizations can’t either.
But what about that Luxembourgish law you mentioned—the thing letting people claim stuff they found in space?
That’s where things get complicated. That law—and a similar one passed by the United States—threatens to complicate things by operating at the juncture of national and commercial interests. Where older treaties were mostly set up to grapple with the threat of orbital weapons and such, or to encourage international cooperation, the recent rise of private space companies may challenge that nation-state-centric understanding of spaceflight.
Let’s say we do make it to Mars—or even start going to the moon again—who actually owns the real estate?
At this point, it’s not easy to answer. As Sarah Laskow writes in Atlas Obscura, entrepreneurs have been laying claim to Mars since at least the 1950s, and assertions of lunar ownership are even more common. It seems unlikely, of course, that any of them will have standing when and if we make it to the Red Planet or set up lunar habitation. People are still trying to figure out how to divide the place up, but we don’t have anything like a standard understanding of extraterrestrial property rights yet. That’s part of what spacefaring countries—and the companies that fly their flags—will have to work out as we head toward the stars.
This article is part of the space installment of Futurography, a series in which Future Tense introduces readers to the technologies that will define tomorrow. Each month, we’ll choose a new technology and break it down. Future Tense is a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America, and Slate.