By William Tucker
Contributor, In Homeland Security
This summer will mark the 50th anniversary of the first manned lunar mission. One amateur space race historian told me years ago that that was the moment when the Cold War was truly won. While the Cold War officially ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the claim about the space race representing the finish line in this highly competitive international endeavor was certainly an interesting idea.
The Soviets never made it to the moon, but they didn’t give up on their ambitions for space exploration. Although the U.S. made it to the moon first, we could not deny the Soviets their own entry into space.
A moon landing might never have been Moscow’s objective, but it demonstrated that manned space missions have done little to change the situation on the ground. Humans are still firmly tethered to earth despite the desire — or perhaps the need — to explore beyond our planet.
The Geopolitics of Space
Access to space has been profoundly transformed in recent years. What was once the sole domain of NASA has now been embraced by private industry moguls such as Elon Musk and Richard Branson. And with some remarkable successes.
The U.S. Air Force continues to launch satellites and experimental space planes. Now, there is the intrigue surrounding the planned establishment of a space force under the Department of Defense.
A missing element in all this activity are manned space missions. The U.S. officially ended the space shuttle program on August 31, 2011, after several decades of success and a few setbacks. Ironically, NASA now relies on its former competitor Russia to transport astronauts to the International Space Station.
Russia’s ongoing space missions have not expanded much from the Soviet days; Russia has continued its scientific research, launching satellites and collecting intelligence. Other nations – China, India Japan and the EU collectively – have engaged in space-based exploration and commercial ventures, demonstrating that the U.S. still has competitors in this arena.
Instead of space-based ventures bringing international harmony as hoped, terrestrial competition in the form of politics, war, and economics is escalating. It appears that space programs are creating tensions in the heavens as well as on the ground.
Hard to Completely Eliminate Military Matters and Politics from Space Programs
Military matters and the politics that drive them can never be fully eliminated from space programs. The UN Outer Space Treaty bans weapons of mass destruction from orbiting the earth or their placement on the moon or on any other celestial body.
However, the treaty does not prohibit the world’s military from using artificial satellites to guide munitions or military movements on the ground. In other words, the weapons themselves may not be in space, but elements of those weapon systems are certainly there.
Nations with better-equipped militaries have begun testing and deploying weapons that can disable or disrupt satellites in orbit for the purpose of affecting operations on Earth. These nations with the money and the technical means are entering space for military purposes. That change will definitely affect military planning and future combat.
These activities by Russia and China, in particular, have prompted the U.S. to explore new ways to accurately position our satellites over areas where access is denied such as in North Korea, according to a public paper issued by DARPA.
Sometimes, the signals from GPS satellites in orbit high above the earth, do not reach ground stations because everything from weather, vegetation or manmade structures can obstruct their transmission. While several nations have put their GPS services online over the past decade, the U.S. has already moved beyond those limitations and vulnerabilities.
Washington may not be able to dictate who enters the realm of space or even what other nations plan to do in orbit, but the U.S. can change the situation even as competitors strive to catch up. How long will this U.S. advantage last is unknown, so too is the outcome of the space race in itself.
Redefining the Human Relationship with Space
Geopolitical issues first moved into space during the Cold War. Although space is more accessible in the post-Cold War era, humanity’s relationship with space exploration has not changed significantly. Everything that has been launched into space originated on earth by men and women.
Humanity made it to the moon, but humans have not yet left earth’s orbit for other planets. Probes and radio waves have gone well beyond our solar system, but no human has journeyed to another planet. What this really means is that humankind remains tethered to Earth.
We seem intent on breaking this bond not just for exploration, but also for exploitation. Our energy sources are finite and even renewable energy requires extensive construction and massive expenses. In the end, energy sources such as wind and solar power are subject to the vagaries of the weather or of day-night cycles.
The ability to harness solar and perhaps wind power through a space-based system could alleviate many earth-bound challenges. But that could compel humans to travel deeper into space.
Nations such as the U.S. and Japan are looking for ways to capture energy in space via solar collectors and transmit it back to earth. The concept originated in the 1970s, but the problem of escape velocity and the extreme size and weight of the technology at the time prevented the concept from moving forward.
For instance, the escape velocity needed to break free of earth’s gravity is about seven miles per second. This requires a tremendous amount of fuel just for a spacecraft to make it to the upper reaches of Earth’s atmosphere. Until we can solve the energy constraints on space travel, the ability to visit or colonize other planets is still science fiction.
In recent decades, the technology has become lighter in weight and more refined, allowing the concept from the ’70s to move forward. In fact, Japan already has a contract with Mitsubishi to provide this type of power collection by the 2030s. The Lawrence Livermore Labs in California have also worked on this approach and have proven the feasibility of the technology.
For now, though, our relationship with space is still evolving. We will remain dependent on earth-based natural resources for the near future. This is not to say that we have not benefitted from space-based exploration. We have, but we must also acknowledge our current limitations and temper our expectations.
Until we solve the problems that restrict our exploration of space, politics on the ground will continue to influence space programs.