By Dr. Gary L. Deel, Ph.D., J.D.
Associate Professor, Wallace E. Boston School of Business
In a previous article, I wrote about the Space Education and Strategic Applications (SESA) Conference, how it has been an annual event since 2020, and why attending it can be an interesting and enjoyable experience. The SESA Conference is on the horizon now, coming up on September 22-23.
This year’s SESA conference theme is “Fifty Years From the Moon: The Future of Commercial, Government, and Military Space Exploration.” So it’s worth taking a moment to discuss why the conference organizers chose this theme as a focus for the event.
How Events Around the World Affect Space Activities
There are a lot of macro-level events playing out around the world today, and many of them unfortunately involve tension and/or outright conflict between nations or international partnerships. So a key reason for the theme of the 2022 SESA Conference is to shine a spotlight on how those shifting geopolitical dynamics might change the landscape for space activities, space development, and even space militarization in the months and years ahead.
Perhaps the biggest recent event to shake up the state of international space cooperation is the decision by Russian President Vladimir Putin to invade Ukraine. This war has been ongoing now for several months, and it goes without saying that the cost of this conflict in terms of human lives and global stability has been tragic.
Tens of thousands of people so far have been killed. Hundreds of thousands more have been injured, displaced, or otherwise threatened by the conflict. And the aggression from Russia has torn at its ties of civility and peaceful cooperation with the West.
Russia and Space Cooperation
But in addition to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, we must now address new questions related to space cooperation efforts with Russia. For example, up to now, Russia has played a relatively active role in the manning and management of the International Space Station (ISS). In fact, for the roughly 10-year period during which the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) had no crew-capable launch vehicles at its disposal, Russia was the primary means of transport to and from the ISS. However, the war in Ukraine has changed the situation dramatically.
In solidarity with our Ukrainian allies, U.S. President Joe Biden has placed a number of sanctions on Russia, which have crippled the Russian economy but also had a negative effect on U.S. economic stability as well. We have cut many of the traditional ties we once had with Russia to try to compel Putin to end his aggression in Ukraine. But a question remains – what happens in space now?
Fortunately, NASA has other options today that do not leave it dependent on Russian launch vehicles for astronaut transport. For example, the private-sector company SpaceX has developed the Crew Dragon launch capsule for its Falcon 9 workhorse rocket.
So far, the Crew Dragon has shown itself to be reliable and safe – so much so that NASA just ordered five more astronaut flights with SpaceX. But what happens next for the ISS? If Russia and the United States truly cease all forms of conciliation and cooperation, who retains control of this space station?
We also have international agreements with Russia and other countries that prohibit the installation of weapons of mass destruction in space. Conventional weapons generally have not been explicitly prohibited by law or treaty, though many nations have unilaterally vowed not to militarize space in any way.
But if relations with Russia still continue to go south, could Putin try to install weapons in orbit over the United States as a looming threat, in the same way that former Russian President Nikita Khrushchev attempted to install missiles in Cuba a generation ago? We remember how that went down, and it was an extremely tense moment for the world.
China and Its Space Activities
Russia isn’t the only potential concern, either. The entire world is watching the bombastic show of Russian aggression in Ukraine and the tepidness of aid being offered by Western superpowers, in the interest of not provoking Russia into full-scale nuclear war. Some strategists have been outspoken about fears that what is happening in Ukraine might embolden China to invade Taiwan.
The Taiwanese government asserts its own existence as a sovereign territory. But the Chinese government has long insisted that Taiwan – for complex historical reasons – is rightfully a territory belonging to the People’s Republic of China.
This discord has existed for decades, but most of the modern world has recognized the sovereignty of Taiwan in one form or another. Still, some military experts worry that Chinese President Xi Jinping might look at the absence of major Western superpower defense against Putin in Ukraine and conclude that China could do the same thing in Taiwan. To be fair, U.S President Biden has explicitly vowed to militarily defend Taiwan in the event of an invasion. The geopolitics of such a conflict are extremely complex and it’s unclear how it would all play out.
But terrestrial conflict notwithstanding, China is yet another spacefaring nation, with a quickly growing and evolving space presence. The United States has not historically worked with China’s space agency to the same degree that it has with Russia – but another hot war with a major world superpower would only further complicate the situation up in orbit.
Fortunately, Russia’s aggression in Ukraine also seems to have rallied a show of unification and mutual support among Western allies. For example, the Scandinavian countries of Finland and Sweden recently applied to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in a show of solidarity with the rest of Europe, standing united in staunch opposition to Putin’s despotism.
Finland and Sweden are already members of the European Space Agency (ESA), a conglomerate international body that serves the purpose of furthering European national interests in space. But the move by these two nations to join NATO – one of which shares an immense land border with Russia – draws a line in the sand that would likely escalate tensions with Russia and preclude any kind of space cooperation in the foreseeable future.
SESA Conference Other Countries Also Have Interests in Space
These are by no means the only players in the space exploration arena. Beyond the United States, Russia, China, and European countries, there is also Canada, Japan, India, Israel, Iran, Brazil, and a host of other nations with burgeoning spacefaring capabilities.
Each country has different interests to protect on the world stage, which makes for an extremely complicated geopolitical landscape. This is why the 2022 SESA Conference theme of “Fifty Years From the Moon: The Future of Commercial, Government, and Military Space Exploration” is so timely and appropriate for this year’s event.
The SESA Conference will feature a number of expert speakers who will present on issues related to world affairs, government space activity, space militarization and prudent international space policy. It is a great opportunity to learn how we can best promote a peaceful, cooperative and collaborative future for the human race in space. The 2022 SESA Conference promises to be an interesting and insightful experience, and we hope to see you there.