The geopolitics of space is nothing new. Cold War rivalry fueled the space race, and space has remained in the realm of national competition ever since. From GPS monitoring to support military decision-making to satellite communications to precise imagery to assist humanitarian organizations and refugee flows in high-risk countries, governments have a clear and present interest in what happens in the world. outer space. More recently, space has become a battlefield in global security.
Yet despite this precedent, highly specialized companies are increasingly shaping the geopolitics of space. First, as governments increasingly rely on private capabilities to act in space, space companies have gained an unprecedented level of influence on the development of certain details and capabilities in national space operations. For the first time, strategic competition for space is based on both the private and public sectors. And as independent players, New Space companies have a much bigger role presence in outer space. By launching their own private team, they have changed the way global security in, to, and from space has long been understood. Space, in short, is no longer just about governments.
Close to equal?
That doesn’t mean New Space companies have completely displaced space governments; public investments in space continue to exceed private ones. For example, from 2008 to 2017, government-directed funding grew by 44%, and the private sector accounted for a smaller share of space launches. Five years later, the figures are quite similar.
But the nature of how private companies work in space is also changing. Specialized space companies continue to support government projects as legacy firms such as Boeing, Lockheed Martin or Raytheon did. However, the New Space companies have gained a higher level of autonomy and decision-making from the government.
In the 1980s there was limited access to government projects for the commercial satellite-based remote sensing market. However, once the intelligence community began to need high-resolution imagery, for example to monitor the movements of military forces around the planet, government constraints prompted the opening of a new market for private space companies. specialized companies will develop these products.
As the New Space companies provide a high level of specialization in their portfolio of services, the relationship between governments and private companies has become less one of “prime contractors” and more of a public-private partnership of almost equals. Before, NASA defined “what” and “how” the capabilities should be developed; now, the government defines the objective (the “what”) and the first level requirements, leaving the details of how to do it to the industry.
As a result, governments are increasingly relying on space-specialized companies not only to provide tailored responses to pressing demands, but also to help them stay ahead of global strategic competition. This is the case with the European Union’s CASSINI Space Investment Fund of at least $1 billion for startups, and the Chinese government’s D60 decision in 2014 to allow large private investment in space companies. Until then, the Chinese market was restricted to two state-owned companies (CASIC and CASC). But since 2014, the space industry has grown exponentially (see Galactic Energy or Space Space), exporting its products to third countries under the Digital Silk Road, part of the Belt and Road Initiative, especially in Latin America and the Caribbean and Africa, or attracting talented workforce, as MinoSpace does.
This cycle has become virtuous for New Space companies: to remain competitive in space, governments have become dependent on some of their services and products. Interstate politics has given way to space companies having a greater influence in the way governments compete with each other.
The crowded border
Space companies are also shaping the geopolitics of space by their simple presence, in itself a novelty. For example, the Chinese government stated that its space station was forced to activate preventive control to avoid collisions when it encountered the StarLink satellites. In addition, NASA has postponed a spacewalk from the International Space Station over concerns about space debris, although it is not so easy to distinguish between debris produced by public and private actors.
The rise of New Space companies acting autonomously in outer space has shed light on some geopolitical gaps that have not been addressed until now. Consider the risks that can arise for democratic countries if a private space capability is “hijacked” by terrorist groups, organized crime or other illegal actors. Or the need for mutual trust between governments and private sectors in the face of any type of cyber attack on a satellite that manages sensitive data for the protection and well-being of people.
Without common rules between public and private stakeholders, policy vacuums will endure. Simply put, the unprecedented pace at which these companies have taken off means that existing multilateral forums have not yet created the necessary mechanisms to address these pressing challenges. This should be of interest to countries that support democratic principles, because in addition to the traditional challenges of space, there are new issues where private companies have a greater role and must be addressed from a democratic perspective.
It is certainly clear that the New Space companies are reshaping the global competition for outer space. They are influencing the way governments interact and compete with other countries, and also have a greater autonomous presence in outer space by creating facts “in the air”.
With so many players in the space, we can no longer afford to operate without a common understanding and rules between them. There is now a pressing need to establish global multi-stakeholder dialogues to address the New Space era, its global security implications, and the needs and demands of individual and emerging players, be they countries or private companies.
Governments will continue to have an important role in making decisions on global standards, as they are at the core of political representation. However, the new era of space cooperation is already here; the time to create new standards and protocols is now.