A new space race is emerging as the world commits to going to and staying in space. “We choose to go back to the moon, and then onto Mars, and were going to do it together,” said former Florida Senator and current National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Director Bill Nelson about the deep partnerships forged between nations and the private corporations that are contributing to the Artemis 2 mission and Lunar Gateway project.
A New Cadre of Launch Vehicles
In the last several months, the world has witnessed two of the most powerful rockets ever launched on American soil. The NASA Space Launch System (SLS) mission Artemis Block 1 lifted off last November from Kennedy Space Center’s historic Launch Complex 39B in Cape Canaveral, Fla. Then, as part of a contract with NASA, SpaceX’s Starship test blasted off in the latter half of April this year, making it the most powerful rocket ever launched. NASA is confident in SpaceX and the Starship model and plans to use a modified version of the rocket as the Human Landing System for its upcoming lunar space station.
International Tensions and the Rise of LEO
America’s return to space signals a significant dynamic shift toward the future of space flight. With the retirement of the Space Shuttle in 2009, American astronauts relied on Russian Soyuz vehicles for expeditions to the International Space Station. NASA’s recent shift in contracting with SpaceX’s Falcon 9 system has alleviated the reliance on Russian rockets while not wholly removing Russia from the program.
Following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, international sanctions seeking to isolate Russia resulted in souring the U.S.-Russian ISS relationship. Having weathered previous diplomatic skirmishes since its inception in 1993, Russia announced its eventual withdrawal with a target date of 2030.
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The ISS will continue to be a collaboration between the Canadian Space Organization (CSA), European Space Organization (ESA), the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), and NASA until its deorbiting in 2031. However, Roscosmos has announced plans to operate a new independent space station in low earth orbit (LEO).
Today, there are two occupied space stations in LEO: the International Space Station and the Chinese Tiangong Space Station. With access to space becoming increasingly attainable, nations and multinational corporations are seeking to establish their permanent presence in this orbit.
A Crowded Space: 2030 Space Station Plans
By 2030, at least six new human-rated space stations will enter and occupy LEO. India and Roscosmos intend to launch and independently operate their own space stations, while U.S-based companies anticipate operating the three new additions:
Axiom Space plans to detach a current ISS module and begin to build the “Axiom Station” for tourism and scientific research
“Starlab Space Station” by Voyager Space, Lockheed Martin, and NanoRacks will dedicate its presence to on-orbit scientific research and manufacturing
Blue Origin and Sierra Space will launch and operate their “Orbital Reef” project for commercial tourism and LEO research activities
SpaceX and Vast announced plans to begin building a commercial space station in 2025 with Vast’s Haven-1 module
In conjunction with its international partners, NASA will launch “Gateway,” a new lunar space station. Orbiting in a near-rectilinear halo orbit, Gateway will serve as the primary orbital station before astronauts descend to the moon's surface for an eventual permanent moon base presence.
The previously mentioned stations and those that will follow present a series of multifaceted challenges for nations to address: regulation, budget, and coordination.
The Regulatory Challenge
While space travel has become increasingly reliable in the last decade thanks to rapid reusability and private innovation, that will not remove regulators from the industry. Increased capital outlays into space will undoubtedly increase the presence of the Federal Aviation Administration, which has adapted quickly to the rapid development of space flight vehicles. Having granted over 500 commercial launch licenses since the dawn of commercial space flight, the FAA will likely be forced to grow to keep pace with demand.
Initially, this will come in the form of additional full-time employees who can fulfill the increasing volume of requests and necessary investigations to the growing landscape. An increase in liftoffs, launch vehicles, spaceports, and orbital vehicles all require more qualified personnel to assure the human-rated cars are safe for orbit and complete the necessary research for an environmental impact statement. The FAA has a significant advantage over other nations that have recently developed human-rated space vehicles, thanks to NASA’s decades of launches and research. Academica will need to expand its knowledge base to accommodate these new job openings.
The Budget Challenge
The FAA’s funding and regulation may need to become so large that Congress and regulators could determine that an independent agency is suitable for regulatory space operations. Regardless of whether the Office of Commercial Space Transportation will stand alone or alongside the FAA, Congress will eventually reach a breaking point in the budget process. Not only is this a matter of commercial growth, but it is also a matter of national security. Just as aviation began to take hold in the United States, it soon became a regular domain for war.
The Coordination Challenge
An additional increased LEO presence will inverse impact space traffic management abilities. If world powers want to use space resources responsibly, they will need to coordinate with each other eventually. This could happen through unilateral or multilateral actions, or through a large consortium that excludes a few nations. With the increasing number of space stations and satellites orbiting the Earth, it will become too risky to not communicate formally.
Space as a Commercial Domain
The Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act of 2015 solidified America’s future in space exploration as a public and private venture. This bill recognizes space as a valuable asset, and America's extensive history of space exploration puts the country in a good position to take advantage of its resources. However, there are authoritarian regimes that aim to challenge the U.S. by using their verticalized power structures and advanced manufacturing capabilities. Recognizing this, Congress has sought to solidify and expand the relationships between private companies and the government since NASA’s inception.
Whether it be a satellite in orbit, mining an asteroid for rare-earth metals, or the possibility of orbital or lunar data centers, space commerce is multiplying. In the U.S. this can be attributed to the Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act and NASA’s recently formed consortium for in-space assembly and manufacturing. But even beyond the American borders, a handful of other nations and private companies also seek to occupy the same orbit. Management and coordination will become necessary as more participants continue to engage in orbit. This may come in multiple forms, either an international consortium led by nations or private actors working together to lead the charge.
Space as a War Domain
The Space Force, as the sixth branch of the military, has reorganized space activities under one command structure and now formally views space as a domain of war. The previous disparate organization was sufficient for many years after its introduction and overwhelming success in quickly winning the Gulf War. But due to the increasing involvement of commercial and government entities, a restructuring was necessary to ensure the proper protection of assets and operations. Space Force under one command recognizes the new reality that space is no longer only a domain of peace and scientific research, but also a domain where the next generation of warfare will undoubtedly occur.
The growing number of hostile governments in space poses a potential danger to American and allied space assets. Adversaries may employ directed energy weapons, cyberattacks, and anti-satellite missiles launched from orbit or from the ground to hinder U.S. and allied operations.
The U.S. Annual Threat Assessment warns that the use of American satellites for intelligence gathering and communication during military operations is a significant vulnerability for the country and its allies. While this technology is a remarkable advancement in warfare, it also poses a potential risk due to the increasing number of space-faring nations. A recent demonstration by the European Union showed the possibility of a cyberattack that could cripple U.S. and allied intelligence capabilities. This event has prompted calls for the U.S. Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency to classify satellites as “critical infrastructure” and establish minimum security standards.
Redefining Legal Targets
As more private actors enter the space industry, questions of defense arise for the executive and legislative branches. If a private firm's orbital asset is attacked by a nation-state, would that be considered the equivalent of a conventional attack on land, sea, or air? Commercial assets used for national security are widely considered legal targets, but what about commercial satellites launched and operated by U.S. and allied firms? These questions will become more pressing as the number of operators in space increases.
These broad considerations have significant implications for future public policy and international diplomacy. The final frontier presents incredible growth and research opportunities on Earth and beyond. However, the initial steps toward the future of space exploration still require foundational decisions to be made on the surface.
Staying on Top of Emerging Space Policy
The revitalized space race is moving at the speed of light. This means policy and regulation must catch up and will continue to be an evolving area around the world. To navigate this changing landscape, FiscalNote’s solutions help you stay on top of the space industry's most pressing matters.
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