The geopolitics of space is nothing new. Cold War rivalry spurred the Space Race, and space has stayed in the purview of national competition ever since. From the control of GPS to support military decision-making to satellite-based communications or precise imagery to assist humanitarian organizations and refugee flows in high-risk countries, governments have a clear and present interest in what happens in outer space. More recently, space has emerged as a battlefield in global security.
Yet despite this precedent, highly specialized companies are increasingly shaping the geopolitics of space. First, as governments increasingly depend on private capabilities to act in space, space companies have obtained an unprecedented level of influence over the development of certain details and capabilities in national space operations. For the first time, strategic competition over space is as much based on the private as the public sector. And as independent actors, New Space firms have a much more important presence in outer space. By launching their own private equipment, they have changed the way global security in, from, and to space has been long understood. Space, in short, is no longer only about governments.
That doesn’t mean New Space companies have entirely displaced governments from space; public investments in space are still higher than the private ones. For example, from 2008 to 2017 government-led funding grew by 44% and the private sector accounted for a lower share of space launches. Five years later, the figures are quite similar.
But the nature of how private firms work in space is also changing. Space-specialized companies continue to support government projects as legacy firms like Boeing, Lockheed Martin or Raytheon did. However, New Space firms have gained a higher level of autonomy and decision-making with respect to government.
In the 1980s there was limited access to government projects for the commercial market in satellite-powered remote sensing. However, once the intelligence community started to need high-resolution imagery — for example, to monitor military forces movements across the planet — government limitations fueled the opening of a new market for specialized private space companies to develop these products.
As New Space firms provide a high level of specialization in their services portfolio, the relationship between governments and private firms became less one of “prime contractors,” and more of a public-private partnership of near equals. Before, NASA defined “what” and “how” capabilities should be developed; now, the government defines the goal (the “what”) and top-level requirements, while leaving the details of how to do it to industry.
As a result, governments increasingly rely on space specialized firms not just to provide tailored responses to pressing demands, but to help them be at the forefront of global strategic competition. This is the case of 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 enable large private investment in space companies. Until then, the Chinese market was restricted to two state-owned enterprises (CASIC and CASC). But since 2014, the space industry has grown exponentially — see Galactic Energy or Spacety — exporting its wares 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 foreign talented workforce, as MinoSpace does.
This cycle has become a virtuous one for New Space firms: In order to remain competitive in space, governments have become dependent on some of their services and products. Interstate politics has made way for space firms to have a greater influence in the way governments compete with each other.
The crowded frontier
Space firms are also shaping the geopolitics of space by their mere presence, itself a novelty. For example, the Chinese government stated that its space station was forced to activate preventive collision avoidance control when it encountered StarLink satellites. Also, NASA postponed a spacewalk from the International Space Station over concerns about space debris, although it is not that easy to distinguish debris produced by private and public actors.
The rise in New Space firms acting autonomously in outer space has shed light on some geopolitical vacuums that have not been addressed until now. Let’s think about the risks that may arise for democratic countries if a privately led space capability is “kidnapped” by terrorist groups, organized crime or other unlawful actors. Or the need for mutual trust between governments and private sectors upon any sort of cyberattack to a satellite that manages sensitive data for people’s protection and welfare.
Without common rules between public and private stakeholders, policy vacuums will endure. Simply put, the unprecedented pace at which these firms have taken flight means existing multilateral fora have not created yet the necessary mechanisms to address these pressing challenges. This should be of interest for countries supporting democratic principles, because in addition to the traditional challenges of space, there are new issues where private firms have a greater role and these need to be addressed from a democratic perspective.
It is undoubtedly clear that New Space companies are reshaping the global competition over outer space. They are influencing the way governments interact and compete with other countries, and they also have a greater, autonomous presence in outer space by creating facts “in the air.”
With so many actors in space, we can no longer afford to operate without common understanding and rules between them. There is now a pressing need to set up global multistakeholder dialogues to address the New Space age, its global security implications and the needs and demands of individual and emerging players, be they countries or private firms.
Governments will continue having a major role in the decision-making of global norms, as they are the core of political representation. However, the new age of space cooperation is already here; the time to create new norms and protocols is now.