Geopolitics of space, with feet on the ground

Geopolitics of space, with feet on the ground


21 | 03 | 2023


The space capabilities of the major powers and their struggle for the lead in the new degree program

In the picture

Book cover of Marcello Spagnulo's book 'The Geopolitics of Space Exploration' (Cham, Switzerland: Springer Praxis, 2021) 145 pp.

It is nothing new that wars are also fought from space, but in the case of the war in Ukraine it is much more than that: it is the first major confrontation since the world has entered the new space age. The Gulf War was the launch of new weapons systems developed by the United States in coordination with its satellites. Now Kiev's troops are not only helped by information from U.S. military satellites, but are also making use of the possibilities opened up by the entrance of private initiative in space activity, through their connection to the Internet via Starlink, the service launched by Elon Musk and his constellation of small devices. The Taiwan war, if it occurs, could transfer some battles to space itself, with the use of anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons; in fact, one of the novels that tries to visualize this eventual future conflict, 'Ghost Fleet', places the beginning of the war precisely in a Chinese attack in space that 'blinds' the US submarines, thus annulling the US naval supremacy.

The state of the question of the geopolitics of space is the subject of Marcello Spagnulo's book, first published in Italian in 2019 and now published in English. Spagnulo does not use the term 'astropolitics', which perhaps emphasizes the 'geography' of space and frames the dispute of powers for the control of extraterrestrial 'territories' and orbits. That is still a bit far away in time, and Spagnulo, as an engineer, prefers not to be carried away by imagination: he counts the current capabilities of the main countries and the developments in which they are and which are foreseeable in the short and medium term deadline. Also because other visionary aspects, such as the mining of planets and asteroids, will still be delayed, the degree scroll of the work prefers to stay for the moment at the stage of 'exploration': the era of exploitation and colonization may come, but humanity has yet to find the right propellant to facilitate the coming and going and reduce the duration of sidereal displacements.

This is why Spagnulo warns that a manned mission statement to Mars "does not seem feasible" in this century, not even in a status of extreme geopolitical rivalry between Washington and Beijing that reproduces the degree program that in the previous Cold War starred Russians and Americans to reach the Moon. "The technology is, in fact, what makes a human expedition to Mars in the next few decades very unlikely." He believes, instead, that the great development that quantum computing is having, in the area of artificial intelligence and robotics, will be what will drive activity beyond the Earth's atmosphere: it will be robots sent from Earth that will perform most of the space operations. "Even if humanity ever sets foot on lunar soil again, it is highly likely that robots will remain the preferred lunar explorers for a few decades to come."

Among the issues highlighted in the book is the strategic value of autonomous access to space for countries with space capabilities: having their own rocket that allows them to launch a satellite -or to repair it- when necessary, without depending on the services of another power. These technological developments, often secret, mean that international cooperation is only partial. "While scientific space missions have often been carried out through extensive international partnership , a rocket engine has never been developed or produced through cooperation between countries." This dynamic explains the importance of having a powerful and reliable launcher: NASA's disadvantage, with the shuttle program ending while it finalizes its new space launch system (although it can now rent Space X launches, without needing to rely more on the Russians in this transition), and ESA's insistence on having its own rocket, the Ariane (due to France's special interest).

U.S. space superiority remains B, which has encouraged the development of ASAT weapons by Russia and China. The next stage for Beijing is the commissioning of its space station, Tiangong, already located in the leave Earth orbit, where only the Chinese will remain on a regular basis when the International Space Station, on which NASA and Roscosmos have collaborated, is soon abandoned. But the project Artemis, led by the United States with the partnership of other Western countries, will double the bet, since it involves the construction of a platform in lunar orbit, allowing greater ambition in future projects.

Spagnulo's book provides the essential information, without excessive technicalities or visionary excursions (145 pages well condensed). He does not forget the European Union as an actor in the space age, with specific references to Italy, which has also made its contributions in this field (the book is prefaced by Italian astronaut Luca Parmitano, who was on the International Space Station, and epilogued by academic Carlo Pelanda). A small deficiency is that many of the footnotes consist only of reproducing the link of the internet where the information consulted is located, instead of specifying authors and article titles, which would facilitate their search by the interested reader.