Steve Carrell is set to star in a new comedy for Netflix called “Space Force.” Dubbed by the show’s creators (Carrell and British comedy writer-producer Greg Daniels) as “‘The Office’ in space,” the buzz surrounding the show has been electric. As a diehard fan of “The Office” (particularly during the Steve Carrell years), I am sure that the show will be entertaining. Yet as a space policy analyst, I cannot help but be worried about the implications of this series.
Let’s face it: most people don’t care about space. Many Americans understandably are more concerned about issues they think have more to do with life on this planet, like putting food on the table. To them, space is just a distant and desolate place whence colorful pictures originate but not much else.
When I worked on Capitol Hill, several members of Congress routinely would respond to my pleas for a greater focus on space issues with classic American ambivalence: “Who’s going to spend money on that?”
It was only a matter of time before space moved from its revered place in the American imagination, to the transitory position of an “out-of-sight and out-of-mind,” “been there, done that” irrelevance. Foolishly, but understandably, Americans now feel comfortable laughing at what we once called the “Space Age.” Unfortunately—to paraphrase what Trotsky once said of war—you might not be interested in space, but space is interested in you.
More accurately, the Chinese (along with the Russians and several other malign actors) increasingly are interested in space at a moment we are not.
So, what’s the big deal? Why can’t we just take the comedic route and laugh at the cosmos while we wallow in the mud down here?
Put simply, much of what we do “down here” depends very much upon what we can do “up there.”
Today, the United States relies disproportionately on space-based systems—satellite constellations—more than any other country. Nearly every electronic signal that keeps our advanced society functioning passes through space. This has advanced our society, to be sure, but it has also made us vulnerable. America’s enemies, while they too are becoming reliant on satellites, are still nowhere near as dependent on them as we are. This provides a key strategic opportunity to any adversary willing to exploit it.
And, the Chinese are planning to do just that.
Should a conflict erupt between the two sides, the Chinese have plans to disrupt and destroy American satellite constellations critical to our defense. By rendering American forces (and, potentially, the civilian sector as well) deaf, dumb, and blind, the Chinese hope to make the United States nothing more than a hapless giant on Earth, allowing them to achieve a surprise victory over our armed forces.
Further, the Chinese recognize the potential limitless value that space offers their economy. To maintain the “Chinese economic miracle,” their economy requires resources. China has spent decades gaining access (and, in some cases, monopolies) over crucial albeit limited natural resources and rare minerals. Wherever there are natural resources on Earth—even in Antarctica—the Chinese are making bold moves to capture them. They are taking the same logic to space.
Right now, China has deployed the Chang’e-4 lunar rover on the dark side of the moon. They’ve made history for having placed the first manmade object on that previously unexplored part of the moon. The goal is to collect samples of the lunar soil and to run a suite of experiments, such as growing cotton seeds on the moon.
While the Chinese are engaged in a scientific endeavor, they have ulterior motives with their lunar exploration program: Beijing wants to figure out if a manned lunar mining colony would be viable. If such an undertaking is deemed feasible by Beijing, Chinese personnel, mining equipment, and weapons inevitably will land on the lunar surface with as much dedication as Chinese forces have expanded illegally into the South China Sea, in some cases creating whole new islands.
It’s believed that the world’s first trillionaire will come from the nascent space mining sector. Not only would dominating space provide China key economic advantages over its rivals on Earth, it would also provide Beijing with critical strategic dominance over the United States. China could threaten American satellites; it would benefit disproportionately from the technology boom that would follow its massive investment in space development; and Beijing could also place strategic weapons in orbit, blockading access to nations China dislikes.
China’s investment in their robust space program has been smaller than the American investment into space. Although, the Chinese investment is better focused on projects that would yield tangible, military, economic, and scientific advantages. At a time when an integrated, strategic approach to space policy is needed in the United States, the American people are given anything but.
The Trump Administration (like many of its predecessors) talks big about space. But in terms of action, it has little to show. Meanwhile, in Beijing, the Chinese effort continues apace with their advanced plans for dominating space—and us.
The president’s space force idea is not new—and it should be taken seriously. But because everyone hates Trump in the media, in academia, and in the government, the concept will be marginalized and ultimately abandoned. While the “creatives” in Hollywood give Americans a comedic view of space and of those who would take it seriously, the Chinese people are reinforced in the belief that it is their rightful place to take space and hold it.
As time goes on, America’s dithering over a meaningful space policy will leave this strategic domain—the ultimate high ground—open to whichever country has the gumption to take it.
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Photo Credit: Netflix