The United States once was the dominant nation in space. Today, America endures the embarrassment of losing that considerable lead in space to middling powers, such as India and Japan. The United States is also now threatened by the likes of China in the critical domain of space—a domain that was once our playground.
This is not because India, Japan, or China have some great technological advantage over us, although they are getting closer to parity.
Instead, it is because India, China, and Japan all have a high degree of national confidence instilled through nationalism. They are possessed of a will to catapult (in this case, both metaphorically and literally) their respective states to new heights. And since space is the ultimate high ground—the “undiscovered country,” to paraphrase both Shakespeare and Nicholas Meyer—it stands to reason that these powers will no longer allow for the United States to have unchallenged dominion of space.
Space Nationalism is Real
China, India, Japan, and several other nations now catching-up to the United States in space are not compelled to engage in the costly endeavor of space exploration and exploitation out of the airy notion of globalism. The leaders in New Delhi, Tokyo, and certainly Beijing care little for the betterment of humanity as such. Instead, they want a return for their nations on what they view as the substantial investment they have in space travel.
That is why these three states have all striven to develop their space mining capabilities. Nationalism provides the inspiration for these countries while the promise of greater wealth and power—over one another and their fellow nation-states—provides the justification for the high risks.
In his book Meta-Geopolitics of Outerspace, Nayef Al-Rodhan discusses “space nationalism” as an understanding that space is “seen as a yet unpossessed resource which is to be conquered and exploited by mankind.” Belying this view is the realist notion that, since the international system is inherently anarchic, competition among states for the conquest of space will define all aspects of human space programs, just as geopolitical competition among rival states encouraged previous ages of exploration. Yet, the space-nationalist school of thought appears nowhere in mainstream American space policy.
In fact, the utopian rhetoric of globalism is infused into U.S. space policy. And, this is likely why the United States has failed adequately to defend its vital satellite constellations in orbit; why it has neglected fully to develop space weapons; and why no American has been to the moon since 1972. It is also why it is unlikely that an American will make it to Mars any time soon.
On the other hand, the Chinese, Indians, and Japanese have all used the rhetoric of nationalism and the logic of realism to outline their objectives in space. What’s more, these three powers have crafted reasonable budgets to fund their tangible objectives in space, thus delivering their people clear victories in space.
The United States spends a lot of money on NASA. With a budget of $21.5 billion, the agency is the most lavishly funded national space program on the planet. Meanwhile, India has a national space budget of only $1.8 billion. Japan’s space agency, JAXA receives a paltry $1.63 billion. China is more secretive about its space program budget, but as the Chinese have developed from an impoverished, agrarian backwater into a competitive space power, they’ve done so at a fraction of NASA’s budget.
What accounts for this? How is it that Japan makes history by landing on an asteroid or China defies expectations by being the first country to make it to the fabled dark side of the moon and the more lavishly funded NASA can only take pretty pictures from the proverbial sidelines?
We have been told that more money equals greater success. Yet, this does not appear to be the case with NASA. In fact, increased funding appears to have bloated NASA and made it less effective. Rather than creating the next spaceship designed to take men to Mars or building mining colonies on the moon, NASA has built an intricate bureaucracy that has barely managed to place Americans into Earth orbit.
There’s Money To Be Made In Space Mining
China, India, and Japan have identified space mining as the next great industry. Neil de Grasse Tyson assesses that the world’s first trillionaire will come from the space mining sector. It’s not just space mining that will offer wealth and power to the country and/or corporations that next come to dominate space. Space tourism is also set to become a booming sector. So, too, is the satellite business which is already a lucrative industry today.
The energy sector stands to benefit also, as things like space-based solar power and even, potentially, Helium-3-fueled nuclear fusion become a reality. Other industries, such as biomedicine and computing, also could be catapulted to new heights of innovation as the growing human presence in space demands more out of these attendant sectors. It will be the countries that have invested early in the creation of the requisite infrastructure to support manned space missions that will disproportionately benefit from these developments.
The United States’ position in space is eroding at precisely the moment that it needs to be intensifying. It isn’t really a question of funding. It is a question of mission. And, the mission is established by the political system, which, in turn, is defined by the culture. If a culture is healthy, it will take bold risks to propel itself beyond its fellow nation-states. Nationalism and the promise of a lucrative return on investment compels nations to engage in risky behavior, such as space exploration. After decades of Leftist “cultural revolution,” who among us seriously believes that America’s culture is healthy enough to challenge the far more muscular cultures of India, China, and Japan?
America must find its cultural mojo again, or it will lose out in the great competition for cosmic conquest to countries possessed of a stronger sense of who they are and why they deserve to succeed. America once had such a culture, but no more.
Perhaps we’ve already lost.
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