A little bit of astrosociology

At Milky-Way.kiwi we sometimes put our thinking caps on and think about things a bit more deeply. So we thought about whether the big three nations of space would cooperate with each other over the next 10 to 20 years and what sort of scenarios might then be possible. In considering this question it’s worth mentioning which countries are the ‘big three’. So we thought the United States is clearly in the group as well as Russia, the third spot we thought should be China given its rapid advancements in space, ambitious plans and its significant and growing contribution to space sciences. Europe could easily be added to this group as well but for the purposes of scope we stuck to the three nation states. They are also arguably the most powerful nations, all are nuclear armed, all have huge economic clout and all have quite different approaches to space.

The Drivers

In considering this question the main drivers should be outlined and we thought about these ones: national prestige, pursuit of scientific knowledge, economic growth from spin off industries, the desire to have a stake in future space affairs and for national security reasons.

The driver of national prestige is all about being the first, the greatest or showing the world that they are as good as the other nations. For example the prestige the US got from being first to the Moon meant there were no prizes for being second, in fact no point in going at all unless you’re the first, though it wasn’t really an even race by the end of the 60s. Russia gains a lot of national recognition for providing the only method of getting astronauts to the ISS at the moment. China is a growing power and sees its natural destiny to do the things space nations do, such as space stations, Moon rovers and heavy lift launch systems. The driver to be the best, the first or to do the things great nations do is very strong.

The pursuit of science is also very important and is linked to national prestige and well as economic growth. The thirst for knowledge is a key attribute that different nations support to varying degrees. The pursuit of science generally seems the impartial driver for nations and the area where the most cooperation occurs. This cooperation tends then to drive more cooperation in wider fields.

The larger space nations have mature space industries that service the launch schedules, build satellites and a whole bunch of spin off businesses that help filter space technologies into wider economic activities. Given the huge numbers employed in these industries and their economic importance it creates a significant driver to keep growing, keep winning contracts, keep growing the business. For governments growing the local space industry is good for the economy and good for the country.

A significant driver for staying involved in space must be hedging bets for the future. It must have crossed policy makers minds that if you’re not involved then how can you possibly make any form of legitimate claim in years to come. So there’s a momentum to stay involved in space, to not be the space power that doesn’t go to the Moon, or doesn’t go to Mars. Even though there’s rules about what nations can do in space, such as the Outer Space Treaty (the picture above is the treaty being signed from www.todayinbritishhistory.com) if the collaboration system breaks down its who’s got boots on the ground that counts.

The final driver that we’ve picked is national security. This is where nations will only go so far in cooperating as long as it doesn’t compromise their own security. This could be limits on the sharing of information, access to facilities or limited access to scientific research. This is especially the case where technologies have dual purposes with military uses such as missiles, computing and similar. National security will also be the reason that states actively oppose each other or undermine each other’s efforts.

With these different drivers in mind we thought about four scenarios that could play out over the next 10 to 20 years.

Much of the same

For this scenario we assumed that nations will continue to be driven by national objectives that are heavily influenced by prestige and the desire to be the first or the greatest in different fields of space and space sciences. They will strive to grow their own industries at the expense of cooperation that shares resources with nascent space industries in other countries. All three nations will continue to push ahead with plans for the Moon, and ultimately to put humans on Mars. Russia and the US will continue to cooperate where their interests align as both nations gain considerable benefit from leveraging off each other’s infrastructure. China and Russia will grow their cooperation and eventually build a strengthening partnership. Over time this will help the US build confidence in Chinese space activities and enable China to join the international space club as their activities become more mainstream, and what China will bring will be considerable experience, resources and mature infrastructure. The three nations will continue with their own extensive national space programmes but they will cooperate on the big expensive activities such as the Deep Space Gateway (artist’s impression below from Wikipedia) or any outpost that gets established on either the Moon or Mars. This will look like a hub and spoke model with joint facilities as the hubs and individual national programmes on the spokes, basically leveraging international cooperation for their own needs.

Bigger and Faster

The next scenario is based on an assumption that nations are no longer motivated by science but see the economic benefits of securing resources as something more important to do. The scientific programmes that are supported are the ones focused around finding resources and extraction. By virtue of this driver, nations become more competitive and less willing to collaborate. They put more resources into establishing outposts and bases on the lunar surface, on asteroids and on Mars. Nations start to think about how they might protect commercial interests and seek to race each other to secure the most lucrative sites. This scenario would see the existing amount of collaboration level off as resource locations get identified and nations individually come up with plans on how to secure them independently of each other. They may work together on logistics tails and safety programmes which offers a glimmer of hope for continued collaboration.

Can’t we all just get along

This scenario considers that the three nations quickly realise that the plans to work on the Moon and Mars are far bigger and resource intensive than any one of them can do alone so they are forced to work together. This drives active collaboration on launch systems, spacecraft, space stations, science and industry involvement. One of the possible spin offs is that a great many more countries become involved in space rather than just the big three or the next tier. As collaboration becomes more important then structures are put in place to limit exploitation of resources and limit the control that any one nation might have. There’s a good chance that with this scenario we end up with highly collaborative situation where astronauts might be launched on a Russian rocket, in a Chinese capsule to a US space station, in lunar orbit, then on Canadian lander to the lunar surface living in an Indian habitat for example.

There can be only one

To save the worst for last, in this scenario we assumed that national security considerations override any desire to collaborate by the big three, it might be that issues on Earth between the three have broken cooperation down. In this scenario, instead of collaborating, nations actively strive to undermine each other’s space endeavours either through securing the best spots first, trying to economically dominate or by putting more resources into space to overwhelm the other competitors. This scenario sees an eventual showdown between at least two of the nations. It might be for a prime orbital spot around the Moon or a lucrative resource on Mars but either way it’ll result in some sort of confrontation where one nation will have to compromise or be forced to. The result could be a stalemate where all nations pull back their plans and skirt around each other or someone gives in and one nation gains a monopoly on an area of space. The danger with this scenario is that it is open to militarisation of space as nations are openly competing with each other and will seek to protect resources.

So what did we learn from this?

Using structured analytical techniques for these sorts of questions, even when they are quite generic, are useful to uncover assumptions. They also allow a structured approach to comparing different variables. This thought exercise highlights the value of collaboration in space, other scenarios risk the diverting of resources to physically securing space from each other and therefore slowing down the establishment of infrastructure on the Moon or putting a human on Mars. The other main learning point was that the diminishing of a science driver could affect collaboration detrimentally. Anything that drives collaboration and reduces competition between nations is a good thing, building an interdependency between each other through specialising in different areas of space travel would help, otherwise each nation will continue to duplicate launch systems, capsules and space stations. Competition can drive innovation and rapid development but ultimately the fastest and most efficient way to get humans off the Earth and into the Solar System will be through continued and growing collaboration.