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2 September 2021, Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies

A decade of autonomy in space

As the private or autonomous space industry becomes more developed, an interesting phenomena is occurring. The public sector which runs space programmes has lagged behind, but also profits from the recent success of private space companies are limited to direct stakeholders. After a decade of private investment, it is worth assessing why countries like the U.S., Russia, China and India have pursued independence from government entities in space over the last decade.

Fellow, Space and Ocean Studies Programme

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Recently, Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos successfully demonstrated their respective marquee space technology platforms. These demonstrations made big news and gave a crystal ball gaze of how the space industry will grow in the 2020s. These successes are certainly inspirational for the entire humankind. But the fact remains that only the stakeholders will reap their techno-economic dividends. The indirect and distant beneficiaries will only reap percolated rewards after the stakeholders extract their more significant shares dry. That being so, it becomes crucial to learn exactly what happened in outer space in the second decade of the 21st century, which is now history.

U.S.: commercialising space to reduce dependence
History will judge the 2010s as the decade in which a prolific commercialisation of space[1] activities began. The U.S. continued its leadership of the global space domain during the 2010s by encouraging the private sector in a big way. This encouragement was for a reason. By the mid-2000s, the U.S., the foremost space power that had integrated space-based assets for expeditionary warfare, was eagerly looking for new launch vehicles. The Space Shuttle’s retirement after the unfortunate Columbia disaster[2] of 2003 caused the U.S. to seek an alternative and assured access to space.

During the 2000s, Boeing’s Delta series of launch vehicles consistently served the Pentagon’s demands, but it was not enough. The only rocket that could launch heavier payloads for the U.S. in geostationary orbit was Lockheed Martin’s Atlas V, but it was operating with the Russian-origin RD-180 engines. The U.S. saw this dependency on Russia as a threat to its ability to sanction Moscow. During this period, Bezos’ Blue Origin, a hardly decade-old company then, pitched its BE-4 engine as a potential replacement for RD-180. Simultaneously, SpaceX, which by then had worked on the first models of its Falcon launch vehicle, began working on a super-heavy Raptor engine, which would eventually out-do RD-180. The U.S., by the early 2010s, had raised two new private space companies in SpaceX and Blue Origin, apart from the then extant Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Aerojet Rocketdyne, Northrop Grumman, that could build both launch vehicles as well as their engines. With the expansion in the number of space contractors, the U.S.’ dual-use desire for alternative and assured access found success in the 2010s.

Russia: reducing dependence on the Baikonur
Reducing dependence was also an agenda for Russia in the early 2010s. Twenty years after the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia was still dependent on Kazakhstan’s Baikonur Cosmodrome. It also lost out on several launch vehicle families to Ukraine, especially ZenitTsyklon, and Dnepr, after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Although they had launches taking place from Plesetsk high up in the Russian north, an alternative launch site in the Russian Far East, the Vostochny Cosmodrome[3] , was in the works. During this period, Russia was in the advanced stages of developing the Angara launch vehicle family, a clean fuel successor to the Soyuz-2 family. With two successful tests of the heavy-lift Angara—the second in December 2020[4]—Russia is aiming[5] to carry out crewed spaceflights and logistics to the low-Earth orbit soon. Russia has had confrontational space cooperation with the European-American club. The rise of equivalent space capabilities in Asia can offer Russia new avenues to collaborate, and therefore give it a commercial market for its space launch vehicles.

China: The 863 Programme bears fruit
China’s space programme saw tremendous capacity built out during the 2010s, backed up by strong economic growth and earning dividends from the 863 Programme[6]. The 863 Programme focused on heavy-lift capabilities that gave Beijing back-to-back successes with lunar exploration; the modular space station; crewed spaceflights to the space station; Beidou navigation satellite constellation; and its Mars lander, Zhurong. In this decade, China began drawing close-knit Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) partners to join its space aspirations. Pakistan was among the first to express interest in sending astronauts to the Chinese space station. This may be the first case of a Financial Action Task Force (FATF) grey-lister carrying out crewed spaceflight. China’s autonomy over heavy-lift vehicles has given it the heft to court countries that wouldn’t have access to the European, American, or Russian fold. With such a bloc formation, Beijing will be able to pool the financial, technical, and natural resources needed to sustain its ambitious space programme.

India: far-reaching but gradual space reforms
India, too, aimed for autonomy, but of a different kind. While indigenous, New Delhi still sought to reduce dependence on governmental budgets by opening up the domestic space sector to its private space industries. Although these space reforms happened recently (in 2020), New Delhi spent most of the decade contemplating an increase in private sector participation in the supply chains of the Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV) and Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV), its operating launch vehicles. In the future, a United Launch Alliance (ULA)-like consortium of Indian private sector players, especially those that have been space contractors to the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), will oversee the manufacturing of space-proven launch vehicles. Over the past decade, India has also reduced dependency on U.S. navigation satellites; developed indigenous semi-cryogenic and cryogenic engines ion propulsion; and extended satellite and spacecraft manufacturing capacities to its domestic private sector.

The technology denials of the 1990s triggered India’s space indigenisation efforts which began bearing fruits by the early 2010s. The Indian space programme, vastly more robust than before, made numerous space partnerships. But this period of smooth ascendency was always going to be short-lived as it coincided with the closure of what can be called Industry 3.0, and the beginning of Industry 4.0.

Unlike the absolute domination of the West over Industry 3.0, the evolution towards Industry 4.0 that began in the 2010s gave an advantage to the large Asian economies. These advantages led to the first spurts of geopolitical multipolarity early on in the decade. However, India continued a breezy run as it went around the world signing both worthwhile and redundant space cooperation agreements, offering commercial services on its only workhorse PSLV, and seldom demonstrating new capabilities. But in the second half of the 2010s, especially after the assertive, back-to-back chessboard movements in the Eastern Hemisphere, India’s growing geoeconomic and geopolitical credentials forced it to step up its space capabilities. The establishment of the Defence Space Agency in 2018 and the Mission Shakti test were befitting of a country that has become among the largest three economies of the world.

India continues to be a believer in the comity of nations through its space activities, but its earlier easy-breezy perspective has now become hawk-eyed. The past decade was a pacific period for India, in which it found numerous partners[7] in space. But this may not continue in the 2020s due to a rapidly rearranging geopolitical, and therefore astropolitical, chessboard. Such rearrangement calls for greater Indian autonomy in its commercial, civilian, and military space programmes. More significant contestation in the space domain will inevitably present New Delhi with more unobvious challengers than apparent partners. It now depends on whether Indian space policymakers can swiftly come out of the relative snug of the 2010s and shrug off trust in so-called ‘senior’ partners to prepare independently for the challenges posed by the 2020s. The Bezos-Branson feats are just the beginning.

Autonomous and independent space programmes were also the leitmotif for more than twenty countries that established space agencies in this decade. Many of them, of course, are aware of the enormous disparity between their technology capabilities and those of established space-faring countries. However, they intend to become indispensable in the comity of space-faring countries through their new-found abilities. Over this decade, Luxembourg became bullish about introducing blockchain technology[8] with its space programme for the coming space economy. Australia began to extend its military capabilities to become a hub of space situational awareness[9]. New Zealand started to use geography to its advantage and set up strategically located spaceports[10]. South Korea began using its competence in the electronics industry to develop world-class space payloads[11].

But why did these countries want such autonomy and independence all at once in the bygone decade? There are multiple driving factors.

One. In the 2010s, the world began to enter a period of geopolitical multipolarity. This multipolarity offered countries greater latitude for collaboration and tactical manoeuvring. They however realised that they could manoeuvre only if they had the competence in specific space technological niches. Therefore, more governments established their national space programmes and indirectly accepted the suzerainty of one or more established space powers.

Two. The first indications of the arrival of the Fourth Industrial Revolution[12] (Industry 4.0) began in the 2010s. This arrival created a level playing field for those that had no role in the early decades of the Space Age. They began promoting their indigenous abilities in new Industry 4.0 technologies[13] and offering them to established space powers. It is in this context that the U.S.-led Artemis Accords[14], European Moon Village[15], and China-Russia International Lunar Research Station[16] must be seen: as multilateral projects where new space-faring countries join experienced partners. To this end, countries with a common interest in exploring the near-Earth space and equitably sharing dividends are forming partnerships. These partnerships comprehend how strong their national economies are. Even the most potent geopolitical and geoeconomic superpowers cannot pursue an advanced space programme entirely independently.

Three. With a more significant role for the private sector, most national space programmes realised the need to find quicker and higher returns on investments. The wide-scale commercialisation of space activities triggered intense but healthy commercial competition. This generated streamlined and cost-effective innovation and manufacturing, which in turn heightened the generation of intellectual property, and so robust techno-economic contest between global players.

This article was first published in Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies

Dr. Chaitanya Giri is Fellow, Space and Ocean Studies Programme, Gateway House.


















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