June 2021: Chinese astronauts prepare for a mission to China’s space station. Photo Credit: New York Times
The April launch of the core module of China’s new space station has marked the start of a new era of sustained human presence in space.[i] Over the next decade, countries and corporations are planning to deploy a record number of space and lunar stations.[ii] With the era of the International Space Station (ISS) ending this decade, the U.S., Russia, China, India, and several corporations are advancing ambitious plans for new space stations in Earth’s orbit, the Moon’s orbit, and on the lunar surface.[iii] These stations offer great promise for research, exploration, and industry; however, if states cannot view foreign space stations outside of a framework of geopolitical rivalries, they may perceive these capabilities as new tools of great power competition.
There are plans for six new stations to be inaugurated by 2030: China’s Tiangong space station; Axiom Commercial Space Station; India’s space station; U.S. Gateway in lunar orbit; U.S. Lunar Base; and Russian Orbital Space Station.[iv] If all goes as planned, this will mark the most manned off-world facilities at any one point.
There are several important factors driving this development. First is the maturation of the Chinese and Indian space programs. China has been planning a space station since 1992 and successfully placed the first module in low-earth orbit (LEO) in April and conducted the first crewed mission in June.[vi] China and Russia also aim to begin construction on a joint moon base by 2030.[vii] India is planning to become the fourth country to have an indigenous human spaceflight program in the next few years, with plans for a small space station by the mid-2020s.[viii] Neither China nor India participated in the ISS, and now aim to establish themselves as independent, global space powers.[ix]
The two historical space powers also have ambitious plans. The United States is planning a space station that orbits the moon and a permanent base on the lunar surface as part of the Artemis Program.[x] Russia plans to withdraw from the ISS and launch their own space station in the middle of the decade.[xi] Russia also has nascent plans for their own independent lunar base by 2040.[xii]
Finally, private entities are aiming to build space stations. Foremost among them is Axiom Space, which plans to supply several modules for the ISS.[xiii] When the ISS reaches the end of its life, the modules will detach and form the basis for a commercial space station.
A necessary caveat: Some of these planned space stations will likely be delayed—and perhaps a few cancelled.[xiv] The history of human spaceflight is littered with delays and abandoned projects, but for the purposes of this piece, we assume success for these plans, albeit with some delays.
Opportunities for Growth…
These new space stations—all of which are designed for research purposes—will enable increased experimentation in zero gravity environments. But it is not simply the volume of space stations that will matter; the varied locations of the stations will enable new and diverse research.[xv] Of the stations planned in the next decade, four will be in Earth’s orbit at varying altitudes and inclinations, one in the Moon’s orbit, and one on the Lunar surface.
Similarly, these stations will accelerate human exploration throughout the universe. For China, Russia, and India, experience with these space stations will be an essential step toward sending humans to the Moon. For the United States, Gateway and the Lunar base will be essential for future missions to Mars.
Additionally, these stations will spur the booming commercial space industry. Axiom’s space station is an obvious example, but the government-run stations will also require substantial private sector collaboration in design, construction, and maintenance. Private enterprise will fulfill some of the increased demand for space flight to carry astronauts and cargo to and from these stations.[xvi]
… Amidst Geopolitical Risk
Geopolitical tensions, unless managed, could undermine these gains. The same geopolitical fault lines that define worldly politics—great power competitions between the U.S. and Russia and China, regional rivalry between India and China, uneasy cooperation between Russia and China—will probably play out in space. Space research and exploration can be used by these competitors as a source of national prestige and a domain for competition, as it was in the Cold War.
For two decades, the only operational space station was the ISS, a consortium of states collaborating on scientific pursuits. But the terrain of the next decades of space stations will look more national and factional. Russia is withdrawing from the ISS and building the own space station, ending two decades of cooperation between Russia and the West in space. “[The] station must be national,” Russia’s deputy Prime Minister said, “if you want to do well, do it yourself.”[xvii] India rejected joining the ISS, emphasizing “we want to set up our own.”[xviii] China, denied by the U.S. from the ISS for the last decade, frequently touts the self-reliance of their space program.[xix]
Geopolitical tensions may manifest in several ways. First, it will probably impact timelines and missions for planned space stations, with states planning aggressive launch schedules to one-up their rivals. Second, space stations will probably feature heavily in the messaging campaigns of these states. Achieving great scientific achievements has long been a way of affirming the power of a state, to both domestic and global audiences. Third, states will suspect their rivals of conducting dual-use or military-related activities aboard their space stations.[xx] While there’s currently no evidence that these space stations will serve military purposes, leaders around the world will recall Russia’s three military reconnaissance space stations—one of which was armed with and test fired a 23mm cannon.[xxi] Even seemingly innocuous activity will continue to prompt concerns about military applications in an intense atmosphere of cooperation.[xxii]
Over the next decade, we will witness a dramatic increase in the number of space stations, if all goes according to plan. This will present an opportunity for a great boon for scientific research, space exploration, and the commercial space industry. But risks remain. Space—and the stations we send there—is not immune to the competitive tensions that drive the politics of Earth. Leaders around the world will need to balance the prestige of “beating” opponents in the short-term while simultaneously pursuing long-term ambitions. They will also need to make sober assessments of the space programs of other states and avoid letting assumptions of benign or malign intent color their understanding of capability development. Additionally, they will face pressures from domestic political, military, and commercial actors and international partners to redirect their efforts. How policymakers address these challenges will have significant implications on the future of space research, exploration, commerce, and security—as well as the global distribution of science, prestige, and power.
[i] Mike Wall, “China launches core module of new space station to orbit,” Space.com, 28 April 2021, https://www.space.com/china-launches-core-module-tianhe-space-station
[ii] David M. Harland, “Space Station,” Britannica, 4 June 2021, https://www.britannica.com/technology/space-station
[iii] Meghan Bartels, “The International Space Station can’t last forever. Here’s how it will eventually die by fire,” Space.com, 2 November 2020, https://www.space.com/how-to-destroy-a-space-station-safely
[iv] Pallava Bagle, “India Planning To Launch Own Space Station By 2030, Says ISRO Chief K Sivan,” NDTV, 13 June 2019, https://www.ndtv.com/india-news/indian-space-station-india-planning-to-launch-own-space-station-says-isro-chief-2052686; Valius Venckunas, “ROSS, the new Russian space station: when and why?” Aerotime Hub, 7 May 2021, https://www.aerotime.aero/27872-ROSS-the-new-Russian-space-station-when-and-why; “Axiom Station,” Axiom Space, Accessed 13 June 2021, https://www.axiomspace.com/axiom-station; Meghan Bartels, “The International Space Station can’t last forever. Here’s how it will eventually die by fire,” Space.com, 2 November 2020, https://www.space.com/how-to-destroy-a-space-station-safely; Mike Wenher, “NASA just shared new images of what its Gateway will look like,” Microsoft News, 22 April 2021, https://www.msn.com/en-us/news/technology/nasa-just-shared-new-images-of-what-its-gateway-will-look-like/ar-BB1fUX44
[v] Pallava Bagle, “India Planning To Launch Own Space Station By 2030, Says ISRO Chief K Sivan,” NDTV, 13 June 2019, https://www.ndtv.com/india-news/indian-space-station-india-planning-to-launch-own-space-station-says-isro-chief-2052686; Valius Venckunas, “ROSS, the new Russian space station: when and why?” Aerotime Hub, 7 May 2021, https://www.aerotime.aero/27872-ROSS-the-new-Russian-space-station-when-and-why; “Axiom Station,” Axiom Space, Accessed 13 June 2021, https://www.axiomspace.com/axiom-station; Meghan Bartels, “The International Space Station can’t last forever. Here’s how it will eventually die by fire,” Space.com, 2 November 2020, https://www.space.com/how-to-destroy-a-space-station-safely; Mike Wenher, “NASA just shared new images of what its Gateway will look like,” Microsoft News, 22 April 2021, https://www.msn.com/en-us/news/technology/nasa-just-shared-new-images-of-what-its-gateway-will-look-like/ar-BB1fUX44; David M. Harland, “Space Station,” Britannica, 4 June 2021, https://www.britannica.com/technology/space-station
[vi] Andrew Jones, “Three Decades in the Making, China’s Space Station Launches This Week,” IEEE Spectrum, 28 April 2021, https://spectrum.ieee.org/tech-talk/aerospace/space-flight/everything-you-need-to-know-about-chinas-space-station-tianhe-launch; Mike Wall, “China launches core module of new space station to orbit,” Space.com, 28 April 2021, https://www.space.com/china-launches-core-module-tianhe-space-station
[vii] “International Lunar Research Station (ILRS) Guide for Partnership,” CNSA, 16 June 2021, http://www.cnsa.gov.cn/english/n6465652/n6465653/c6812150/content.html
[viii] Dinakar Peri, “India to have its own space station: ISRO,” The Hindu, 13 June 2019, https://www.thehindu.com/sci-tech/science/india-to-have-a-separate-space-station-isro/article27898707.ece
[ix] Christian Shepherd and James Kynge, “China’s ambitions in space: national pride or taking on the Americans?” Financial Times, 9 May 2021, https://www.ft.com/content/8a6bb0c0-9a6f-46c0-8438-48984c5e32dc
[x] Mike Wenher, “NASA just shared new images of what its Gateway will look like,” Microsoft News, 22 April 2021, https://www.msn.com/en-us/news/technology/nasa-just-shared-new-images-of-what-its-gateway-will-look-like/ar-BB1fUX44
[xi] Valius Venckunas, “ROSS, the new Russian space station: when and why?” Aerotime Hub, 7 May 2021, https://www.aerotime.aero/27872-ROSS-the-new-Russian-space-station-when-and-why
[xii] “Russia Announces Plans to Establish Moon Colony by 2040,” Moscow Times, 29 November 2018, https://www.themoscowtimes.com/2018/11/29/russia-announces-plans-to-establish-moon-colony-by-2040-a63557
[xiv] The Orion Span Team, “Message from the Team,” Orion Span, Accessed 13 June 2021, https://www.orionspan.com/; Jeff Foust, “Bigelow Aerospace lays off entire workforce,” Space News, 23 March 2021, https://spacenews.com/bigelow-aerospace-lays-off-entire-workforce/
[xv] Valius Venckunas, “ROSS, the new Russian space station: when and why?” Aerotime Hub, 7 May 2021, https://www.aerotime.aero/27872-ROSS-the-new-Russian-space-station-when-and-why
[xvi] Eric Berger, “NASA’s full Artemis plan revealed: 37 launches and a lunar outpost,” Ars Technica, 20 May 2019, https://arstechnica.com/science/2019/05/nasas-full-artemis-plan-revealed-37-launches-and-a-lunar-outpost/
[xvii] “Russia plans to launch own space station after quitting ISS,” Reuters, 21 April 2021, https://www.reuters.com/lifestyle/science/russia-plans-launch-own-space-station-after-quitting-iss-2021-04-21/
[xviii] Surendra Singh, “India’s own space station to come up in 5-7 years: Isro chief,” The Times of India, 13 June 2019, https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/india-to-have-its-own-space-station-isro/articleshow/69775360.cms
[xix] Ed Browne, “Why Is China Banned From ISS? Beijing Launches First Part of Its Own Station,” Newsweek, 30 April 2021, https://www.newsweek.com/why-china-banned-iss-station-1587708; “Xi congratulates success of space station core module launch,” Xinhua, 29 April 2021, http://www.xinhuanet.com/english/2021-04/29/c_139914563.htm
[xx] Kathrin Hille and Richard Waters, “Washington unnerved by China’s ‘military-civil fusion,’” Financial Times, 8 November 2018, https://www.ft.com/content/8dcb534c-dbaf-11e8-9f04-38d397e6661c
[xxi] Anatoly Zak, “Here Is the Soviet Union’s Secret Space Cannon,” Popular Mechanics, 16 November 2015, https://www.popularmechanics.com/military/weapons/a18187/here-is-the-soviet-unions-secret-space-cannon/
[xxii] General James Dickinson, “United States Space Command Presentation to The Senate Armed Services Committee,” U.S. Senate, 21 April 2021, https://www.armed-services.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/Dickinson04.20.2021.pdf