The High-Stakes Competition for Control of Strategic Space Resources
The Second Space Race has started with a great powers competition for strategic space resources. We’re joined by Dr. Namrata Goswami, an independent scholar on International Relations, subject matter expert with the Futures Laboratory, and co-author of the new book “Scramble for the Skies”. She joins us today to discuss the economic ambitions of the Second Space Race and the international competitors striving to dominate the final frontier.
Namrata, welcome! I’d like to begin by asking about your background & what your inspiration was to develop expertise in International Relations and the space industry. What led you down this path in your career?
Thank you, Tim, that’s a great way to start. I remember as a child growing up in Northeast India, my father was very much a historian looking at world politics, with a massive library of books on the subject and a vast amount of knowledge. We had many conversations on topics like WWII, the impact of international relations, the colonization on India, and much more.
He inspired me to study political science and international relations, and I chose topics to develop that expertise even in high school. After that, I worked on a Bachelor’s in Political Science with international relations as my specialization, and then completed a Master’s in Politics and Public Administration, again specializing in international relations.
To truly be an expert in this field, it’s important to have good educational credentials, so I completed a Ph.D. in International Organization from Jawaharlal Nehru University in India, where I specialized in conflict resolution and international relations. As you can see, my core interest in this subject has been very long term, and it’s taken a long journey to arrive here.
Let’s dive into your new book, Scramble for the Skies, which you co-authored with former USAF Chief Futurist Peter Garretson. This book examines what you’re calling the Second Space Race with a focus on the efforts of China, the United States, and India. Can you give us an overview of it?
The idea for this book originally started with a Minerva grant application that Peter Garretson and I submitted to the US Department of Defense, and a subsequent presentation that I delivered on China’s space program at the International Studies Association Conference. The publisher Roman and Littlefield expressed interest in it, which led to a much larger treatise on the change of discourse in space that we refined into the book.
So, the argument that Peter and I make is that space in the cold war was about flags, footprints, and using technology to promote the ideological competition between the US and Soviet-led models of government. It was a showcase of historic firsts, with each side proclaiming victory over each new challenge.
We argue that the view of space is changing from being a terrestrial-support infrastructure — for instance, satellite support, navigation support, earth observation, to a focus on the development of sustainable human habitats and the creation of economic wealth.
This shift in perspective began in academic and elite circles and later became a policy discourse. Once that happened, it led to the creation of programs, and we analyzed those in detail, along with the role of middle powers such as the UAE and Luxembourg who influence policy through the United Nations.
So, our book begins with a detailed analysis of data from our fieldwork in China and India, which involved talking to policymakers, academics, space scientists, and international relations experts, and we’ve combined that with research on domestic policy and technology trends to extrapolate out likely scenarios & dilemmas relevant to the future of space commercialization.
You mentioned that this project began with a Minerva Grant where you analyzed China & India’s space programs with a focus on strategic cultures, goals, and their track record of success. What can you tell me about that project, and what did you learn during that time about the programs of these two nations?
The Minerva Grant was very useful because it allowed both my co-author and I to do fieldwork, but before we even started in the field, I did a literature survey on what the Chinese space policymakers and their state-funded space institutions were talking about in terms of long-term goals.
I focused on a review of the policy & technology roadmaps of the China National Space Administration and China Academy of Space Technologies, and also studied sources such as Xinhua, China Daily, and the People’s Liberation Army Daily. Then, we discussed these findings in several presentations for various think tanks and round tables that included policymakers from the China National Space Administration, and three insights emerged for China and India out of this exercise.
First, it appears that China is looking at space from a very long-term perspective, with the year 2049 as an end goal because it is the centennial anniversary of the establishment of the People’s Republic of China on October 1st, 1949. China needs to ensure their population feels that the communist party has been successful, and President Xi made it clear that space is one of their most important goals, equivalent in spirit to the Long March. From a historical perspective, that’s very significant because the Long March is what initially led to the establishment of the People’s Republic of China.
The second insight I learned is that unlike the democracies in the US or India, China has an advantage in terms of its ability to commit long-term resources. For example, the planning for the Chinese Lunar Exploration Program began back in 2002, when Ye Peijian made an argument for the moon’s strategic value to China as a future spacefaring civilization. He argued that establishing a lunar program was important because the moon is close and has resources like water ice — which wasn’t even confirmed until 2008 with the Chandrayaan-1 mission. So, China spoke about this program nearly 20 years ago, established it in 2007, and has been continuously developing capacity since then.
The third thing I learned is that China is very seriously considering space from an economic perspective. They’ve talked about a $10 trillion annual return from the earth-moon economic zone, and they’re establishing programs to meet goals they’ve outlined for the next 20 years. Again, this demonstrates a pattern of behavior similar to what we’ve seen in previous missions. They said they’d have manned missions in low-earth orbit in the 2000s, have a cargo spacecraft in 2010, and land on the moon by 2019 — and they accomplished all of these goals on time. We need to take their stated goals seriously because once they put it out in the public, there are already programs established to support it.
India has ambitious goals just like China, but they are not as long term. India wants a permanent lunar base, Mars exploration missions, and asteroid mining. India is launching a Mars mission this year and envisions heavy-lift launch capabilities and lunar prospecting missions by 2025. They’re serious, but not as deeply engaged in space resource discussions as China is, so there’s a big difference in terms of their focus.
I think it’s important to point out that in Scramble for the Skies, you’ve thrown down the gauntlet by saying the Second Space Race for key resources is already underway. What are some of the most important resources being focused on right now?
On the lunar surface, Helium-3 is a very important resource that nearly every country is talking about, including Japan and India, because it is critical for nuclear fusion. Another important resource is water ice, which is used in life-support and propulsion systems. In addition to that, there is interest in mining the rare-earth minerals which are abundant on the moon, including titanium, platinum, iron ore, and silicon.
China is talking about lunar resources from a very strategic perspective. They argue that once they establish a presence at the South pole, they’ll also have the peaks of eternal light, which gives them constant sunlight for solar power generation and should put them close to water and oxygen as well, which are the resources that most countries are currently focused on.
From my point of view, the scramble started in the US by space industry thinkers like Paul Spudis and Dennis Wingo. Spudis pointed out that if humanity wants to become a spacefaring civilization, we need to have the capability to sustain ourselves there first, and China picked up that discourse and is pursuing it.
Once China started talking about the importance of the moon, it led to a reaction in the US to the Chinese program, which we’ve seen in the Trump administration’s four existing Space Policy Directives, and a new fifth directive on space cybersecurity. It was also featured in Mike Pence’s speech in the Fifth Meeting of the National Space Council in Huntsville, where he said that we need to go back to the moon for resources to sustain deep space exploration.
Another part of the scramble involves enabling space entrepreneurs to own resources without appropriating sovereignty. This comes into play with Obama’s Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act in 2015, and then Trump’s Executive Order on Encouraging International Support for the Recovery and Use of Space Resources in April 2020, which said that American citizens can own resources on the lunar surface and asteroids.
It appears that several countries are suddenly engaged in policy regarding commercial space enterprise, and I think China started all of that. Even India, for example, is now talking about lunar prospecting in cooperation with Japan, which was discussed back during the Chandrayaan missions. All of this sudden interest in space commercialization is why we’re calling it a scramble because the focus right now is on space resource utilization and development.
NASA plans to land the “first woman and next man on the moon” in 2024, and they’re planning a lunar gateway station to support human exploration as well. Right now, most of the competition in space is focused on Earth orbit, but will that begin to change later in the 2020s?
The focus is already changing from low-earth orbit to the Moon and beyond. For instance, China has plans for a lunar research base by 2036, Russia recently announced plans to build a lunar base after 2025, and they’re also looking at resource prospecting and establishing a human settlement.
Over the next 16 years, I also foresee more commercial development from the private sector developing capabilities like in-situ resource manufacturing, robotics, and AI to access lunar resources before human settlements begin.
Another thing we can look forward to is space-based beamed of solar power. China currently developing microwave energy transmission technology and in-situ construction of solar power satellites, and we know that the Air Force Research Laboratory has a similar program, called SSPIDR. In fact, Dr. Paul Jaffe has an experiment that recently went up on the Boeing X37 to study this technology. In the next 10 years, I see changes here that will be exponential.
What are your thoughts on Mars colonization and asteroid mining? Elon Musk has been pretty adamant about his goals for the red planet, and a lot of precious metals are available in asteroids to offset the cost of mining them. What are your thoughts on these in terms of resources & competition, and what timeframe do anticipate for a transition from LEO & lunar competition to distances farther out?
In the 2035 to 2040 timeframe we can expect to see the focus of competition begin shifting from the Moon to asteroid mining and Mars colonies. Elon Musk has said that his ultimate goal is a million-person city on Mars by 2050. That’s a very ambitious goal, but Musk has established a track record of achieving ambitious long-term goals that were thought to be impossible.
An example of this is the goal of developing a reusable rocket that lands itself. A few years ago, a lot of people claimed that reusable rockets were impossible, that we’d never see them in our lifetime. They kept saying it couldn’t be done until Blue Origin and SpaceX did it back in Nov/December of 2015.
So, in terms of mining asteroids and or a human presence on Mars, I’d say the technology will ready between 2035 to 2040. Before that, the US will continue exploring the Martian surface, and we have a Chinese mission to Mars in 2021 with prospecting capabilities. India wants to have a second mission, and UAE just launched the Hope mission as well. So, we’re already seeing countries beyond the great powers taking action to explore Mars, and I expect the 2040 to 2045 timeframe will be critical for this.
Let’s talk about the US Space Force. With all of this emerging commercial activity and plans for colonization & exploration by competing nations, your co-author Pete Garretson has been a proponent of a “Blue Water” role for the Space Force to protect commerce & access to resources. Do you support this role for them, or are they better suited for “Brown Water” or Earth-focused tasks like protecting satellite orbits, etc?
That’s a great question because the vision and function of the US Space Force is something that’s being actively discussed today. In the recently published capstone doctrine, you’ll find a lot of talk about orbital space, situational awareness, being battle-ready for in low earth orbit —but there’s also talk about cislunar space, which complements a recent MOU between NASA and the Space Force focused on cislunar domain awareness.
Looking at this from a strategic perspective, I think both roles are important and the Space Force needs a comprehensive focus. You cannot ask it to focus solely on cislunar and beyond while neglecting to protect infrastructures on Earth, such as space-based internet and GPS navigation. We must maintain the resilience of that infrastructure, but that’s a tactical need, and can be strategically circumvented unless the Space Force thinks bigger.
In A New Era for Deep Space Exploration and Development, a policy document that came out of the US White House and the National Space Council talks about a human settlement on the moon, talks about American citizens working in space doing resource extraction and utilization. Now, if those are policy goals, then it’s important to have a service that’s able to offer security and cislunar situational awareness to support them.
Historically the role of any military is about providing security. For instance, the Indian Navy regularly patrols the Indian Ocean. They aren’t out there because they want conflict — they’re on patrol to ensure that ships traveling to Indian ports have freedom of navigation. The US Navy plays a similar role in places like the Strait of Malacca and the Pacific. So, if you are envisioning a future with settlements on the lunar or Martian surface, it’s important to have a military service that can provide security and ensure prosperity.
Finally, I think the military is a part of a comprehensive national identity, and this was reflected in the capstone document’s definition of space power. They argued that space power exists so the military can ensure prosperity and security, but they also believe it’s important for the US Space Force to visibly demonstrate its security capabilities so that allied nations feel reassured.
Now, in terms of reassurance, Military leaders such as General Steven Kwast (ret.) have expressed concerns about China’s threats to use EMP’s and the dual-use potential of their space-based beamed power project. Given the growing militarization of space & increasing political tensions, should humans back here on Earth be concerned about space-based weapons or orbital strike potential?
Well, you bring out a good point mentioning an electromagnetic pulse. There has been a lot of concern expressed about the possibility of North Korea detonating a nuclear device 40 kilometers above the US mainland to generate an EMP, and the scenario of a rogue nation using space for an orbital strike is something we need to be aware of and very much prepared for.
Now let’s look at China concerning the weaponization of dual-use technologies. In 2016, China put a robotic arm in space to remove debris they created during ASF tests in 2007. Their stated goal is to be responsible and prevent danger to orbiting satellites, but there’s also the danger that this robotic arm can grab an adversary’s communication satellite.
The US depends heavily on space-based command and control satellites, but here we have at least one example of a Chinese capability to grab or destroy our satellite kinetically, along with possibilities like using a laser beam to blind or jam it. These are dual-use capabilities that we need to be aware of.
Space-based weapons and dual-use capabilities are becoming a part of the space infrastructure, and it’s not just China that has them. Russia and India now both have anti-satellite weapon (ASAT) capabilities, and when Mission Shakti was launched in March of 2019, the argument given by the prime minister was that “today India has arrived as a space power”. So, space-based weapons are indeed a serious concern and should be taken into consideration.
One reason for the creation of the Space Force is a response to threats on orbit and a changing military doctrine that space is no longer a “safe haven”. Would it be accurate to say that the creation of the space force more of about the recognition that space has already been militarized rather than an attempt to militarize it?
I think people conflate weaponization with militarization, and it’s important to remember that 110 nations have already signed the outer space treaty, which obligates states not to put weapons of mass destruction on celestial bodies. So, the regulations already exist to limit the weaponization of space.
However, in terms of militarization, the moment there is an infrastructure that supports conflict, you have militarized space, and we have been using space for military command and control, precision navigation, guidance, missile tracking, and more for a very long time.
So, the Space Force wasn’t established to militarize space, but to coordinate activities by different government agencies, streamline acquisitions, and give the Space Force commander a presence in the Joint Chiefs of Staff to talk directly about our needs for security and defense in space.
I’ve read the arguments for the Space Force by military thinkers such as Col. Coyote Smith (ret.) who inspired its creation, and they weren’t focused on a military conflict in space. Instead, they were talking about freedom of commerce and communication, rescue operations, and non-warfighting roles. Their goal wasn’t to militarize space, because frankly it already was.
Let me close by asking what comes next for you. The book comes out Oct 15th — where do you see yourself after this, and what are your plans for the future?
Well, that’s a great question, because the hardcover of our book comes out on October 15th. I was looking forward to taking a vacation after that, but I’ve already been approached by an Academy publisher for another book, which will be on China’s grand strategy and notions of territoriality. This will analyze China’s views on territorial expansion, including its border areas, but could also include a settlement or a resource on the Moon.
So, my next book is relevant to our conversation today. China prioritizes first presence rights to territory, they’re focused on territories that are rich in resources, and they’re invested in becoming the lead nation in space. My concern is what kind of normative framework would that lead to — will it be one that support’s everybody’s rights in space, or will it prioritize the goals of the communist party?
President Xi Jinping has plans for China to become the lead actor in space by 2049, but strategically that would also give them tremendous impact on geopolitics here on Earth. He doesn’t compartmentalize space — it is part of the overall national rejuvenation of the Chinese nation, which makes this very clear and important articulation of grand strategy.
About Our Guest
Dr. Namrata Goswami is an independent strategic analyst, author and consultant on Great Power Politics, Space Policy, Alternate Futures, and Frameworks of Conflict Negotiation and Resolution. After earning a Ph.D. in international relations, she served for nearly a decade as Research Fellow at India’s Ministry of Defense (MOD) sponsored think tank, the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), New Delhi, working on ethnic conflicts in India’s Northeast, counter-terrorism and China-India border conflict. Her research and expertise generated opportunities for collaborations abroad, and she accepted visiting fellowships at the Peace Research Institute, Oslo, Norway; the La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia; and the University of Heidelberg, Germany.
In 2012, she was selected to serve as a Jennings-Randolph Senior Fellow at the United States Institute of Peace (USIP), Washington D.C. where she studied India-China border issues, and was awarded a Fulbright-Nehru Senior Fellowship that same year. Shortly after establishing her own strategy and policy consultancy in 2016 after relocating to the U.S., she won the prestigious MINERVA grant awarded by the Office of the U.S. Secretary of Defense (OSD) to study great power competition in the grey zone of outer space. In 2017, she was awarded a contract with Joint Special Forces University (JSOU) to write a monograph on ISIS in Asia, in which one of her field of study was Indonesia.
With expertise in international relations, ethnic conflicts, counter insurgency, wargaming, scenario building, and conflict resolution, she has been asked to consult for audiences across the globe, from academia to policy-makers. She was the first representative from South Asia chosen to participate in the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies NATO Partnership for Peace Consortium (PfPC) ‘Emerging Security Challenges Working Group.’ She also received the Executive Leadership Certificate sponsored by the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, National Defense University (NDU), and the Asia Pacific Center for Security Studies (APCSS). Currently, she is working on a book project on “Ethnic Conflicts” with Oxford University Press, and another one on ‘Great Power Ambitions in Outer-Space” to be published by Lexington Press, an imprint of Rowman and Littlefield.