Space and the new struggle for civilisational supremacy

The space race of the twenty-first century has more players, more money and ambitions for Mars. It's about more than just technological prowess. Space is becoming the new arena for a clash of civilisations.
Spacecraft launches in Russia leaving trail of light in the sky
The Russian Soyuz MS-15 Spacecraft launches from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Credit: Bill Ingalis / NASA via Getty Images.
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​In June 2021 Chinese and Russian space officials announced detailed plans for their joint International Lunar Research Station that will result in humans walking on the moon by the mid-2030s. Only a few days before the Sino-Russian announcement, Brazil became the twelfth country to sign the American-sponsored Artemis Accords, a set of principles for the future human exploration of the moon and beyond as well as the commercial exploitation of space resources. These accords are themselves inspired by the U.S. Artemis programme that was initiated by the Trump administration, and subsequently endorsed by President Biden, with the aim of returning Americans to the moon by the mid-2020s (the schedule has since slipped due to the impact of the COVID pandemic). Several other countries, to include Japan, South Korea, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates, have also announced plans to send lunar rovers and other robotic explorers to the moon by the end of this decade in a bid not to be left behind by China and the United States.

What initially started as a nostalgic paean to ‘America First’ has since evolved into detailed multinational technical programmes, breath-taking budgets, and soaring ambitions for what will essentially amount to permanent human settlements on the moon along with its systematic commercial exploitation. This alone is a noteworthy, if uncontroversial, set of developments. But also significant are the underlying and implied civilisational tropes and mandates of the countries taking part. This is not our parents’ and grandparents’ space race of yore. This is China, Russia, the United States, and others seeking to leave a lasting civilisational imprint on the moon and in the solar system beyond.

To understand what is going on requires an acknowledgement that space exploration is not merely a matter of applying technology and universal scientific principles. It is an extension of the societies, cultures, and civilisations that make and integrate those technologies to explore, even conquer, outer space and its celestial bodies in their name and image. The current space competition between the great powers is not simply geopolitical in nature, it is also an imperative in this age of the civilisational state. This imperative can trounce political prudence, economic frugality, and strategic rationale. Instead the civilisational state adopts an absolutist myth-based and millenarian identity along with a sense of transcendental mission, and treats outer space as a tabula rasa where it can achieve grandeur.

The civilisational imperative in space is the product of three interrelated developments in recent decades. The first is the global intellectual and cultural disconnection of modernity from Western notions of civilisation. As Bruno Maçães notes in his book The Dawn of Eurasia, modernity used to be viewed in much of the world as a form of Western colonialism, something suspect and to be rejected. Even the Marxist form of modernity, popular in much of the developing world after the Second World War, soon came to be seen as a failure by those who experimented with it. But modernity today is taking root across a world increasingly stripped of Western cultural and political notions such as secularism, liberal democracy, and free market economics. Instead, cities across Eurasia and Africa are now replete with gleaming skyscrapers, digital technologies, and advanced infrastructure that are imbued with traditional local and regional values, political culture, economic systems, and increasingly, a sense of civilisational destiny. 

The second development that has grown, in part, out of this near-universal condition of modernity is the rise – if not the return – of the civilisational state. The civilisational state, with its claims of historical and cultural continuity stretching back to the distant past across vast geographies includes, among others, China, Russia, India, Turkey, Iran, and the United States. Some are conscious of their civilisational status, such as China, India, and Turkey, while others, such as the United States, unconsciously behave like a civilisation.

The third development is the rapid democratisation of space technologies since the 1990s. Exploiting the space domain had previously been the preserve of superpowers and produced milestone events in humanity’s foray into outer space. The former Soviet Union was the first to launch an Earth-orbiting satellite, and a few years later the first human being, Yuri Gagarin. The United States initially trailed the Soviets but was ultimately able to put the Cold War ‘space race’ to an end when it repeatedly sent, and safely returned, humans to the moon. These activities, however, were so technologically complex and risky and, in turn, prohibitively expensive, that few other countries could seriously contemplate starting their own space programmes.

The past two decades have seen the rapid decline in cost – and therefore an increase in accessibility – of space technologies thanks to the miniaturisation of microelectronics for smaller and more affordable satellites and spacecraft, along with a steadier decline in the cost of space launches. The microelectronics revolution created the conditions for the commercialisation of space, initially and primarily in satellite communications, but also in Earth observation and satellite navigation. 

Coming full circle, the contemporary condition of modernity being adopted across much of the world is enabled by satellite capabilities. Satellite communications are part of the global infrastructure that connects countries, markets, and peoples (for better and worse). Earth observation satellites provide floods of data for everything from agricultural yields through to the modern battlespace, while satellite navigation links from America’s GPS or China’s Beidou provide critical timing and positioning data that keeps infrastructure working and data networks from collapsing. From Stockholm and Shanghai to Kigali and Kansas City, and all points in between, modern urban life (and increasingly rural life) is critically enabled by space technology and more and more countries are acquiring their own satellites at reasonable cost.

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All contemporary civilisational states are space powers, or at least aspire to be. This is not to claim that every country that owns a satellite is a civilisational state, but it is to say that civilisational states possess space programmes with ambitions that go well beyond satellite capabilities for important, yet banal, technical functions.

Argentina operates several communication and Earth observation satellites, for example, but it is not viewed or self-perceived as a civilisational state. Buenos Aires may well derive some regional prestige from its capabilities – after all space exploration is still hard, despite its lowered bar for access – but its satellites are procured and operated for straightforward and unpretentious functional reasons, and there Argentinian space interests largely rest.

The civilisational state, however, is not satisfied with sensible satellite capabilities. Communication, navigation, and Earth observation satellites are all de rigueur but hardly qualify as defining and embodying civilisational ambitions, identity, and self-worth. The civilisational state does not view outer space as a domain for narrow utilitarian purposes and the enablement of efficient terrestrial functions. 

Instead, it is seen as a place to send bold citizens to embody vitality and expand cultural-political values and grandeur. This is why the United States, Russia, China, India, and the United Arab Emirates all maintain expensive human spaceflight programmes. It’s why Iran harbours ambitions to put its citizens into orbit in spite of crippling economic sanctions and international isolation.

Civilisational states do not rely on others to launch their satellites and citizens into space, even if the economics and geography of doing so are unfavourable. These realities are details to be overcome whatever the cost. This is why Iran insists on its own launch capability even though it can have its satellites launched by China or Russia, and why Turkey is planning to build a launch site at a base on the Horn of Africa using an indigenously manufactured launch vehicle even though its satellites can be more cheaply launched by commercial providers. 

The civilisational state is not content to experience the solar system vicariously through the National Geographic channel or an obscure university space observatory. Its mission is to explore, and perhaps even conquer, new worlds in its own name using its own capabilities. In February 2021 the United Arab Emirates successfully placed its Hope probe in a Martian orbit. It was hailed as a significant scientific, technical, and national achievement, carrying the hopes of a civilisation that its proponents believe is on the verge of a revival. Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the UAE’s prime minister and ruler of Dubai (and sponsor of the Hope probe mission), said of the project when it began ‘that Arab civilisation once played a great role in contributing to human knowledge, and will play that role again’: implying, of course, that the mantle of Arab civilisation is now claimed by the small Persian Gulf country.

For the civilisational state, space exploration is an activity where scientific discovery and enquiry is a secondary side-benefit. The real goal is to co-opt science for their own benefit and glory and, in the process, imply that discoveries are only made thanks to cultural and political particularities that in turn justify exceptionalism and the demand that the civilisational state be accorded special respect and status by others.

Given the self-appointed remit of civilisational states to advance particular cultural and political notions of order across vast geographies, outer space is an ideal – albeit challenging – environment for expansion, with the moon and Mars now objects of civilisation-building ambitions. Take the moon, for example, where the United States and China (in partnership with Russia) are rivals in an undeclared competition to establish habitable bases at the lunar southern pole where valuable ice deposits are thought to be present. This is not just a rhetorical exercise, as these countries are devoting considerable financial and technological resources, as well as diplomatic capital, to achieving their ambitions. Mining rights and access to resources are not the only issues at stake, nor is the considerable access to the rest of the solar system that a presence on the moon will provide – but the opportunity to establish and expand a civilisational order beyond Earth’s atmosphere.

Such political ambitions may not be at the forefront of contemporary concerns even among the leaders of today’s civilisational states. But, since civilisations almost by definition seek to expand, the notion that a permanent presence on the moon or elsewhere in the solar system would be a tempting opportunity for the first stages of a civilisational dominion beyond Earth is not that far-fetched.

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Civilisational themes and tropes of dominion and empire are a mainstay of literary and cinematic science fiction, whether it’s the fading technological empire in Isaac Asimov’s Foundation novels or the fractious and feudal imperium depicted in Frank Herbert’s Dune. In the Star Wars films, the galaxy is in the grip of a fascistic empire policed by stormtroopers and Imperial starships, while the Star Trek franchise depicts a federation of planets that, in many ways, resembles a more progressive version of the liberal civilisational order led today by the United States.

The laws of physics and technological limitations prevent a contemporary spacefaring civilisational state from replicating anything like the space civilisations depicted in science fiction. Yet this does not mean that even a mere civilisational expanse that ranges from Earth to Mars, via the moon, would be of little concern. With a space economy nearing a valuation of one trillion dollars a year and believed to be worth as much as ten trillion dollars by the middle of this century, any power that dominates space stands to potentially gain the most. This does not include the considerable geostrategic benefits that would accrue from such space dominance with outsized geopolitical and astropolitical influence that likely will be intolerable for others.

Whether it’s a liberal (or even libertarian) civilisational order led by the United States and its SpaceX and Blue Origin commercial proxies, or a centralised statist civilisational order led by China (with Russia as a junior partner), the stakes in the contemporary space competition seem much larger than in its Cold War predecessor. That space race, while carried out by earlier versions of the civilisational state, aimed for ideological dominance on Earth rather than permanent dominion in space. In today’s competition, the civilisational state that comes out ahead with habitable lunar bases and space-based infrastructure to exploit economic opportunities will hold considerable sway in defining the terms and conditions for the future of spacefaring for everyone else.

A more sensible and sober observer might point out that the expenditure of vast sums of money and resources on speculative techno-political ventures in an environment already notorious for being difficult and expensive to operate in is a waste, especially given the myriad challenges we collectively face here on Earth. Climate change, poverty, inequality, public health, and lack of basic infrastructure are all deserving of the financial and resource allocations going to ambitious space exploration plans. Such an observer would be right to point out such waste and misaligned prioritisation but would also miss a larger point. For today’s civilisational state, space exploration and the establishment of a permanent presence on Earth’s nearest celestial bodies has become an imperative, not merely a public policy choice. 

This imperative is often dressed up in the name of national security, economic prosperity, technological progress, and the common good of science, but in reality it stems from insecurity, the need for domestic and international validation, the quest for power and influence over rivals, and yes, the fragile ego of the civilisational psyche. The technologically complex and delicate choreography of spaceflight – the apotheosis of modernity – is still subject to Thucydides’ tragic triptych of fear, honour, and interest. For the civilisational state it is not enough to be unique: the imperative demands greatness and permanence and the solar system, with its vastness, mystery, and potential riches, is where future civilisations will be forged.

Of course, missing from the self-referential narratives of civilisational states is the awkward truth that civilisations not only fall, but often fail spectacularly pace the Soviet Union. Moreover, the demise often occurs because of unforced errors that stem from overreach. They fail because their sense of grandeur (or more plainly, their propensity to believe their own publicity) races ahead of fundamental political, economic, and other realities such as geography and technological feasibility. In spite of the democratisation of space technologies, space as a domain to be exploited is still difficult, expensive, and filled with technical and political risk. The potential for overreach by space-age civilisational states is not only a real prospect, it is fraught with tragic consequences in the forms of geopolitical backlash by rivals, economic ruin, environmental degradation on Earth and in space, as well as in the human lives that will likely be lost in the mercilessly hostile space domain.

While expanding into space may sow the seeds of decline for civilisational states, the paradox is that humanity’s exploration of the solar system and beyond is only possible because of the civilisational state imperative. Only the civilisational state, with its hyper political-cultural mission and ambition, is able to justify and devote the resources and political capital – and sheer chutzpah – required to explore the solar system and establish a permanent presence on the moon and Mars. Even the likes of Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, with their pharaonic dreams of space colonisation, are only able to pursue their ambitions thanks to the unique individualistic, economic, and legal features of the American civilisational state. 

The necessity of the civilisational state for space exploration and settlement, in turn, contains yet another paradox, especially for those who view humanity’s journey to the stars in a more utopian fashion. This perspective imbues space with an ability to bring out the best in humanity, to even transcend the human condition altogether, as the harsh space environment and its majestic vastness and beauty demands cooperation, comity, and awe-inspired wonder. Alas, if only it were so. Absent a galvanising event such as a planet-killing asteroid headed our way, the only means of traveling beyond the immediate orbits of Earth will be thanks to the largesse of the civilisational state along with its flawed political designs, prejudices, and the seeds of its – and our own – demise.

John B. Sheldon

John B. Sheldon, Ph.D., is an adviser to the Space Policy Unit at the Policy Exchange in London, UK. He is an Associate Partner at AzurX in Dubai, UAE.

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