So what are the political motives today? Scott Pace, director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University, served as a political appointee at NASA during the George W. Bush administration. “The major geopolitical challenges for the US today are primarily in Asia, with the rising space powers of India and China,” he said.
With the US increasingly dependent on space economically and militarily, the imperative is to keep space a calm and quiet place, Pace said. One way to do that is to ensure China and India — and emerging space nations, such as South Korea, Malaysia and Indonesia — want the same thing.
So far though, many nations are going it alone. India has shifted away from satellite-based projects that broadcast to rural villages and help with agriculture, to pursue more flagship missions. This year, it sent its first spacecraft to Mars. In 2020, the Indian Space Research Organization wants to follow up its successful lunar orbiter by landing an astronaut on the moon.
China’s pursuit of anti-satellite weapons — the nation shot down one of its own weather satellites in 2007 — has led India to develop its own weapons in response. The tension is serious.
Moltz said: “China challenges India’s self-image as an Asian technology leader, puts India’s low-cost launch market at risk, and makes its satellites vulnerable to possible military attack.”
Tensions in the region underlie much of Asian spacefaring, be they between China and India, Japan or Vietnam, or between India and Pakistan, or North and South Korea, Moltz said. The latter two countries are embroiled in their own space race on the Korean peninsula, with North and South achieving their first successful satellite launches this year. Unlike the US, Europe and Russia, which have worked together on how to behave in space, there is no history of such cooperation in Asia.
For decades, Britain steered clear of human space missions, investing instead in robotic missions and satellites. The strategy worked well for the economy and created a thriving British space technology industry. In 2010, the British government set up the UK Space Agency, which gives ￡230 million (NT$11.3 billion) a year to the European Space Agency (ESA), making it one of the top five funders. The first Briton selected for ESA’s astronaut corps, Major Tim Peake, is in training for his first mission to the International Space Station in 2015.
Ironically, the US could lose its leadership in space by pushing so far ahead they leave the rest behind, said Pace. The Obama administration scrapped the Bush administration’s plans to return to the moon, and instead set a goal to land an astronaut on an asteroid, then push on to Mars. “It left a lot of countries, pretty much everyone, out in the cold,” said Pace. “There was really a sort of collective shrug, as everyone said ‘Well maybe the Americans and Russians can do that, but it’s beyond us’.”
If NASA moves ahead without other nations, those left behind might keep their hand in the human spaceflight business by joining forces with China in returning humans to the moon. The US decision over the International Space Station matters here too. The US$100 billion (NT$2.9 trillion) orbiting station reaches the end of its planned life around 2017, though the nations that run it are debating an extension. If the US pulls out early, the European, Japanese and Russian space agencies might ditch the station and have no other human spaceflight program to join.