Space is currently seen as an arena for competition, when in fact it has broader potential for diplomatic and inspirational means. President Trump’s recently released policy directive “Space Force” is an attempt to create a sixth military branch solely focused on weaponizing and securing space dominance. By throwing significant political capital and focus into beefing up the U.S. military in space, the Trump administration has signaled to the country and the world its desire to view space as an arena the U.S. must dominate.
Beefing up unilateralism, however, should not come at a cost to space cooperation with other nations, which the U.S.’s policy is currently severely lacking. Due to policies like the Wolf Amendment — which effectively bars any cooperation between the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and Chinese scientists — the U.S. is at risk for falling behind in the development and management of space. Furthermore — and arguably more importantly — space is falling out of the conscious of the U.S. populous. Growing up to be an astronaut used to be every child’s aspirations, but now it ranks far behind other professions such as being a Youtuber. I believe that reorienting U.S. space policy away from military dominance and towards peaceful international cooperation has the potential to positively affect the U.S. material global standing in the world and reinspire children about the wonders of outer space.
Rather than continue on our march towards unilateralism, the U.S. should focus on working with other space powers to create rules of the road. Space is becoming more congested, especially with the rise of private space companies like SpaceX. Orbital debris, or small pieces of spacecraft, pose a significant risk to satellites, and the risk of miscalculation from a piece of debris striking a Chinese or Russian satellite continues to grow. Without cooperation over space traffic management or the regulations around orbital debris cleanup and portability, conflict may be all but inevitable. Rather than invest in creating more space lasers and satellite constellations, the U.S. should instead remove barriers for space cooperation with other nations so we can all peacefully co-exist in space.
Concrete collaboration like debris mitigation or space traffic management isn’t as shiny as going to the Moon or exploring a new galaxy, but perhaps incremental cooperation can lead to bold policies. The International Space Station is being decommissioned and both China and Russia are working on their own space stations. Collaboration on mutual areas of benefit like space debris could spill over to broader coordination on the space stations, as U.S. astronauts will not have a stable platform to make trips to the Moon or Mars once the ISS falls back to earth.
The benefits of space extend beyond superpower cooperation, as it can act as a source of inspiration for younger generations. As children, we dream, hope and imagine. What does it say about our nation that kids want to grow up to film videos of themselves rather than explore the galaxy? No shade to becoming a Youtuber, but wanting to be an astronaut symbolized exploring the unknown and the unimaginable. Since there isn’t any national attention on space like there was when our parents were kids, you can’t blame our generation for being disinterested about what is going on above our sky. However, new space cooperation gives the opportunity to extend humans — and thus human imagination — beyond its current bounds. A quick Google search brings up beautiful and fantastic images of space taken by NASA. Perhaps as a college student, I see space in more practical terms, but the child in me still wonders what and who is up there, and what fantastic knowledge we as a species can gain from space exploration.
Though incremental cooperation with other superpowers in space infrastructure development and management or imaginative exploration sounds like a dream, can the U.S. afford it? The short answer is yes. Currently, NASA’s budget is maxed at 0.5% of all annual spending. A report by the Science Foundation indicates that space-related activities contributed over $180 billion to the global economy in 2005, mostly related to commercial goods and services made through space technology. That means one dollar spent on NASA adds ten dollars to our economy, an amazing rate of return for such small spending allocation.
On top of the explicit productivity of space-related activities, space is also critical to maintaining the global economy: Global Positioning Systems (GPS) are reliant on satellites, and so are ATMs, weather forecasting and communication systems. Considering the importance of space to our economy and preserving our way of life, ensuring that the U.S. spend wisely to decrease the cascading risk of orbital space debris is of utmost importance. For such a small slice of the budget, space cooperation would be extremely cost-effective.
Space is not something we should allow to leave the conscious of the American public or be used as a tool to further military aims. Instead, space should be seen as a cost-effective means of facilitating global cooperation for everyone’s benefit and inspiring younger generations about the possibilities that lay beyond our universe. I recently watched The Farthest: Voyager in Space, a Netflix documentary about the farthest human probe in space, and I wish everyone could experience the feelings of inspiration I gained from it. The documentary ends with an explanation of the golden record attached to the Voyager, a recording of human greetings, music and photos of Earth. Because of minimal space weather, the record is expected to outlast Earth itself. A record of humankind will be floating in space for billions of years, preserving humankind into eternity and perhaps explaining our home to beings beyond our imagination. Space is amazing and useful and our policies should reflect our desire to imagine rather than an urge to secure hegemony.