Space nationalism

Topics astronomy | Astronauts | Nationalism

In the medieval times, cartographers used to draw illustrations of dragons and other mythological creatures on uncharted areas of maps. “Here be dragons” they wrote. But when enterprising individuals, backed by the state, ventured into the unknown, they did not encounter dragons — instead, they found opportunities. As an outgrowth of nationalism, leading industrial powers fell in love with the idea of planting their national flag all over the map and that race changed the world order forever.

Now, there is an ongoing space race between global powers, also driven by nationalism (and military necessities) despite multi-national collaborations. There is nothing wrong with this — nationalism is a result of the competitive spirit: To be an influencer and leader.

Just days ago, the UAE’s Hope probe entered the orbit of Mars. It was projected as the first powered flight there.

The significance Mars missions can be summarised in three points: Searching for life, understanding its surface, and preparing for human exploration. There’s another key aspect — national pride. David A Mindell, Scott A Uebelhart, Asif A Siddiqi, and Slava Gerovitch in their piece on “The Future of Human Spaceflight: Objectives and Policy Implications in a Global Context (in American Academy of Arts & Sciences) wrote: “[John F] Kennedy’s 1961 objectives for the Apollo programme, clearly based on national pride and international prestige, on the desire to beat the Soviet Union to the Moon ‘before this decade is out,’ had implications right down to the ‘nuts and bolts’ — the most basic technical choices made by Nasa engineers.”

Every country looks to formulate its space policy as part of the national agenda. “The US and China are in a quiet competition for military advantage in space... Russia is eager to restore its military space and space exploration capabilities to keep up with both the US and China [in fact, the first Covid vaccine, Sputnik V, reminded the world of Sputnik I — the first artificial Earth satellite]. India pays close attention to China’s space activities and attempts to match them, and there is a nascent ‘space race’ between it and China,” wrote James Andrew Lewis in the report Space Exploration in a Changing International Environment.

India and China have been competing in the exploration of Moon (Chandrayaan and Chang’e projects) and Mars (Mangalyaan and Tianwen-1 projects), besides sending humans to space and building space stations. At least 12 countries, including Turkey, Brazil, Iran, North Korea, and South Korea, have space launch programmes either in the active or planning stage. While the US’ unmanned programmes are arguably most advanced, China, Japan, and the European Union are way ahead of the rest. Those having full space military programmes are the US, China, and Russia.  

China once said it would concentrate resources on “a limited number of projects” having “vital significance” to the nation. “Like China, Isro’s programmes demonstrate national pride and independence, improve India’s technological base and military capabilities, and assert regional status. Unlike China, the domestic political role of the programme is much smaller, and India’s democracy allows domestic critics to question the expenditure of funds for space,” said Lewis.

Ajey Lele of Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses in his 2014 paper Mars Missions: Past, Present and Future wrote: “Space policy has to accommodate a broad range of perceptions and interests, from practical issues of national defence, commerce and technology to less quantifiable characteristics, such as the contribution of space exploration and development for societal benefits and to the achievement of humanity as a space-faring species.”

Besides national prestige, the space theme has several potential benefits for humanity — food security (combining imagery with weather can optimise farm yields), greenhouse gas monitoring, helping utilities develop renewable energy infrastructure by using predictive models, and better internet access (SpaceX’s Starlink, a satellite internet constellation), besides tertiary benefits of advancements in hydrogen fuel cell technology, robotics, health care, and other disciplines.

A strong space policy needs aggressive involvement of the private sector. Private firms like SpaceX are testing vehicles for manned missions, ending years of Nasa’s reliance on Russia to launch astronauts. Morgan Stanley in a report estimates the global space industry can generate revenue of “more than $1 trillion or more in 2040, up from $350 billion, currently”. 

Space activities are high-cost, high-risk endeavours which need motivation. If successful, such efforts are a source of great prestige, technological benefits, and potentially even economic returns.

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