“Everything we know about space is changing,” according to former NASA physicist John Mankins. Within a decade, the cost of launching into space will have dropped more than three orders of magnitude from the year 2000. Coupled with new systems and technologies, both states and private companies can turn the unthinkable into reality, even into the routine.
The economic opportunity of space development beckons, with profound changes in transportation, information, energy, and manufacturing promised in the next couple of decades. For example, space solar energy could deliver an unlimited supply of clean energy. If mastering “big data” is the key to the fourth industrial revolution, mastering space will be the key to the fifth. That could bring military advantage and existential risk. Finally, the opportunities for scientific knowledge and discovery remain abundant. But if the United States is to ensure it enjoys these benefits, then it will have to step up its activities with a realistic strategy in tandem with like-minded partners.
Just as the United States has long supported freedom of the seas, it also seeks open access to outer space. However, freedom of navigation in space is in jeopardy. States like China and Russia have a track-record of restricting others’ access to the global commons in both the maritime domain and cyberspace. They are developing anti-space systems that they can use to deny states access to the global commons in space. Meanwhile, it lacks the rules, standards, and enforcement mechanisms necessary to encourage states to exercise restraint and to clarify which actions are proportionate. As more players enter it, including non-state actors, the risk of a party disrupting open access to space will only increase.