Space Exploration in a Changing International Environment

The international environment for space activities has changed significantly since the United States, Japan, Europe, and Russia agreed to build the International Space Station (ISS). Space exploration has become a mature governmental activity and has become in some ways “routinized.” Most missions lack the drama of earlier space flight that captured public interest and political support. To go beyond the routine requires going beyond low earth orbit (LEO).

Two major developments have reshaped the strategic environment. The most important of these is the growth of China’s space capabilities and programs. The other significant change is the loss of U.S. manned spaceflight capabilities, leaving Western space powers dependent on Russia for access to the ISS.

In contrast to its human spaceflight program, U.S. unmanned and robotic exploration efforts have made consistent and impressive progress. Robotic exploration of Mars is the most visible activity. The unmanned programs of other nations are also impressive. The European Space Agency has plans and programs for the exploration of Mars, the Moon, and its Rosetta spacecraft is maneuvering into close proximity to an asteroid. Japan’s space agency, JAXA, has solar and planetary (Venus) unmanned missions in operation and is developing new exploratory missions for Mercury and asteroids. China and India have launched unmanned lunar exploration missions, and India (with some help from NASA) recently launched a Mars observation satellite. These missions often entail a high level of cooperation and provide real scientific benefit for a relatively small share of space budgets. Their political and strategic value, however, is limited.

This CSIS Report examines the strategic implications of manned space exploration. The current phase of exploration is coming to an end, and nations are seeking the next step. The decisions of the United States and its partners on the future of space exploration will determine the strategic situation in space. There are difficult issues to consider in moving ahead: the target of exploration beyond LEO, the balance between manned and unmanned programs, the future of partnership and cooperation in space, and the ultimate fate of the ISS. How Western space powers answer these questions will determine both the pace and the future direction of exploration in space.

James Andrew Lewis
Senior Vice President; Pritzker Chair; and Director, Strategic Technologies Program