America Needs a Supercharged Space Program
It could build entire industries, create new jobs, green the economy—and unite the country behind a common purpose.
This article is part of Foreign Policy’s ongoing coverage of U.S. President Joe Biden’s first 100 days in office, detailing key administration policies as they get drafted—and the people who will put them into practice.
President Joe Biden has declared that “America is back” on the global stage, and his first actions on this front look bold so far. He has rejoined the Paris Agreement, prioritized traditional U.S. allies, and returned to a more liberal approach to immigration.
But if Biden truly wants to re-establish U.S. global leadership while uniting a fractured country behind a greater common purpose, he must be bolder and go where no president has gone before: He must prioritize a dedicated and multilateral U.S. government approach to outer space. Indeed, the solutions to many of the United States’ terrestrial challenges—from rebuilding the economy to solving climate change—may be found in the cosmos.
So far, the Biden administration has ignored the Trump administration’s establishment of a new Space Force as an additional branch of the U.S. military. Arguably, Biden’s team has done so with good reason: Space needs to be managed and commercialized, not militarized. But it absolutely cannot be ignored.
One reason space cannot be ignored is potential competition for space-based natural resources. The moon, for example, offers vast quantities of rare earth minerals needed for making batteries, electronic gadgets, and sophisticated military equipment. Since China has a near-monopoly on the production of these resources—and plans to extract them elsewhere on Earth are moving slowly—there is geopolitical interest to source them from the moon.
At the same time, scientists say that asteroids contain vast stores of precious and industrial metals such as platinum, gold, nickel, and cobalt. The 140-mile-diameter asteroid between Mars and Jupiter called 16 Psyche contains valuable metals that some estimate could be worth quadrillions of dollars. Given the possibility to convert lunar ice into hydrogen and oxygen to create rocket fuel, which would allow space missions to refuel there without having to carry all their propellant from Earth, competition for control of the moon will only increase.
Space may also be part of the Earth’s climate change solution. Although most renewable energy sources on Earth can only be harnessed intermittently, solar power stations in stationary orbit may be able to do so 24/7, transmitting energy to Earth via microwaves or lasers. While the technology for this to be economically viable still needs to be developed, these efforts are already underway. China has announced plans to deploy space-based solar power stations by 2035. The possibility of cheap, clean, and boundless energy should be reason alone to forge into space.
Wall Street is certainly excited by space’s potential because lots of capital will be needed to accelerate the industry’s expansion. In the past, space was largely the domain of governments, but a new arena of commercial operators such as Elon Musk’s SpaceX, Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin, and Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic now operate alongside the public sector. Unsurprisingly, these companies are often more aggressive about pushing the boundaries of space exploration and commercialization—even if some of them, such as SpaceX, largely live off government contracts. Morgan Stanley’s Space Team estimates that global space activity could generate $1 trillion in annual revenues by 2040, up from $350 billion today.
Of course, the United States has rivals for space supremacy: As of 2019, 72 countries claim active space programs and 14 have launch capabilities. Although the United States has been the perceived leader in the field, China’s space program—fueled by the country’s growing economic strength—has been advancing since Washington retired the space shuttle program in 2011. India, too, wants in on the action. And this month, the United Arab Emirates launched a spacecraft that will join U.S and Chinese missions traveling to Mars. And don’t count out the Russians, the United States’ first rivals in space.
In this increasingly dynamic environment, the United States’ private sector and universities will be critical to regaining the space supremacy the country enjoyed in the 1960s and early1970s. But the federal government must play an outsized role as well.
Most importantly, Washington must reassert U.S. leadership over space governance. Historically, space mining was considered to be prohibited by Article II of the 1967 United Nations Outer Space Treaty. Since then, broadly cooperative space accords—such as the 1979 Moon Agreement—have failed to attract signatories among the major powers, while the need for governance is heating up.
In 2015, the U.S. government granted U.S. citizens the right to own any materials they extract in space, blowing open the door for civilian space business. In 2018, China launched a reconnaissance rover on the moon’s far side that’s been gathering data for more than 18 months now. In late 2019, then-President Donald Trump launched the formation of the U.S. Space Force as part of the military, while early 2020 saw the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) sign a contract with Axiom Space to build the first commercial space station.
And in October 2020, the United States led the signing of the Artemis Accords, a set of bilateral agreements on space with Australia, Canada, Italy, Japan, Luxembourg, Italy, the United Kingdom, and the United Arab Emirates, which deliberately skirted the United Nations and did not include space rivals such as China and Russia. (Ukraine and Brazil were later added to the accords.) Although this pact claims to affirm the Outer Space Treaty, it actually increases the potential for conflict by expanding the interpretation of commercial space law while drawing hard geopolitical borders. Without Russia and especially China on board, much of the world will see the Artemis Accords as the informal rulebook of a cliquish club rather than a true multilateral agreement. Meanwhile, a new space race is gathering stream: In addition to this year’s unmanned missions to Mars, both the United States and China are planning moon landings later this decade.
The Biden administration must prioritize a more multilateral approach to space governance than what was taken under Trump. Just like on Earth, a lack of international standards in space will likely lead to chaotic, wasteful competition. A 2011 U.S. law blocking NASA from cooperating with Chinese agencies has already shut China out of the U.S.-Russian International Space Station, prompting the Chinese to start building their own while partnering with Russia on a lunar research station. Revising this law would be a good place for the Biden administration to start. Cooperating with China in space might be a sensible hedge against growing conflict on Earth.
Unregulated space activity could create a myriad of problems from accidentally or intentionally blocked data transmission to orbital pollution from too many space objects. Indeed, U.S. companies are currently the worst offenders, highlighting the need for more targeted regulation. Just a few uncontrolled collisions could generate enough debris to render near-Earth space unusable. And of course, no one wants to see space weaponized with extremely expensive, escalating arms races. Given private U.S. companies’ increasingly aggressive push to expand space exploration, the U.S. government is in a position to structure a more effective extraterrestrial regulatory regime. Renewed U.S. leadership founded on rebuilt space capabilities will be key to any hope for multilateral space cooperation.
A more dedicated focus on space governance and a more aggressive approach to exploration can be the underpinnings of a future “New Space Deal.” A supercharged space program can help build entire new industries, create new jobs, green the economy, turbocharge next-generation communications, and expand the frontiers of science and technology. By uniting Americans behind a common purpose, it could even help mend the country’s frayed democracy. It would also reestablish Washington’s leadership in the fight against climate change and for a stronger multilateral system. Who else but the United States could even contemplate such a bold plan?
The opinions expressed are exclusively those of the authors and not their respective affiliated institutions.
Mark Y. Rosenberg is the CEO of Geoquant and an adjunct professor at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. Twitter: @myrosenbrg