In the 20th century, the United States and the Soviet Union (and later Russia) overwhelmingly dominated activity in outer space. Two decades into the 21st century, the status quo has shifted dramatically, with more than 70 countries now possessing satellites in Earth’s orbit. Despite the steady influx of new actors into space, the United States has failed to adequately update its approach to international cooperation in space, and instead has continued to prioritize cooperation with a few wealthy countries that have long-established space programs. This has allowed China — a rapidly rising competitor to the United States in space — to advance its geopolitical interests by helping developing countries gain access to space. Continuing to focus U.S. resources on established space powers at the expense of developing space nations is a bad idea and runs counter to U.S. long-term security and economic interests.
The United States has made international cooperation central to its efforts in space since the earliest days of the Space Age. The legislation that founded the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the 1958 National Aeronautics and Space Act, explicitly called for the organization to pursue cooperation “with other nations and groups of nations.” NASA wasted no time in taking up this charge. Just months after the agency’s founding, U.S. officials extended an offer to help other nations gain a presence in orbit. The British accepted the offer, and in April 1962 a U.S. Thor Delta rocket launched the first internationally developed satellite, Ariel I, into orbit.
As Cold War competition between the United States and the Soviet Union intensified, NASA became an important instrument of U.S. foreign policy. The agency signed agreements with dozens of countries and international organizations around the world to cooperate on a wide range of space-related issues. The end of the Cold War in the 1990s did not mark an end to U.S. space diplomacy. As of early 2018, NASA had over 800 active international agreements with partners in more than 120 countries.
Critically, however, NASA’s approach to international cooperation has failed to reorient to a world in which access to space is increasingly affordable for developing countries. Over half of NASA’s agreements in 2018 were with the European Space Agency and five countries (Canada, France, Germany, Japan, and the United Kingdom). In other words, U.S. international cooperation in space is heavily concentrated in 24 wealthy countries, which are home to less than 9 percent of the global population and which already have a substantial presence in space. NASA’s organizational structure reflects this same pattern. The NASA Office of International and Interagency Relations, which coordinates U.S. international cooperation in space, only has three overseas liaison offices located in Europe, Japan, and Russia. While it is natural for NASA to maintain close cooperation with these regions, the absence of liaison offices in other areas of the world is conspicuous and short-sighted.
The United States’ failure to prioritize cooperation with developing space nations is already being exploited by China, which has rapidly emerged as a major competitor to the United States in space. In 2018, China successfully conducted 38 orbital launches — the highest amount in a single year by any country in the 21st century thus far. Beijing has sought to leverage its growing space capabilities to bolster its diplomatic interests, especially by supporting developing countries.
In 2008, China led the creation of the Asia-Pacific Space Cooperation Organization (APSCO), an intergovernmental organization headquartered in Beijing that aims to promote “multilateral cooperation to facilitate capacity building” in space-related areas “for developing countries in the [Asia-Pacific] region.” Besides China, members include Bangladesh, Iran, Mongolia, Pakistan, Peru, Thailand, and Turkey. Through APSCO, China has helped to train and educate professionals and students from space agencies, research institutes, and universities in these countries. APSCO also established the Data Sharing Service Platform and other mechanisms to facilitate free data sharing among member countries.
Perhaps most significantly, China is providing satellite development and launch services for developing countries that lack a significant presence in space. In December 2019, China launched Ethiopia’s first-ever satellite. On top of that, China covered $6 million of the satellite’s $8 million price tag and assisted with construction. Altogether, China has launched at least 41 satellites belonging to 18 other countries since 2010. All but four of these countries were developing nations in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.
Through these endeavors, China aims to establish itself as the partner of choice for developing nations seeking access to space. Accomplishing this would leave these countries more reliant on Chinese space and cyber capabilities and more deeply integrated into China’s geopolitical orbit. Failing to compete with China in this regard runs counter to U.S. foreign policy and national security interests. Growing reliance on China’s space and cyber ecosystems — which maintain deep ties to China’s military and intelligence services — presents potential security threats for recipient countries, some of which are U.S. allies and partners.
It also threatens to undercut the competitiveness of the U.S. commercial space industry. Under the Trump administration, the United States has set its sights on establishing “a sustainable human and robotic presence across the solar system.” Achieving this requires first developing the necessary infrastructure and capability to utilize resources in Earth’s orbit, in cislunar space (between Earth and the Moon), and on the Moon’s surface. Toward this end, NASA’s Artemis Program aims to return U.S. astronauts to the moon for the first time in decades and establish the lunar Gateway, an outpost orbiting the Moon that will allow for a long-term human presence on the Moon’s surface.
Accomplishing these ambitious goals will likely be impossible without suitable market demand to support the U.S. commercial space industry. The arrival of new developing countries in space will be critical to creating and sustaining the level of demand needed for the U.S. commercial space industry to compete and thrive. Fostering new and stronger relationships with these countries is thus critical to advancing U.S. economic interests and achieving U.S. ambitions in space.
To bolster ties with rising and aspiring space nations, NASA should broaden the scope of its global presence by adjusting its existing organizational structure. In addition to the existing three overseas liaison offices in Europe, Japan, and Russia, NASA could consider establishing liaison offices in Africa, Latin America, the Middle East, and South Asia, where many developing countries are pushing to gain a foothold in space.
The U.S. government could also work to make cooperation in space a higher priority for other federal agencies, such as the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). In partnership with NASA, USAID is already helping more than 45 developing countries around the world to use information provided by Earth observing satellites through a program known as SERVIR. USAID could expand on SERVIR and establish new programs aimed at facilitating the sharing of technical skills, data, and other space-related resources with developing countries. USAID could even establish a new functional bureau dedicated to fostering cooperation in space, or designate space as a priority sector.
More broadly, the U.S. government should scale up support for U.S. companies, universities, and other institutions seeking to partner with developing countries on space-related projects. Specifically, the government should prioritize support for U.S. entities assisting with designing, constructing, and launching satellites for developing countries.
Reorienting the U.S. approach to international cooperation in space along these lines would be an immense undertaking but would likely outweigh the costs. As things stand, the United States remains far too heavily skewed toward cooperation with countries that already have a major presence in space and lacks appreciation for the value of developing space nations. Failing to reorient priorities and resources risks leaving developing countries reliant on China and ceding U.S. leadership in space at a time when space has never been more important.
CSIS does not take specific policy positions; accordingly, all views expressed above should be understood to be solely those of the author.
(Photo Credit: SpaceX) The number of active agreements has fallen since 2018. As of September 30, 2020, NASA had 681 Current Space Act Agreements with international partners.  Includes the 22 member states of the European Space Agency (ESA), plus Canada and Japan. France, Germany, and the United Kingdom are members of the ESA.  Includes launches through November 2020. Calculations are based on available information from Gunter’s Space Page.