Skip to main content

Seeking Strategic Advantage: How Geopolitical Competition and Cooperation are Playing Out in Space

Join the Wilson Center, The Aerospace Corporation and NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine for a closer look at the security of our space systems.

Date & Time

Oct. 6, 2020
10:30am – 12:30pm ET


The Wilson Center's Science and Technology Innovation Program (STIP) in partnership with The Aerospace Corporation presented: Seeking Strategic Advantage: How Geopolitical Competition and Cooperation are Playing Out in Space

In an increasingly democratized space environment, countries, non-state actors, international organizations, and corporations are all harnessing space capabilities and employing them in more applications. As our dependency on space grows, what are the implications for the world’s critical infrastructure? Do risks to space capabilities threaten global economic development and international security?

This event offered critical insights into navigating an increasingly crowded and contested space environment, into ensuring the security of our crucial space systems, and into promoting the continued use of outer space for peaceful purposes and the advancement of humanity.

The event featured a keynote address from NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine followed by two panel discussions moderated by The Washington Post’s Christian Davenport who reports on the defense and space industries.






    Event Information

    • Jim Bridenstine, Administrator, National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)

      “When we talk about national power, a lot of people think about military power. When you go through joint professional military education, the ‘M’ in ‘DIME’ comes out a lot (DIME is an acronym that outlines the elements of national power: diplomatic power (D); information power (I); military power (M); economic power (E)). Where NASA does not play: we don’t play on that military side, we are not a defense organization, we’re not tasked with fighting and winning wars in space. But I’ll tell you we benefit from security in space. Space is becoming very competitive and very congested and we need to make sure that we as a nation are leading the world in a process whereby space can be preserved for generations to come and NASA plays an important role there.”

      “The goal is as we work on the International Space Station day in and day out, we’re making an effort to commercialize all of these capabilities so that the private sector will capitalize and move forward and NASA can again be a customer and have numerous providers that compete on cost and innovation. The goal here is sustainability […]. The goal here is a robust public-private partnership so that NASA can use its resources to go places where there isn’t yet a commercial marketplace, namely the moon, but always seeking to retire the risk so that commercial will eventually take that over.”

      “If we find life on another world, it’s going to fundamentally transform how we think about exploration going forward [...]. On the moon, we’ve found hundreds of millions of tons of water-ice which is life support, it’s air to breathe, it’s water to drink, it’s rocket fuel, but the other thing is the moon is a scientific capability unlike any other [...]. From an astrophysics perspective, it's tremendously valuable. From a solar system perspective[...], the moon is a repository of data and science information of the early solar system. It’s also the launching point to get to Mars so all of that is necessary from our eventual Mars mission."

      “We're going to the Moon, this time sustainably. We're going to stay at the Moon. We're going to learn how to live and work for long periods of time, we're going to have the ability to use the resources of the moon–– hundreds of millions of tons of water ice, which represents air to breathe and water to drink, and hydrogen, H2O, that's hydrogen… Hydrogen is rocket fuel, it's available in hundreds of millions of tons on the surface of the moon... We take all of that knowledge and we're going to go to Mars. Now Mars is... that's the horizon goal and the whole world wants to go to Mars. In fact, the whole world wants to go to the moon. Another area where we see so much diplomatic engagement: we had a meeting the other day, invited countries that wanted to be part of the Artemis Program, and we had 26 nations show up. A good chunk of those nations don't even have space programs but they want to be part of Artemis. They want to see the first woman on the moon and they want to be able to say they were a part of it -- another amazing tool of diplomacy. But we go from the Moon to Mars. This is American leadership at its finest.”

      Panel 1

      Jamie M. MorinExecutive Director of the Center for Space Policy and Strategy, The Aerospace Corporation

      “There's an enormous amount of activity going on in space right now. And we hear a lot about the challenges and the threats but it's also important to note this is a moment of immense opportunity… In the last decade, I think U.S. commercial companies have made enormous progress as part of a burgeoning space industry around the world, but there are real challenges and I tend to loop them into a set of three broad observations that relate to the classic “C’s” that we hear about space. So we see space is increasingly crowded, we see it as contested or conflictual, we also see it as increasingly democratized and that's the one I would focus in on here, because the number of actors that are playing in space and the basis from which they operate is dramatically different than where we were in the Cold War. It's not just a U.S. and Soviet Union world. It’s not just a world dominated by governments, even though our overarching governance for space still requires national authorization for private space activity. But that democratization, the fact that there are many more nations playing and there are sub-national actors of real influence means we cannot solve the problems of sustainability and security in space unilaterally or just by signing policy documents. We need, as the U.S., we need to lead collaboratively and construct a set of norms that will help us succeed in the long run in space.”

      “In a moment of change, how do we address the challenges coming from China? The challenges coming from Russia? The challenges coming to U.S scientific and economic leadership, as well as military leadership from this dramatic democratization of the domain and the new players? And above all, how do we harness this moment of opportunity, because we've got extraordinary bases of national power.”

      “The military and civilian leaders who were charged with setting up the space force... I think it's fair to say they went into the congressional debate on the creation of a new military service assuming that they would be asked to stand something up on the order of 18 months or two years lead time before they were required to kind of function in the Pentagon environment as an independent military service. That's not what the law in the end said. The law in the end said essentially, effective immediately, and so the analogy, if you remember the old ad, of the guys building a plane in mid-flight–– that is absolutely what they were asked to do. And they were also directed to do it without any additional resources, without increasing the manning of the organizations and with a pretty modest initial stand-up budget. So this is a tough challenge.”

      We should not lose sight that norm development is not a one way street and probably the biggest current norm that is taken so much for granted that it's almost invisible to us is that even military and intelligence reconnaisance satellites are allowed to do what prior to the space age, we would have called “overflying another nation's territory.” The Outer Space Treaty and understandings of what it meant evolved over the time of superpower practice. And we now have treaty agreements separately with the Russians that protect that overflight right for what we euphemistically call national technical means. But that norm, that understanding, actually doesn't have to exist forever. It's possible that some of the developments that are going on and some of the military discussions about weapons in space to include concepts of weapons that could produce effects on earth from space (that seem today almost like science fiction), but are being discussed in military journals and so forth. Is the U.S. prepared to accept a world in which other nations can field orbital weapons that could produce effects on the earth and potentially kinetic effects on the earth, then that they will overfly U.S. territory every day, multiple times? Those are hard discussions.”

      Jessica West, Senior Researcher, Project Ploughshares

      “Obviously, the mantra of the Space Force is focused on warfighting in space and having a warfighting mission. But to me, I think that the threat environment is much wider and from an international perspective, a global peace perspective, I think we face a situation where there are a number of states who are actively preparing for the potential of conflict in space. But we don't have a good basis of knowledge for understanding what that looks like and for understanding how can we make that compatible with all of the wonderful things that Jim Bridenstine just told us about that are happening in space. How do we do warfighting in space, but also create an environment that is sustainable and stable for commercial operators and scientific operators and peaceful exploration? How do we contain conflict from escalating to the point where we cause damage to the environment or where we cause damage to other operators in space?”

      “In some ways, there's a lot going on and in some ways there's not a lot going on. Do we need a new Outer Space Treaty at the current moment? I mean, I don't think so. I'm currently doing a lot of research to unpack the existing legal and normative landscape in outer space… What's reassuring is that we have a lot of rules in space. We have fairly clear international principles in space with a coherent agreement around those and we have some room to grow in space. So I think we have a pretty good basis for going forward. But we're stuck and we've been stuck for a long time. International diplomacy on this file has really been stuck for decades. So how do we move forward beyond this moment? I think we need to have new and different conversations and that includes collaboration. So when I said there's a lot happening and not a lot happening, I think there is activity happening at a bilateral level and certainly the military to military level between the United States and core allies on space on making sure that there's cooperation and starting to think through what this warfighting mandate might look like. We don't see a lot of activity happening is more broadly across, say, non-allies or possible competitors in space. And it's really important to start having that conversation about what does the future look like and how do we make it simple? What do we want to see happening in space? What do we absolutely not what you see happening in space? What makes us really uncomfortable and might trigger unintended reactions or escalation in space?”

      “There is a new initiative being pursued by the United Kingdom this year, at the United Nation’s First Committee. This is exactly that kind of conversation that they're trying to have. They're trying to have a broad, open, bottom up conversation about what makes us feel unsafe in space and I think it's a great place to start. I'm hoping a lot of states contribute to it and get faith and really try to have a frank conversation… my concern is that it will degenerate into finger pointing. My experiences at the United Nations the last couple years have been interesting–– there's been a bit of an erosion of diplomacy, it's been dominated by a lot of back and forth accusations and finger pointing between a few key states and I’m hoping that an initiative this year to have a really frank conversation can maybe move us beyond that point and start thinking about, you know, common security and how to stabilize the situation.”

      “We're certainly seeing the beginnings of a space, I would say a global arms race, in which space plays a key role. So thinking a bit more broadly than space, when we're talking about arms racing and arms escalation. Obviously, arms control is my file and it's a hard file, arms control is not a topic that is popular these days. I really hope for a revival. We provide deterrence as a key strategy and I think it's time that we start reviving concepts of arms control as a security measure, rather than arms control as a concession as well. It's something we can use to identify and prevent the worst types of activities from happening. How do we do it? I would say how we've been doing it hasn't been working, we've really gotten nowhere. Some of the problems that are highlighted with space arms control are the difficulty of identifying what a weapon in space would be or use of a weapon would be and verification… I think these are challenges that really pervade all arms control discussions.”

      Brian Weeden, Director of Program Planning, Secure World Foundation

      “There's a lot of research and development going on, there's even some operational testing going on and so there's quite a bit of concern that, as these capabilities get developed and as they come out and sort of become more operational, are they going to be used in a future conflict? … You know some of these weapons, particularly the more destructive ones–– we've already seen them be used in the testing. I'm thinking back to the 2007 Chinese antisatellite test that created a whole lot of orbital debris. That has presented a challenge for all space actors for the last decade since the test and will for the future. So if there is a future conflict, and someone is going to use these capabilities, that could have huge challenges for everyone.”

      “The question going forward is how many more countries are going to decide that they need to join in this competition and develop their own capabilities and then what does that mean for the proliferation of these technologies and capabilities around the world?”

      "I think thankfully, most of what happens in space is not a partisan political issue or at least it has not been in the past. So again, I’ll just summarize by saying I think there's good reason to think that at least the substance of what has happened last few years will continue under whatever happens to be the next administration.”

      Panel 2

      Kendra Horn, Congresswoman (D-OK 5th District); Chairwoman, House Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics

      “The question that we need to ask ourselves is what’s the right combination? What’s the right balance to preserve our leadership in space and continue development in our national interest and scientific advancement discovery and also encourage a burgeoning commercial market? What we know from the history of the U.S. civil space program is that commercial entities, commercial businesses, and contractors have been a critical part of this whole process working with NASA but it’s really been our national interest of investing in our space program that allowed some of those commercial discoveries to come out as a result of the investment that we as a nation made in space and exploration. It has had amazing benefits and we’ve seen this commercial marketplace change the way that we live and interact in the world and I think there are many benefits to that [...]. It’s really what’s that balance and what is actually commercial versus what is government contracted, led, and directed.”

       “We need to continue to develop our inherent capabilities and our industrial base and encourage more providers but something that is in the nation’s interests whether its national security or its exploration and discovery and science, what should be inherently governmental? Those are the questions that I really think that we have to wrestle with, and I think there is still space. I think it’s sometimes framed as a commercial versus government but that’s not the way I see it [...]. To me, it’s about finding the right balance and asking different questions rather than assuming something is commercial or governmental. It’s: what is that correct balance?”

      “One of the reasons that we find ourselves here is because of stops and starts and changes in direction between different administrations, changes in how we’re approaching things. That’s one of the reasons that we need a long-term plan and policy that spans administrations and congresses because space is inherently difficult. To go back to the moon (I know we’ve been there), it’s with a new generation of scientists and engineers and a workforce that wasn’t there 50 years ago. Building that capability is a new pathway and it’s inherently difficult. We need consistent guidance, and the stops and starts are part of the problem.”

      Therese Jones, Senior Director of Policy, Satellite Industry Association

      “The question about whether there will be rules implemented right away is another issue. I think that there are a lot of industry players and government working to come up with best practices. But one of the major domains where we’re really lacking right now (and the Office of Space Commerce has already sort of stepped in) is on the data side in creating some sort of ‘open architecture’ data repository where you’re getting better data not just from the U.S. government on where these objects are in space but also being able to input things like plan maneuvers of your satellites and getting better data even from commercial operators and fusing this data. Right now, there’s not much transparency coming out of the data from DOD [...] and that’s caused communication issues in terms of should someone maneuver, should they not? That's where a lot of cooperation needs to happen before we can really get strict space traffic management rules.”

       “I think [the recommendation of buy what you can, build what you must] has become more and more integrated into the DOD and intelligence community thinking where they recognize that all of these wonderful commercial capabilities are coming online and that they should really try to figure out how to utilize them better, not just technologically speaking (in terms of having capabilities at cheaper costs than they might get otherwise in the military) but also from a resiliency perspective and having a diversity of assets on orbit that they can rely on should any of the government assets be attacked.”


      Introductions: Jane Harman, Director, President and CEO, of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars

      Keynote:  Jim Bridenstine, Administrator of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration

      Additional Remarks: Steve Isakowitz, President and CEO, The Aerospace Corporation

      Panel 1: Norms in space: balancing new weapons and behaviors

      In the past decade, we have seen nations establish their own defensive space commands, diversify their space technologies, and even demonstrate potentially destructive capabilities for the world to see. Some suggest the “Second Space Age” is here. Once space was seen as a peaceful sanctuary, but now it is "congested, contested and competitive." This panel will explore how the U.S. will navigate an increasingly complex threat landscape to ensure its leadership on the final frontier and its role in encouraging international cooperation to safeguard peace in space.

      • Jamie M. Morin, Executive Director of the Center for Space Policy and Strategy, The Aerospace Corporation
      • Brian Weeden, Director of Program Planning, Secure World Foundation
      • Jessica West, Senior Researcher, Project Ploughshares
      • Moderator: Christian Davenport, Staff Writer at The Washington Post, Former Public Policy Fellow at the Wilson Center

      Panel 2: Cooperating in crowded space

      NASA’s Demo-2 mission made history by proving that space exploration is no longer a domain confined to government agencies alone. The shift of spaceflight to a partially commercial endeavor raises serious policy and regulatory questions about the activities of private entities in space. This panel will explore the future of public-private partnership in space to bolster economic investment and safeguard the long-term sustainability of human space exploration and the common use of space resources, in low earth orbit, the moon and other celestial bodies.

      • Congresswoman Kendra Horn (D-OK 5th District); Chairwoman, House Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics
      • Therese Jones, Senior Director of Policy, Satellite Industry Association
      • Moderator: Christian Davenport, Staff Writer at The Washington Post, Former Public Policy Fellow at the Wilson Center

    Hosted By

    Science and Technology Innovation Program

    The Science and Technology Innovation Program (STIP) serves as the bridge between technologists, policymakers, industry, and global stakeholders.  Read more

    Digital Futures Project

    Less and less of life, war and business takes place offline. More and more, policy is transacted in a space poorly understood by traditional legal and political authorities. The Digital Futures Project is a map to constraints and opportunities generated by the innovations around the corner - a resource for policymakers navigating a world they didn’t build.  Read more

    Thank you for your interest in this event. Please send any feedback or questions to our Events staff.