Book Review – The Next Space Race: A Blueprint for American Primacy

The Next Space Race: A Blueprint for American Primacy by Richard M. Harrison and Peter A. Garretson, along with some additional contributors, takes on the important, complicated issue of the USA’s space strategy. It deserves consideration on this blog because cybersecurity and cyberwar are critical factors in any discussion of space strategy. Harrison is Vice President and Director of defense technology programs at the American Foreign Policy Council. Garretson, a former Lt Col. USAF, is a senior fellow at the Council and Co-Director of its Space Policy Initiative. With these backgrounds, the authors are well suited to discuss a subject that represents a nexus of military, intelligence, and geopolitical strategies, as well as a zone of vast commercial and technological potential—all of it essential for strategic dominance.

The book is, to a certain extent, a sequel to Scramble for the Skies: The Great Power Competition to Control the Resources of Outer Space, by Garretson and Namrata Goswami. There, the authors posited a struggle for the large national economies to capture the lion’s share of space’s potentially multi-trillion-dollar wealth. The Next Space Race goes into the subtleties of this competition and highlights the realities of the situation and what it will take for the United States to emerge in the winning position. It also points out the potential for smaller spacefaring nations, such as India and Iran, to have an outsized impact on the bigger picture.

The Next Space Race starts by reviewing the commercial potential for space. Already a half trillion-dollar industry, space is poised to become a zone for enormous economic growth. Potential centers of profit include space mining, which would be required to support interplanetary missions and feed demand for rare materials on Earth. Space-based power generation, a solution to global warming, is another massive industry that may become a reality in coming decades.

The authors also highlight the value of space to terrestrial military endeavors. This is not a new topic, but Harrison and Garretson present an ominous view of a future where China, not the US, is in the power position. China, in their view, has a far more comprehensive and ambitious plan for dominance in space, one that encompasses military capabilities in space and commercial exploitation of space resources.

As is the case in a variety of contexts, China’s ability to fuse industrial, military, and government action, without concern for political interference, represents a major threat to American primacy. The US, in contrast, must subject any proposed initiative for space to a political process that has a history of slowing down the implementation of good ideas. The American approach may be better for citizens’ rights and quality of life, but it’s not suited for making big bets on future geopolitical scenarios.

The book presents a comprehensive, multi-component plan for ensuring American primacy in space. This encompasses establishing a rules-based order for international co-existence in space, as well as the developing of space policy and finance tools to operationalize major strategic space programs and industrial projects. Space information services, space transportation and logistics, and power for space systems are all critical for success.

The authors envision several large-scale public/private partnerships to realize these visions. Getting such ideas off the ground, so to speak, will take a high level of political will as well as massive federal budget allocations. Neither looks very promising at this moment, and it’s not clear what will change this picture. The authors refer to the Apollo Program, a massive government spending project driven by cold war competition, as a reference point. Looking at the current state of American politics and governance, it seems unlikely that anything of that scale will ever happen again.

There are several reasons for this, which the authors wisely do not delve into. They want to stimulate productive, across-the-aisle dialogues in which Americans who believe in the future can achieve things in good faith. That’s admirable, and necessary, but probably naïve at this moment.

If one is paying attention, one can see that the US government now does not function very well. Congress has difficulty passing major legislation or forging consensus on large-scale projects. Space is sufficiently speculative that it seems unlikely that we’ll see the kind of ambitious plan outlined in this book coming into existence. What’s more probable is a stumbling series of half measures, driven by commercial interests. These have a funny way of motivating politicians through campaign contributions.

The authors also do not reference a problem hiding in plain sight. Again, this was a wise choice, but any serious dialogue about competing with China needs to address China’s ongoing efforts to influence American policy. As Retired USAF General Robert Spalding argued in his book, Stealth War: How China Took Over While America’s Elite Slept, China is fighting a non-shooting war against the US. This is a war that includes deeply placed, lavishly funded programs that affect American thought and action at numerous levels of government and policy development circles.

With this in mind, it will be impossible to know for sure why a given politician will argue that “We can’t afford this space program” or “This space policy is wrong.” Do they actually believe that, or are they getting too much money from a Chinese PAC to say otherwise?

This may sound cynical and negative, but it’s very real. So is the fact that our previous (and possibly future) president earned millions of dollars, personally, from China as a landlord and hotelier. It may seem gauche to suggest that such a man would be influenced in space policy because of his personal financial gains, but any serious look at American space policy should consider these factors.

Additionally, and this may be the most serious of all obstacles to the plans envisioned in this book, the American public is not remotely aware of the importance of space and is very, very far off from caring enough to vote for politicians who espouse space as a strategic imperative. It’s not 1961 anymore, a time when anything we needed to “beat the commies” would get votes and funding.

The debacle of Trump’s announcement of the Space Force is a cautionary lesson for those who care about space. The creation of the new service branch was the result of a long, careful deliberation at the top levels of the US military, as the authors explain. However, when Trump announced the service, the news was treated as a joke. The public had no idea what was going on and didn’t care. That can tell us all something about the political viability of spending tens of billions of dollars on a space program that may not pay dividends for decades.

I recommend this book if you want to understand that stakes of space and where the US currently sits in the strategic landscape. It’s quite readable, which is an achievement considering the many spheres of thought and action required for an overview of space strategy. The authors do a good job balancing wonkish policy analysis with a sensible narrative. Each chapter encapsulates dozens of policy papers, I suspect. If you want to get a sense of America’s potential, and risks, in space, read this book.