The new space race: An imperialist battle-ground for capitalism

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On July 20 1969, two men took the first steps on the moon. These exploits concretised one of the most audacious dreams of humanity, an unparalleled plan already imagined by Lucien of Samosata in the IInd century, later by the poet Cyrano de Bergerac and more recently, Jules Verne. But with capitalism, everything useful, every conquest, every advance, has its downside. The Apollo II Mission brought in its wake a frenzy of competition and a bellicose mentality which at the level of states is called imperialism. The militarisation of space is an old obsession of the great powers. In effect, the space-race was a crucial stake in the Cold War between the USA and Russia. It was necessary for them to get to the moon first and, if possible, them alone.[1]

The "space-race": a race to militarisation

First of all these space programmes were useful propaganda: the first Sputnik, the first man in space was triumphantly broadcast around the world by the USSR. Even today there remains a real cult devoted to Yuri Gagarin since his voyage around the Earth[2]. The flight of the three Apollo II astronauts was presented as the success of advanced American technology.

But behind the propaganda, these space programmes had a quite concrete military dimension. The fact is that everyone sent into space had come from the military (the first civilian to set foot on the moon was Harrison Schmitt in 1972... the last Apollo mission), the rocket science used by both the Americans and the Russians was initially developed for inter-continental missiles. NASA appealed to Wernher von Braun, who was lifted out of Germany after the war in a secret operation that included hundreds of other scientists who worked for the Nazis[3]. Following his work for the Third Reich and its success with his V2[4] rocket, the US employed him to design the US Saturn V rocket used to go to the moon. The Soviet launchers were also adapted copies of the German V2's. The R-7, which put Sputnik I in orbit, was nothing other than an inter-continental missile. As for the Europeans, Britain and France also profited from German technology by launching V2 rockets and then, in France, there was a development from this basis of its own launcher ending up in the "Ariane" programme. The Russian and American states first of all built missiles to carry nuclear charges before being interested in the space exploration made possible by the technology.

Moreover, the first satellites sent into space had a strictly military aim: the 144 satellites of the US Corona programme, begun in 1959, had the sole aim of spying on the enemy. In 1962, the United States made its first high-altitude nuclear test at 400 km ("Starfish Prime") while the Russians developed their "kamikaze satellites" in order to eliminate American spy satellites. The USSR even succeeded in putting into orbit two secret space stations armed with automatic cannons (Salyut 3 in 1974 and Salyut 5 in 1976).

During President Reagan's tenure, the US army prompted the "Strategic Defence Initiative" popularised under the name "Star Wars". The aim of this military programme was to be able to intercept ballistic missiles whose trajectory (like the V2) left Earth's atmosphere. Some real weapons were developed during this period, the anti-satellite ASM-135 or the "Patriot" anti-missile system, notably deployed during the Gulf War. The USSR tried to keep up but quickly gave up given the enormous resources thrown at it by the Americans: twelve billion dollars over five years, enabling them to get up to 30,000 scientists working on their projects. The technological advances made from this allowed the US to completely dominate their imperialist rivals in the domain of space. The effort here made by the USSR led to its ruin, ending up in its economic and political collapse in 1990.

A new race to the militarisation of space

Today, numerous signs point to a greater and greater interest by the main imperialist powers in space as a field of battle, possibly in the confrontation where one opposes the other. One could see this as just a technological and scientific issue, but the runners in this race, when they talk openly, see things much more "strategically": "faced with the quarrels taking place in European and French space agencies, Thomas Husak (...) considers that 'given the strategic stakes we cannot allow ourselves to be divided'. A word to the wise... Much more than the USA and China, beyond questions of sovereignty, there is participation in a real commercial war in developing space capacities (launchers, applications...). The European Union is well aware of this, betting heavily on space with a constantly increasing budget: five billion euros in 2007, then thirteen billion in 2018 and finally sixteen billion in 2027"[5].

Today, as well as the Russians, Americans and Europeans, there are other actors arriving on the scene of space competition: India and China have shown their ambitions in this domain... by demonstrating their ability to destroy orbiting satellites. In launching satellites capable of approaching other satellites, Russia has worried certain other states sufficiently enough push France into providing itself with an autonomous space command whose avowed aim is to protect French satellites: "We can see with this intrusion that we are vulnerable, said Stephane Mazouffre. And that's even truer when Europe hasn't developed a system to destroy satellites from the ground up. In March 2019, India became the fourth country to destroy, by missile, one of its satellites in low orbit"[6].

General Friedling, leader of the French inter-army command on space, made clear in an interview that it wasn't illegal to install armaments in space "if their aim were non-aggressive"[7]. When we know that the most developed states depend on the US GPS satellite system for 6 or 7% of their GDP, we can understand the interest that they have in protecting their satellites and their space communications!

The "peaceful" exploration of space masks the hypocrisy over its militarisation

Evidently, when the bourgeoisie develops an overtly aggressive strategy, above all in the domain of space which doesn't appear strategic at first sight, it also develops a whole range of propaganda in order to obscure its real intentions. In France, such has been the role, conscious or not, of astronaut Thomas Pesquet, who became a leading expression of the state's propaganda claiming to show the most "peaceful" side of the space activity of the major nations. Outside of the fact that the equipping of the International Space Station (ISS) has always been international, links between schools, direct scientific experiences and numerous photos of Earth taken by Pesquet have given a very "peaceful" and "neutral" image of present space activity[8]. President Macron’s involvment in the official welcome that the astronaut received when he returned to Earth illustrates all the French state's effort of communication behind this episode. The exploration of the moon and Mars poses many scientific elements but also more clearly prosaic elements too; notably who can lay claim to the resources that could eventually be extracted from the lunar or Martian soils.

Since the 2000's we've seen more or less fantastical projects put together, from "tourism in space" to the pure and simple exploitation of the mineral resources of asteroids or even the moon and Mars. On the off-chance, various countries have provided themselves with legislation regarding the ownership of celestial objects[9]. The aim is to establish a juridical support to eventual mining prospecting in space. A certain number of firms and billionaires like Richard Branson have proclaimed their interest in these opportunities and in the creation of space tourism, but a certain number of elements show that in reality this is only a mirage. The Virgin Galactic company, founded in 2004, is still incapable of achieving what it was created for, sending "tourists" into terrestrial orbit. If the creation of an "orbital aeroplane" capable of following a trajectory coming out of Earth's gravitational attraction is a possibility, sending tourists to the moon is another story completely: even the future rockets of NASA cannot carry more than four passengers! However, cosmologically speaking, the moon is not far away! But, technically, nothing is ready.

If "space tourism" appears a chimera, what about the exploitation of mineral resources from space? In order to exploit fanciful natural resources in space it would be first of all necessary to send numbers of workers into space with particularly sophisticated and thus costly heavy equipment. Profits from such an operation thus appear totally illusory, much more so when the necessary technology remains to be invented. None of this can solve the problems of capitalism in any case; what it lacks is not raw materials but buyers!

Finally, a recent independent report published in February 2019, concluded that in the present conditions there is no precise aim, nor the technical capacity, nor the finance to send anyone to Mars between now and ... 2033! "We note that, even without budget restraints, an orbital mission to Mars 2033 cannot be realistically planned in the framework of the present plans and theory of NASA"[10]. When we know that the above report puts a figure of at least 217 billion dollars in costing a space programme to Mars, we can see the breadth of the effort demanded of the American economy at a time when global economic perspectives are darkening by the day. As to the reason effectively pushing the US space agency to plan a Martian expedition, the report concludes... there are none!

It's funny to note that the problems of costs do not spare the "peaceful" space industry: NASA's budget represented 4.5% of US GDP in 1966, but now only represents 0.5% of it. Last September, India launched a moon lander module whose main characteristic was its low cost (six times cheaper than an identical programme developed by China). But the set-backs of this moon landing were preceded by various incidents affecting the launch, showing that trying to do too much with so little is not really a strategy that pays off in space... Far from doping the economy, these projects not only cost a fortune without any returns but they are already prey to the "low cost" approach which is gangrening the whole capitalist economy.

From all this we can only conclude one thing: the scientific and "peaceful" perspectives that states are developing for the conquest of the Solar System are nothing but propaganda; propaganda which is against the real, hidden objective of providing themselves with an array of military satellites in the framework of an imperialist confrontation!

In fact space is an essentially military and strategic stake: spying, telecommunications, GPS tracking and military communications all converge to make space the present field of strategic operations of the major imperialisms. "Space is already militarised, warns Stephane Mazouffre, research director of the Icare laboratory of CNRS, at Orleans-La Source. All countries have spy satellites, communication satellites dedicated to the military which also utilises GPS systems... A satellite itself is a weapon. Why? Because if its orbit can be altered, it's enough for it to approach another satellite in order to perturb its orbit and make it inoperable. The simple fact of being able to move a satellite closer to another can be considered as a possible attack"[11]. All the deployments of armies, from the movement of troops to strategic bombardments, depend on the GPS system or its European competitor, Galileo. All securitised communications go through satellites that consequently have to be protected from the risk of being totally disarmed faced with an enemy. In this optic one can understand why the great powers provide themselves with a specifically military space operation with its own budget. The collapse of the imperialist blocs and the development of "everyone for themselves" have largely meant that new actors are constantly looking out to get involved in this vital domain for their own imperialist interests. These intentions are clear in the case of France which has some experience in this matter: [12] "The law on the French military programme (LPM) 2019-2025, foresees a budget of 3.6 million euros for space defence. It must in particular allow for the renewal of French observational satellites (CSO) and communications (Syracuse), and launch into orbit three electromagnet listening satellites (Ceres) and modernise the Graves space surveillance radar.[13]

Capital makes war everywhere, including space

As we see, and despite soothing declarations of intentions, space has been a field of rivalries between the major imperialist sharks for a long time; and today more than ever it’s a key element in the affirmation of their military power. Even beyond the economic aims that bourgeois propaganda and some private operators have broadcast (space tourism, extraction of minerals from asteroids, planetary exploration, regular return trips to the moon) which themselves constitute a component of imperialism, it is also the object of an intense battle for the protection of the advanced technology of the major powers towards eventual new competitors. But above all that, the real stakes of the militarisation of space can only be the preparation for future conflicts.

"Capitalism brings war as the clouds bring the storm" Jaures said. He could never have imagined that capital, far from stopping at the level of the ground and the sky, would a century later bring war and militarism much higher than the clouds, so that the necessity to destroy this system in order to halt this universal militarism becomes ever more urgent.


[1]  On our website: "... the adventure that wasn't".

[2]  The cult devoted to Gagarin by the military-space complex is mocked in the comic-book of Marion Montaigne published in 2017: Dans la combi de Thomas Pesquet (In the space-suit of Thomas Pesquet), humorously devoted to the personality of the last French astronaut.

[3]  See The Americans had the pick and the "allies" had to make do with the rest.

[4]  The V2 was a missile developed by Nazi Germany during the Second World War. The advantage gained by Germany with the V2 was that this missile left the atmosphere during the course of its trajectory, which made its interception impossible.

[5]  "Space, a vital and strategic stake for the competitiveness of the European Union". In French, La Tribune (June 27, 2018).

[6]  "The militarisation of space: a satellite is itself a weapon". France 3, Centre-Val de Loire (July 26, 2019).

[7]  "France could send arms into space". Le Point, (March 18, 2019).

[8]  This point was developed very explicitly in the comic-book, In the space-suit of Thomas Pesquet, which re-traced his whole space journey.

[9]  The USA in 2015, Luxemburg in 2017!

[10]  Quoted from: "Independent report concludes a human to Mars mission 2033, is not feasible", Space-news (April 18, 2019).

[11]  "Militarism in space: a satellite in itself is a weapon", France 3 Centre-Val de Loire (July 26, 2019).

[12]    This has been the case since the policy of De Gaulle of "self-determination" regarding "the nuclear deterrent", parallel to but also on the margins of NATO. The creation of the National Centre for Space Studies ((CNES) in 1961 is an illustration of it, even if this was then integrated into a European framework in the 1970's, France remained the most active member of the European Space Agency.

[13]  "France goes onto the offensive in space", Le Figaro (July 14, 2019).


Imperialist Tensions