Space development theory is built on the claim that space is similar to other domains, which are developed through the synergistic tools of military and economic power. The phases of space development provide a framework to systematize and accomplish that movement: exploration, expansion, exploitation, and exclusion. Exploration is gathering information about the domain and identifying key elements. Expansion is extending national architecture into the domain to maximize access and the ability to control key elements. Exploitation benefits a nation economically by using the secured key areas to increase profitability for commercial entities. Then, the nation encourages economic development to gain national benefit from the areas and resources. Exclusion, a conditional phase, occurs when a controlled area is threatened, or a desired area can be contested. Unlike the first space race, this new space race is not as much for national prestige of getting to space to plant flags, but to position and derive economic benefits from space resources.[i]
Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek is one of the most iconic science fiction mass media creations of all time. The vision of a future where humans embrace faster-than-light space flight and unlimited energy-to-matter conversion capability is fascinating. Subsequent novel adaptations have tried to trace the origins of Star Trek’s space expansion, but at least part of it is contained in Roddenberry’s original title for the series - Wagon Train to the Stars. If Star Trek is a ‘wagon train’ to the stars, then what started that movement? According to the observe, orient, decide, act (OODA) loop the actor must ‘orient’ on the problem before an action can take place. Part of that orientation is drawing on mental frameworks that make sense of the sensory information gathered during the “observe” phase. To make sense of the complexities of the world, humans form shorthand frameworks to orient themselves. This lets them pick out the nuggets of key information amid the rush of data bombarding their senses. This framework, also commonly known as a theory, is essential in life, and especially in military operations because there is no more directly consequential human endeavor. Theory forms the basis for strategy, as the ways that means are employed in strategy are contingent on the planner’s understanding of how the world works. A bad theory will often lead to bad strategy.
Up until this point in history, there is limited data to draw on in developing a space theory. There are no historical space expansions with a permanent presence beyond Earth’s orbit, eventhough there are plans expand to the Moon. Since there is no direct experience to draw on, historical analogy becomes an accepted means to reason through difficult or unique situations. There are multiple historical analogies that can be employed to help understand domain development.
The common thread between domains is the human interaction, in the form of nations, with new and contested areas of a domain. That is why historical analogies become appropriate – humanity’s struggle remains constant. Presented here is the space development theory (SDT) – a theoretical framework to systematize the development of space – and to map the stated phases to those historical examples. To have utility, a theory must have predictive power. Some predictions will be made about how the current space race will likely develop.
The realist school of thought provides the international relations theoretical underpinning of SDT. Nations compete against each other, either directly or indirectly, in pursuit of their respective national interests.They do this within rules-based systems or an anarchical system, which means there is no ’world police’ to call, but each nation must deal with potential conflict as best they are able. There are, however, convergent, or mutually beneficial interests, and these give rise to alliances or partnerships, which will likely persist if there is mutual benefit.
SDT draws on what has been termed ‘soft power,’ which includes economic and non-military elements. This is emphasized because of an assessed shift in warfare, exemplified by what has been called, “Russian New Generation Warfare” or Chinese, ”total warfare” that uses all available national abilities and means to achieve national ends. In both, the “main aim is to achieve political objectives; therefore, the use of military power may not even be necessary.” Said another way, the government weaponizes information, economics, and politics, and applies them to achieve strategic ends. With this resort to indirect conflict, the United States cannot rely on the military to be the sole shield of the nation. While the cyberattacks of the last few years by Russia have drawn press attention, less dramatic is the steady economic coercion that China has employed for at least a decade. As China’s economy has continued to grow, they now match the United States’ purchasing power, and are attempting to surpass its’ GDP by early 2028.
The United States should focus on the economic development of space to minimize the possibility of economic coercion from the Chinese government and to arm itself with tools to engage in economic self-defense against China. The future space economy is estimated to be worth between $1 trillion by 2040, on the low side, and $1.4 trillion by 2030, on the high side. The Moon, especially, is recognized as a highly-lucrative location. It is from this basis, and attempting to avoid the “Underpants Gnomes” business model, that SDT lays out the historical path that nations have taken to enter and develop new areas.
Exploration is the first phase and the goal is to understand the environment, identify key locations of potential strategic benefit, and stake initial claims to the locations through mapping, naming, and other soft power expressions. There is both a practical and an ideational element to exploration. A nation must be able to identify key locations or resources, routes of travel, and other key information to move effectively and allow it to decide whether it desires to move forward with committing to an area. This is a key step because sometimes information is incorrect, and this can mitigate the risk that forces will be committed to the wrong area, as the Italians almost did in 1341. There were rumors in Europe that the Canary Islands were host to well-defended towns and resources. In July 1341, an expedition set out from Lisbon to take ownership of them, but discovered only naked men and women that were ‘rough in manners.’ If they had not explored the area first, but had decided to build a port, for instance, before going inland, national treasure would have been exhausted for little gain.
The second element of exploration is ideational. As Jason Smith writes: “Historians of cartography (mapmaking) have long understood maps as instruments of power whose boundaries and borders, colors and symbols, and numbers and tables cast a veil of precision and objectivity over the subjective process of constructing meaning, representation, and control.” Naming and map-making have been used before to claim ownership of contested areas, as when the Dutch attempted to ‘prove’ their rights in the Americas through maps. A recent example of this saw Japan name four of the 158 contested islands in the Senkaku/Daiyu island chain, “in an effort to better assert its sovereignty over them.” Implied ownership is imparted through superior knowledge, and construction of reality through maps; explicit ownership, however, can only be enforced through physical presence in sufficient power to deter possible adversaries. That is part of the goal of the next step, expansion.
Expansion is the movement of national forces and architecture to previously identified areas with the purpose of securing them and easing further movement into the area. This covers the deployment of infrastructure, permanent basing, and some form of military presence, especially in contested areas. Historically, the founding of Fort Huachuca in Arizona would be an example of expansion, the emplacement of permanent infrastructure to both control a local water supply and “offer protection to settlers and travel routes in southeastern Arizona.” The bases that Alfred Thayer Mahan noted in his seminal work would also be part of expansion. As Mahan argued, offshore bases allow a national force to project power beyond the shores of a nation. This oversea basing allows for commerce to grow and military forces to protect it during conflict. Permanent bases must be established during expansion to assist in improving access to the domain, lower costs for entry and transit, and demonstrate safety to commercial observers.
This is the phase being entered in cislunar space now. China and Russia have recently signed an agreement for a permanent Moon base, an expansion into the domain. The United States, similarly, has declared its intention of establishing permanent Lunar presence. They are not alone in declaring interest in the Moon for future expansion, but are joined by Japan, India, the European Union, and the United Arab Emirates.
Due to the touchiness of space expansion, most of these proposed bases emphasize the exploration element in their plans – for instance, the Chinese and Russian base being called a “Moon Research Station.” However, exploration can be followed very closely by expansion. The British sent Captain Cook on an exploration mission through the Pacific, and he was responsible to make maps, among other things. Neil deGrasse Tyson notes in an interview with Steven Colbert: “Within eighteen years, Great Britain had taken control of Northern Australia, of New Zealand, of Tasmania, of Cook Islands, Pitcairn Islands, Fiji, and Tuvalu.” In other words, the British rapidly moved into the Pacific and secured the key locations against potential interlopers – they expanded.
Looking ahead, SDT predicts that nations desire to increase their power in comparison to their peer competitors – and so will expand and move to exploit with all available speed if crucial resources are discovered or likely. Even if the nations involved desire to simply explore, or lack the national will to expand on their own, mistrust and international competition may drive them to scramble for the resources of space. Competition on Earth has already extended to outright banning export of key raw materials, targeting industries of hostile nations, as when China banned export of rare earth elements to Japan in 2010. China controls the distribution of 93% of the world’s rare earth minerals, “which are used in key technologies like hybrid cars, wind turbines and guided missiles.” Following this action, both Japan and the United States looked to diversify their supply chains, though how they would do that with China controlling 97% of distribution is unclear. However, the Moon has “the presence of some concentration of minerals,” including rare earth minerals and could become a forum for competition due to that.
That competition, endemic in the anarchic world system, will drive nations to seek economic benefit from the areas they have expanded. Exploitation focuses on growing the markets and economic benefit that the control of locations in the domain provides. Economic benefit is the goal of SDT, and this phase is its apex. Once the domain, and the locations/resources in it are understood, and there is sufficient reduction of risk to travel there for commercial purpose, exploitation should be driven naturally, assuming individuals and organizations can achieve financial gain. This private benefit, in turn, drives national benefits through taxes and control of resources. This phase is driven by commercial development, but the nation’s government still has the duty to both protect the fledgling markets and assist them, as much as possible, with subsidies and beneficial, and stable, legal frameworks.
Milton Friedman explains that “the main purpose of a business is to maximize profits for its owners.” To analyze that further, to increase profits, a business must balance the risk of its actions, the potential for negative outcomes, with return on investment, or the likelihood of positive outcomes. To assist the growth of industry, governments can assist both halves of the equation. By expanding, like at Fort Huachuca mentioned earlier, settlers could move westward at reduced risk because the water source was known to be controlled and protected. The return on investment can be increased through lowered taxes, subsidies, other policies. If commercial entities do not feel secure or that the return is high enough, they will not risk entering the domain in sufficient quantity and commitment. Thus, the nation could remain in expansion indefinitely - resulting in a net-drain on resources.
In the future, a rapid movement to the exploitation phase is possible on the Moon once expansion has progressed far enough. A combination of Lunar ice, space tourism, space solar power, and other potential future economic drivers have the potential, as already noted, to generate national funds in the trillions of dollars – to say nothing of access to high-demand raw resources, like rare earth elements and water. If SDT is correct, then commercial presence on the Moon will serve as a key area of competition in the future.
Whether or not human economic flourishing beyond Earth becomes real, the potential future may still lead to the final phase of SDT, exclusion. The exclusion phase can occur at any point in this model, if there is a chance that at least one competitor nation desires the same resource or position as another. It is also an exertion phase as the respective groups struggle over the disputed object. The focus is almost always military - as the forces grapple with each other - but all elements of national power will likely be involved. This is in keeping with the already-established frameworks of Russian and Chinese warfare, which can apply any tool of national power to achieve political ends.
Diplomacy will be involved by attempting to rally international support to the nation and deny that same legitimacy to a competing nation. Informational forces undermine hostile narratives in the mass understanding, while bolstering the friendly one. Finally, economic forces will likely be expressed through embargo, tariffs, aggressive trade deals targeting the competing nation’s partners, or other economic methods for ‘commercial punishment’ to increase the cost to the other nation. The goal is to make them reconsider the importance of the contested region. The dispute will be resolved in one of four ways - either the aggressor nation wins, the defender nation wins, there is a stalemate resulting in return to status quo, or there is a negotiated settlement. Once the dispute is resolved in one of these ways, the previously-operative phase is usually resumed as the victor nation seeks to continue down the path toward securing economic benefit.
There is a general linear progression through the phases of space development if a nation desires to develop a new domain and bolster national power through economic capability. It is predicated on the human attempt to secure national power against potential threats and the mistrust that comes in strategic competition. If the nation desires to be as efficient as possible, then it will progress through the phases of exploration, expansion, exploitation and, as necessary, engage in exclusion to ensure comparative advantage against competitors.
SDT assists in explaining current situations and predicting future actions. For instance, some people do not consider the Chinese space program as a threat because in a traditional framework, it is not clear why a peaceful space program should be considered dangerous. China is not putting up armed space stations, as Russia has done; neither have they tested co-orbital anti-satellite weapons, as Russia has also done. Without SDT’s framework, Russia may be perceived as the larger threat to the United States’ capabilities in space. With it, China’s stated intentions to complete a crewed Moon base by 2036, in particular, should be a national security concern for the United States, which has struggled to achieve a similar feat, despite being the only nation to land humans on the Moon.
In 2019, when the Chinese put a lander, the Chang’e 4, on the far side of the Moon, NASA Director Jim Bridenstine was asked how the “United States fell behind’” in the space race.His response was illuminating of the U.S. mindset in space: “We did not fall behind...we landed on the far side as well...of Mars.”If all missions have the same purpose, this is a valid counter-argument to China’s accomplishment. However, space development theory argues that missions have different purposes, and a linear progression of benefit. An exploration mission to Mars, while be more logistically difficult, is not the same as a Chinese expansion mission to the Moon. To illustrate the issue, it would have been analogous for a 1700s British parliamentarian to argue: “We are exploring the Pacific” to avoid discussing that the French were expanding to the Americas unopposed. Superior exploration cannot overcome superior expansion.
China was not there purely for exploration. Their lander had seeds that it sought to sprout in microgravity. Liu Hanlong, the chief director of the experiment was explicit of their purpose: “our experiment might help accumulate knowledge for building a lunar base and long-term residence on the Moon.” United States has not conducted a similar experiment, and therefore it is reasonable to say that China is seeking leadership in this area - and is indeed already achieving it. Far from seeing space as a laboratory or a place for exclusively scientific pursuits, Ye Peijian, the head of the Chinese Lunar Exploration Program, said, “[t]he universe is an ocean, the Moon is Daiyu Island, Mars is Huangyan Island.”
Therefore, it is not about the weapon systems in orbit, at least not primarily, but what expansion plan a strategic competitor is following that should determine their threat level. Weapons are expensive and a net-drain on a nation’s resources, which is why Mahan pointed to the British as the superior expansionists because they made settlements and expanded their economy as they went to strategic locations. This firm rooting made them much less likely to be lost due to transient hostile military success, cuts in armament budgets, or changes in the administration. They became a biological element - growing and surviving on their own, instead of a static construction - concrete worn down and cracked over time by forces acting against it. Arms and weapons benefit in war, but superior economic capability benefits in peace and, when properly protected, deters from war.
In conclusion, space development theory examines past human interactions with new and valuable areas of a domain – especially during strategic competition – and finds a general progression that nations can be expected to repeat when dealing with space. Specifically, exploration is the first phase and relatively inexpensive, and is focused on determining key locations, resources, and developing domain understanding. Expansion is the second phase, and is a significantly higher national cost that is focused on establishing permanent presence and infrastructure in the high value areas. The goal is to allow national control of those areas and reduce travel costs into the key areas of the domain for national assets. Exploitation is the only net benefit phase and is the apex of SDT. Economic power bolsters national power and allows for conversion into hard power, as needed. This requires some form of economic development, and usually some governmental nurturing of the new commerce. The final phase, which is situational, is exclusion, where areas valued by a nation are contested by a strategic competitor. This threat provokes another exertion phase, as the nation seeks to retain control of the desired area or resource. Once the threat is resolved, the nation will try to return to economic benefit in exploitation, usually by reducing military presence or other economic-negative impacts.
In the ongoing human struggle, space appears to be a major future arena for competition. Several nations have expressed their desire to expand to the Moon with a permanent presence, something that has never occurred before in human history. While exciting, it is also fraught with potential conflict as nations compete over more desirable locations on the Moon’s surface. If the United States is going to be successful in the projected struggle, the only military force that it can draw on is the U.S. Space Command, the combatant command with operational control of presented armed forces, and especially the U.S. Space Force. Like the mariners leaving shore many centuries ago, these forces will be the watchers and the defenders of the United States and its allies in space. They will be the Sentinels of the Silent Sea.
Joshua Carlson is the author of Spacepower Ascendant, chosen for the 2021 National Security Space Institute’s Reading list. This paper represents the author’s views solely and does not necessarily represent the official policy or position of any Department or Agency of the U.S. Government. If you have a different perspective, we would like to hear from you.
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