PERSPECTIVE3-5 min to read

Podcast: The new space race

The US, China and Russia are among 80 countries globally contesting the new space race. But why now and what do they want? 

13/09/2023
space-race

Authors

David Brett
Multi-media Editor

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[00:00:07.930] - David Brett

Welcome to the Investor Download the podcast about the themes driving markets and the economy now and in the future. I'm your host, David Brett. Welcome to the show, I hope you're all well. Over the next two weeks, we have a couple of special shows on the new space race.

[00:00:31.930] - News clip

Today, we're learning new details about the next stage of the Artemis mission.

[00:00:35.350] - News clip

The NASA programme is aimed at putting humans back on the moon.

[00:00:39.190] - News clip

China is shooting for the moon. The country plans to put its own astronauts on the moon by 2030.

[00:00:44.960] - News clip

Not since 1976, nearly half a century, has Moscow sent a rocket to the moon. But they and many others are seeking a new first. For this, the Lunar 25 to land on the moon's south Pole. Something no nation has done before, and potentially find water.

[00:01:04.490] - David Brett

That didn't quite go to plan.

[00:01:06.330] - News clip

Right. I'll bring you some breaking news from Russia now. Well, from space, really, but Russia's Lunar 25 spacecraft has apparently crashed into the moon.

[00:01:16.330] - David Brett

But it opened up the door for others.

[00:01:19.000] - News clip

India becomes the fourth nation to safely land a mission on the moon.

[00:01:23.330] - News clip

The country launched a spacecraft last month and this morning it landed near the moon's south Pole.

[00:01:29.090] - David Brett

It's been over half a century since Eugene Cernan became the last man to walk on the moon. So, after all this time, why do countries suddenly want to go back?

[00:01:40.360] - Tim Marshall

It is partly about space exploration, but it's about the potential commercial advantages that you can get, especially when we talk about the moon.

[00:01:52.310] - David Brett

That's Tim Marshall, a British journalist, author and broadcaster specialising in foreign affairs and international diplomacy. And his most recent book is The Future of Geography: how Power and Politics in Space will Change Our World. Tim will be our guide to space over the next two shows. In part two, we'll cover the search for commodities and the prospects of tensions in space. But in the first show, we'll discuss the benefits and drawbacks of colonising and exploring space, many of which reflect issues dominating our economies and markets today. I start by asking Tim what's driving this need to return to space.

[00:02:36.770] - Tim Marshall

That there is now a raison d'etre, which is, I'll be honest, mostly to do with profit and indeed, the energy resources. So the difference is, from the 60s, that it's not really the ideological aspect to it, but they found some stuff that's going to be exceptionally useful for the 21st century on the moon, whether it's titanium or lithium or helium three. And of course, some of this is what we need to drive 21st century technology. So that's one reason. The other one is the massive, massive growth of satellites. And the fact that satellites are now, I would argue, part of our critical infrastructure. And they're doing some amazing work. Satellites, I mean, people often concentrate on the negative sides of space. The African countries like Nigeria that are putting up their own satellites now. It's revolutionising their ability for agriculture to be able to tell small crop farmers where to plant, when to plant. So there's this huge growth and it's driven by the fact that space is now very commercial and indeed, for some companies, profitable.

[00:03:58.090] - David Brett

Okay, so we'll definitely get back to the critical minerals aspect shortly. But I just want to ask a question. How does the space race in the 2020s differ from the space race post World War II, for instance?

[00:04:13.150] - Tim Marshall

I think it is some of the things that we just touched on, if you look at the 60s it was very ideological. The Soviets and the Americans each had to prove they were the future. And there's a speech by Kennedy to Congress in I think it's 61.

[00:04:30.870] - News clip

Space is open to us now, and our eagerness to share its meaning is not governed by the efforts of others. We go into space...

[00:04:39.150] - Tim Marshall

When he spells it out. He says we need having had two defeats, which was Gagarin first human into space, and before that, Sputnik first satellite into space. He spelled it out and said, we need to put somebody on the moon.

[00:04:55.610] - News clip

I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind or more important for the long range exploration of space. And none will...

[00:05:17.420] - Tim Marshall

We need to win this race precisely because there are people all over the world deciding which I think his phrase was, which road to take. We don't really have that now. We're all aware of the brilliance of Chinese technology, brilliance of American technology. So that's one of the big differences. It's not an ideological battle to prove a political system is better. Second, I would argue, is how central private enterprise is to the space race. Not just the Americans, but across the world. France, Italy, China, UK. Of course, there was always commercial companies connected, let's say, to NASA in the 60s and 70s but they weren't front and centre the way that SpaceX is, for example. And then this third thing is that it's not about space exploration. Well, it is partly about space exploration, but it's about the potential commercial advantages that you can get, especially when we talk about the moon.

[00:06:26.330] - David Brett

Okay, so back in the 50s and 60s it was between the US and Russia, who's leading the space race this time around?

[00:06:34.670] - Tim Marshall

I would argue the Americans are. The big three are the Americans, the Chinese and the Russians. But the Russians, as in other areas, look like they may be falling behind. And I think it'll be difficult for them to match the Americans and Chinese in this century for a whole bunch of reasons, which are mostly economic. But there are others. So those are the big three. And behind them, some distance behind them, there's a second tier of leading space powers. India, Britain, Germany, Italy, France, UAE, Israel. I think many people are surprised when they learn there's actually 80 countries who have a presence in space now, and that's, because of the cost of satellites, has come down so much. But the second tier is a long way behind the top tier.

[00:07:31.650] - Announcer

On Apple podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. You're listening to the Investor Download.

[00:07:38.860] - News clip

Three, two, one, release. Tonight, a moment 17 years in the making. Ignition. Good. Rocket motor burn.

[00:07:48.000] - News clip

Richard Branson more than 50 miles above the Earth's surface weightless, becoming the first person to fly to space aboard his own spaceship.

[00:07:56.560] - News clip

At 7...6...5...4... Command engine start. Two, one... Has cleared the tower on our way to space of our first human crew. Go, Jeff. Go, Mark. Go, Wally. Go, Oliver. You are going to space. Totally different.

[00:08:18.900] - News clip

We are watching history.

[00:08:22.450] - David Brett

We've had likes of SpaceX, Blue Origin already go into space. And how are they changing the game? Or how are they shaping the game?

[00:08:31.080] - Tim Marshall

By innovation and doing things quicker than, let's face it, the state often does. SpaceX have pioneered reusable rockets. So the first stage of the rocket, they actually bring it back down, land it and use it again and again. I think Musk said something along the lines of, every time I used to see half a $500 million worth of metal crashing back to Earth, I used to think, why are we doing this? Now it doesn't usually crash back down to Earth, they land it. They've even landed two simultaneously.

[00:09:06.070] - News clip

You can hear our path going crazy right now. Both sides of this has landed on our landing pad, zone one and zone two.

[00:09:17.490] - Tim Marshall

That's one reason. The commercial companies are also the ones that have pioneered the microsatellites. A lot of satellites that go up now are the size of a Rubik's cube. So you can get a country like Nigeria, which makes its own cube satellites, you can put 20 of them in a rocket. You can then share the costs with five other countries that are putting up something similar in a thing that's already cheaper because the part of the rocket comes back down. So that's opened up space to a lot more companies. And then there's the joint enterprises both the Chinese and the Americans are doing, not with each other I hasten to add, that's banned by Congress. But you've got some of the big Chinese companies, which, let's face it, are much more closely controlled and connected by the state than their American equivalents. But nevertheless, there are joint ventures. And in America, there are these joint ventures. You mentioned at the beginning, Americans going back to the moon, yeah, they aim to be there by 2026, and SpaceX will be a big part of that. And then going through the rest of the decade, as they begin to have the Rudimentary space base on the moon that they want, Blue Origin will also be involved in that.

[00:10:39.870] - David Brett

Okay, so the next rocket that sends humans to the moon will probably be provided by a private company rather than the government.

[00:10:47.170] - Tim Marshall

Well, NASA have got their own super heavy lift rocket. SpaceX have got Falcon Nine, Heavy Lift and Blue. I always call them Blue Horizon. I've got this fixed in my mind.

[00:11:05.170] - David Brett

It's Blue Origin.

[00:11:06.480] - Tim Marshall

Yes. Thank you. Bezos's lot, shall we say. They're working on the lander. So between them yes, it'll be NASA hand in hand with private enterprise that get them up there, get them to then circle the Moon and then bring them down onto the Moon. It's going to be a real conglomerate.

[00:11:27.750] - News clip

And a big partnership just announced between NASA and SpaceX. In the future of moon exploration, NASA chose Elon Musk's private company to build the next generation Lunar Lander. SpaceX, beating out two other contenders for this nearly $3 billion contract.

[00:11:43.930] - Tim Marshall

In fact, there's quite a lot of European involvement and other countries. The Canadians, for example, I think it's the Canadians working on the robotic arms. I think it's the Italians that are doing something for the living quarters. There's lots and lots of countries involved in this joint enterprise.

[00:12:03.830] - David Brett

Wow. So like you say, there's a lot of countries involved, which I presume means there are benefits and drawbacks for this increased race for space.

[00:12:12.700] - Tim Marshall

Yeah. If you want high risk, it doesn't get much higher and more risky riskier.

[00:12:16.970] - David Brett

So should we start with the benefits? I mean, what are the benefits of increased space exploration and colonisation?

[00:12:22.990] - Tim Marshall

I think the are legion. Let's start as low down as possible. Low Earth orbit, which is where most of the satellites go. As I said, they are revolutionising agriculture, including in the developing world. Also, the African countries have got together within the African Space Agency, which is within the African Union. They are trying to bring together the African economies. And to do that, you need to connect Africa's roads and rail network. And they're using the satellites to plan exactly where they should be building. Because, of course, if you get it wrong and you have to suddenly go around a bit of a mountain, that the rock is harder or whatever, your costs are going up. They are planning big time. And as I said, for the agriculture, that's very positive. We are working together, many countries at offsetting the dangers of space. For example, they've already deflected one asteroid as a test. That's all. It was just a test. And it was a very, very long way away. And it was only a very small asteroid to the sort of don't look up type of asteroid, which would be a planet killer. But they have tested and proved you can deflect an asteroid.

[00:13:43.100] - Tim Marshall

So I would argue that's positive. Just last month, the very first packet of energy was beamed down from a small panel in space down to Earth. Now, it would barely light a light bulb but that's not the point. It's proof of concept.

[00:14:02.570] - News clip

Oh, my God. We got it, guys. This video captures a moment some have compared to Al Alexander Graham Bell's first telephone call. There we go. A microwave beam of energy sent directly from a satellite in space and received on Earth by scientists from Caltech.

[00:14:24.630] - Tim Marshall

Because at the moment, you can only operate your solar panels at night excuse me, during the day, then they're useless at night. And we don't have the batteries yet, which can store any excess and then use it during the night. They haven't been invented yet. This proof of concept suggests that over several years, we will be able to build huge fields of solar panels in space because there's no night and day there. So you can have that energy coming down 24/7, 365 days a year, and you can direct it wherever you want, let's say to developing countries that struggle with electricity supply. I think that's pretty positive. It's also greenish, moving further up the International Space Station and the things that will replace it. There will continue to be a lot of medical experiments that take place there, and they have been of great benefit to humankind because you can do experiments in space that you simply can't do on Earth because of zero gravity.

[00:15:28.460] - Tim Marshall

And then all the way up to the Moon. And this is where it might get controversial, but they have found titanium. They do know that silicon is there. They do know that lithium is there. They've proven helium three is there. So take the first, just the metals. These are the metals that we need to build the batteries for our electric cars that go into the giant wind turbines, et cetera, et cetera. It's finite on the Moon as the same as it's finite on Earth, but there's a lot of it on the Moon. So if we can make it economically viable and everybody's working on this get there, mine it, bring it back, a, you're not spoiling the Earth, and B, you're guaranteeing your supply for the 21st century technology. I'll end with the more, far more theoretical one. Helium three is in the water ice. There are tens of millions of gallons of water ice at the south pole of the Moon. The Chinese scientists have worked out that there is enough helium three, that if, and this is the if we can crack nuclear fusion and an AI may well accelerate that, then they reckon that there's enough helium three to power Earth's energy needs for 10,000 years.

[00:16:43.510] - Tim Marshall

And this is clean energy, because helium three, unlike helium four, can produce radiation free nuclear power. That's another of the big draws. But everything that we've just talked about here has yet to be done, and the economics of it have yet to be really discovered. How are you going to turn a profit? But as you'll know, in your world, the economic history is littered with failures. But it's also littered with big companies realising they have to spend X amount of money on this project, because if they don't and their competitors do, and it turns into the big one, they're screwed. And that's why so many companies are involved.

[00:17:33.100] - Announcer

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[00:17:44.130] - David Brett

Okay, so we're just about to go on to the drawbacks. Apart from one of them being economic and a lot of it theoretical, what are the drawbacks?

[00:17:53.110] - Tim Marshall

First come, first served. Some people might think that's fair. There's a finite amount of space in low Earth orbit. I mean, it's a big place, but Musk's putting up another 10,000 satellites this decade, the Chinese likewise. And at some point it becomes so crowded that there won't be any space left. I don't mean space space, I mean low Earth orbit room. And so the developing countries, which are not yet space powers, and that's two thirds of the world are not yet in space, they're blocked out. I think that's negative. I wish there should be new treaties drawn up talking about the common good and the commons of the space because the laws are well out of date. That's one thing. Second, yeah. Every time you put a rocket up, you are polluting the planet massively. There's like, seriously an Olympic sized swimming pool worth of petrol, shall we say, that is burnt every time you go up, and there's a lot of rockets going up, so that's negative. The militarization of space is gathering pace. The potential for losing our satellites en masse through various events, including war in space, which is very unlikely. But if it did happen, they could get this cascade effect of all the satellites hitting each other, which, as I argue, it's critical infrastructure.

[00:19:22.120] - Tim Marshall

We really don't want our critical infrastructure going down. There is a massive temptation to put lasers on satellites for defensive purposes only. There's dual use technology up there now which could threaten our satellites, which have our nuclear early warning systems in them. So that's all negative and again, needs new laws. And then if we want to get to the moon, there's some people I speak with and they say it'd be disgusting and disgraceful to despoil the moon the way we've despoiled Earth. I just don't agree. I like the moon. I like looking at it. There it is. And I'm absolutely certain that if there's all sorts of mining going on there, it'll still look like it does now from here. So I'm not bothered if we despoil. I would far rather despoil the moon than despoil here. Well, we were looking at negatives. I just thought of another positive. I do believe we need Planet B as an escape route. I also believe it's inevitable because it's our future. And I know that because I've looked at our past. When did we ever stop exploring? It is in our nature. We are going to go there well, we are going there 2026.

[00:20:38.910] - Tim Marshall

The Chinese have plans for a base 2028. Probably ambitious. We're going, but let's go there as sensibly as possible. To get from the surface of the Earth to the Moon takes massively more fuel than getting from the Moon to Mars, even though Moon to Mars is a hundred times further away. And that's of course because of gravity, you don't need that massive thrust, you need much, much less fuel, which you can probably make on the Moon anyway from the hydrogen. So it is absolutely a stepping stone. And also we can learn lots of the things that we're going to need on the Moon while we develop our robotics. And I think that it's more sustainable to do the lily pad onto Mars. I think it's easier to make our mistakes on the Moon than it is to make them on Mars.

[00:21:39.950] - David Brett

Thanks for listening to part One. Part Two will be released next Thursday and it's all about tensions in space and the race to control commodities.

[00:21:49.110] - Tim Marshall

I liken it to the Klondike Gold Rush. Nobody stopped as they were scrambling across the ice with their pickaxes to say, actually, hang on a minute, let's just take this slowly. And how big is your pickaxe? Well, okay, I won't have a bigger one. No, you just get there and I'm afraid that's what's going on now.

[00:22:12.950] - David Brett

Well, that was a show. We very much hope you enjoyed it. If you want to find out more, please head to Schroders.com/Insights. And we're endeavouring to record as many of these shows in the studio on video. And if you want to watch them in their full, unabridged version, then go to Schroders' YouTube channel. If you want to get in touch with us, it's Schroderspodcast@schroders.com. And remember, you can listen, subscribe and review the Investor Download wherever you get your podcasts. New shows drop every Thursday at 05:00 p.m. UK time. But above all, keep safe and go well. Cheers.

[00:22:49.970] - Announcer

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