By André Pienaar
When the Axiom Mission 2 (Ax-2) astronauts recently spent eight days at the International Space Station (ISS), they joined the long list of people who have shared time in the skies above us with Russian cosmonauts and reignited Americans’ longstanding excitement about space exploration.
But the days of serving peacefully in space alongside terrestrial antagonists are numbered, unfortunately, and the future of U.S. space supremacy and its national security are at stake. More than ever, the private sector will determine America’s space future.
At the same time the Ax-2 crew was on the ISS, China’s Tiangong Space Station orbited with only Chinese astronauts aboard and a less-than-transparent mission. While the U.S. is working to put astronauts back on the moon in the next few years, China just announced plans for its own moon mission by the end of the decade. The future of Russia’s participation in the ISS program is uncertain after its invasion of Ukraine. Moscow also has aggressively announced a partnership with China to place a new lunar research station on the moon by 2035.
The great space race of my youth—pitting the U.S. against the U.S.S.R.—is, after several decades of dormancy, reconstituting itself as China and Russia vs. the West. This should worry policymakers, scientists and all who care about peace and the future of our planet and skies.
Look at the development and operation of the ISS for inspiration of how things could be, versus the trajectory of current projects.
The Soviets launched the first space station, Salyut 1, in 1971, and three other military-focused stations throughout the decade before the civilian Mir program began in the 1980s.
The United States launched a civilian space station, Skylab, in 1973. But when the Cold War ended, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) started building the current ISS in partnership with the EU, Canada and Japan, inviting Russia to join the project to create the largest and most successful experiment in peaceful international cooperation in space.
More than 250 astronauts have made more than 400 flights to the ISS. A fully crewed ISS has seven astronauts aboard, but numbers have grown to as many as 13. The ISS is divided into two sections, one managed by NASA and its allies and the other by Russia, and thus far any divides haven’t seriously threatened operations. In fact, for a number of years, Russia’s Soyuz rockets were the only ticket to the ISS.
China launched its own space station, Tiangong (Sky Palace), in 2022. Tiangong is about one-fifth of the size of the ISS and can accommodate up to six astronauts and two docked ships.
But while the ISS has a high level of transparency about its mission and operations—the cooperation of 15 nations and an expanding number of international and commercial partners—there is much we do not know about Tiangong.
Unlike the ISS, which is purely civilian, Tiangong appears to be a military/civilian hybrid more akin to the USSR’s Salyut 2, 3 and 5 stations in the 1970s. For example, Tiangong is equipped with a new microwave beam technology that can transmit energy to Earth around the clock. It could be used to distribute solar power, but it also could be a powerful new energy weapon.
This is worrisome, to say the least. But it also should spur deeper U.S. investment to compete in space.
This investment has begun, but it must be ramped up. We are in the era of private sector space innovation in which companies like SpaceX, Blue Origin and Axiom (of which C5 Capital is an investor) are driving the West back to the moon and beyond to Mars. Of course, private innovators have always been part of the U.S. space sector, but their leadership is more important today than ever.
For example, Axiom’s Axiom Station is being developed as the successor to the ISS, and Axiom will own and operate the new space station in partnership with NASA. The first module will launch in 2025 and be attached to the ISS. More Axiom Station modules will be attached, and in a gradual process the ISS will be decommissioned, detached and deorbited by 2030.
This kind of public-private partnership leverages the best of both worlds: public sector mission and regulation meets private sector know-how, innovation and financing. Combine that with the motivation provided by Russia’s legacy and China’s ambition, and the U.S. has what it needs to stay in front of the new space race.