28 January 2021 - 29 January 2021

Space: the new space race and its intersection with power, the rules based order and the economy

See below for supplementary reading materials.

Terms of Reference

When ungoverned space meets humanity, the result is almost always the creation of a new arena for national, commercial, scientific and personal competition. Terrestrially, we saw this in the age of exploration and the imposition of nation-state authority over much of the land mass of the Earth. The expanse and depth of the oceans is the canvas for a new round of competition as technology improves and the costs fall. Our own invention of shared virtual space, the Internet, is now the foremost battleground for national and commercial influence and power. Wherever we go, we bring our earthly ambitions and rivalries and space will be no different. The pause in the space race reflected a unique geopolitical moment of western monopoly of global power, which has now passed. The national and commercial race for space power and profit is now back on with a vengeance. This means superpower competition, but increasingly middle and emerging powers too are seeing economic potential and defence necessities in space-based capabilities. Space is set to get crowded.

This Ditchley conference will look not primarily at the science of space but how national and commercial moves in space intersect with other technologies, political power, a rules-based order and the economy. We will explore how we might mitigate the worst risks and how we might promote international cooperation and exploration in order to support both economic progress and preservation of the terrestrial environment on which we entirely depend. The conference will build on Ditchley’s December discussion of world order in honour of Dr Henry Kissinger and will feed into Ditchley’s February conference on climate and environmental action in advance of COP 26.

Superpower rivalry

Superpower competition between the United States and China could be set to play out dramatically in space in the years to come. China maintains that it has no political ambitions to be a global power but China’s military-led space programme has no such inhibitions and is set at a high level of ambition. China’s recent achievements are considerable: the Chang’e 4 landing on the dark side of the Moon and the recent Chang’e 5 collection of samples from the moon’s surface are significant milestones and show how China’s integration of multiple technologies can deliver outstanding results. Plans for a research station on the moon’s surface, missions to Mars and the development of China’s super-heavy payload launch rocket, Long March 9, no longer look like empty claims. Conversely, from the Chinese perspective, the sophistication of Space X’s autonomous and re-useable rockets must demonstrate that China still has a long way to go to catch up. These are not quite Sputnik and Gagarin moments, but the tension is growing. In the Cold War, the competition of the early Space race matured into cooperation with Russia on the International Space Station and the utilisation of Russian launch capabilities by western companies to fill gaps in western capability. Can competition and cooperation in Space both be achieved with China? How can the superpowers use both competition and cooperation to enable progress on global challenges such as understanding and mastering climate change? Will the new space industry be born de-coupled (i.e. split into Chinese and American spheres of influence) and what would be the implications for other countries?

A rules-based approach

What does a resurgence in geopolitical competition in space mean for the rules-based order, strategic deterrence and political stability? The Outer Space Treaty outlaws the deployment of weapons of mass destruction in space but does not forbid the deployment of conventional weapons alongside the extensive use of space for imagery and electromagnetic intelligence gathering. How can we prevent the weaponisation of space? Should that be the objective or is that naïve and the weaponisation of space already a lost cause? What role can middle powers and international organisations play in preventing a dangerous proliferation of space-based weapons capabilities as more and more countries develop launch, satellite and satellite tracking capabilities? How can the increasing proliferation of satellite constellations and space debris be managed safely? What changes are needed in the international governance of space?

Convergence of space and other technologies

For the 1960s Cold War space race and even for the Reagan-era ‘Star Wars’ missile shield controversy, space was a relatively distinct field of competition, with the main focus its intersection with intercontinental ballistic missiles and satellite imagery. Now, however, space-based capabilities are highly integrated into both systems of deterrence and, on a much broader basis, the global economy. Much of modern life in industrialised countries rests on complacent assumptions that GPS systems and satellite imagery will always be available. The rapid growth in the automation and autonomy of moving objects and the connected devices of the Internet of Things is only going to increase the importance of GPS, time signals and other forms of connectivity and reference data. Adding to high orbit geostationary satellites, Low Earth orbit (LEO) satellite constellations will bring ubiquitous connectivity for moving objects and will enable new forms of data collection. The integration of connectivity between geostationary satellites; LEO satellites; microwave links; fibre networks; and 5G mobile networks will mean new capabilities and new economic opportunities but also new cyber attack surfaces and new vulnerabilities. We can both look forward to and fear a world of geography, objects and people mapped with increasing precision and coverage across land and ocean. What was previously hidden, for example nuclear deterrence submarines, may emerge with clarity, especially as analytical AI matures. What new risks could this bring up? How will we mitigate them?  

Space and the economy

Looking to the economy, how can the utilisation and exploration of space combine with other technological developments to drive economic growth and societal progress? How will new constellations of LEO satellites change the provision and use of the Internet and Cloud services? How can the provision of global commercial services best be governed with respect to national jurisdictions? How will increased access to space for experimentation and data gathering impact on other industries? Conversely, how will the increasing number of objects in orbit impact on astronomy, astrophysics and deeper space exploration?

A feature of the new space age is the continued integration of government and private sector capabilities. This was always an element in space programmes but now includes some of the most sensitive and central areas, for example the provision of craft for manned space flights. Can the commercialisation of space be separated from its politicisation? Is integration with governments essential to the development of commercial capabilities, or will association with different states prevent new space age companies from becoming truly global and multinational? What are the implications for industrial policy and state aid regulations?

Addressing global challenges

The most important aspect of space exploration is arguably its potential contribution to global challenges such as climate change and the restoration of the ocean. How will increasingly precise and continuous coverage of the planet by different forms of sensors contribute to the management of climate change and the drive for action? What can be done in space, for example on energy, to hasten our progress towards a green economy? Can, and should we, shift some of our most environmentally damaging industrial processes into space? What are the prospects for geo-engineering?


We will look at the utilisation of Space in the round. What will be the impact on the ground in terms of launch and tracking facilities? How will low Earth orbit be exploited? What is the future for geostationary satellites? What is the potential for Moon exploration from the different perspectives, including science, the economy and defence? Will the drive to get to Mars open up a new age of science and prosperity? Is this the right inspirational goal?

For the middle portion of the conference we will break into working groups so as to be able to discuss these issues in a more focused way:

Group A will look at the geostrategic implications of different forms of the utilisation of space. What will be the impacts on deterrence and strategic stability? How will 21st-century Space exploration intersect with geopolitical and economic competition between powers? How can we mitigate the risks? How can a rules-based order be upheld? How does integration with private sector capabilities change things? What is the impact of integration with other power-determining capabilities of the Internet age such as cyber warfare, information warfare, mapping and simulation and AI?

Group B will look at the economic implications of the progress being made on Space. What does increasing access to Space through lower launch and satellite costs mean for different industries? Where is there most potential for growth and competition? What does the integration with government programmes mean for the private sector? How will Space change the Internet and Internet of Things and speed up the transformation of the economy and work by automation and AI? Parochially, does Britain need its own space agency now it is out of the EU? What are the implications for industrial policy and state aid regulations?

Group Cwill look at the potential impact on global challenges such as climate and ocean restoration. How can we share data responsibly across national and expertise boundaries to enable research and action? Will ambitions to explore the solar system help us preserve our environment on Earth or will they distract us from more urgent and closer-to-home challenges? How can the international community collaborate in the utilisation of Space so as best to address shared global challenges?