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Who Really Won the Space Race?

Peter Dickens is an environmental sociologist working in the Department of Sociology, Faculty of Social and Political Sciences, University of Cambridge, United Kingdom. James Ormrod is a lecturer in sociology in the School of Applied Social Science, University of Brighton, UK. He has an interest in social movements and in the relationship between human beings and the universe. This article is based on the authors’ recent book, Cosmic Society: Towards a Sociology of the Universe (Routledge, 2007).

Last October’s anniversary of the launch of the Sputnik artificial satellite has led to much discussion as to who won the space race. Usually it is argued that the United States unproblematically “won.” But this is a very simplistic picture and one that should be challenged. Above all, the focus on nations “winning” or “losing” needs to be rejected. It is the rich and powerful who are doing the winning. And they can come from any country.

The conventional account says that the Soviet Union had an early lead but the United States eventually “won.” In 1961 Yuri Gagarin made a single orbit around the earth and in 1963 the Soviets launched two more cosmonauts: Valentina Tereshkova (the first woman in space) and Valeri Bykovsky. But spurred on by these developments and their military implications, the U.S. Congress created the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. In 1961 NASA approved the funds requested by President Kennedy for a manned mission to the moon. In 1969 the Apollo astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin finally walked on the moon and, on their return, President Nixon announced that “this is the greatest week in the history of the world since the Creation.”

The success of the Apollo 11 Mission is often used to celebrate America’s continuing triumph in the space race. And there have since been a number of unmanned missions reinforcing this view. The most recent is NASA’s $300 million Dawn Project studying asteroids. This project may contribute to an understanding of how the solar system was formed. (Though it could equally be used for assessing the economic value of asteroids.) But manned flight is now set to resume. One indication of possible things to come is President Bush’s 2004 announcement of a plan for the United States not only to return to the moon but to use it as a stepping stone toward a manned visit to Mars around 2030. This would be the site of permanent bases.

Winners, Losers, and Scientific Exploration

The cost of the total moon and Mars program has been set at $104 billion, with $12 billion being spent in the first five years. Northrop Grumman, Boeing, and Lockheed Martin are among those competing for the right to build parts of this program. When the latter company was awarded an $8.15 billion contract as part of this initiative, its shares predictably rose 7 percent during the five weeks following NASA’s announcement.

Huge expenditures of this kind allocated to new publicly funded projects in space demonstrate that the real winners are not the whole of a nation but what Eisenhower in 1961 called the “military-industrial complex” and what some observers now call the “military-industrial-space complex.” The shareholders of the large aerospace companies are certainly benefiting but it is not at all clear that their interests are identical with the American nation as a whole. Public spending on this scale could assist in resolving some of the most pressing needs on earth. If the finances are to stay in the United States, for example, should they not be directed to health care for the least well off?

And it is not at all clear that these levels of spending are worthwhile even on their own terms. They may well not, for example, result in better scientific knowledge. Manned missions are extremely expensive and the scientific gains are quite slight. As Steven Weinberg, a Nobel Prize winning particle physicist at the University of Texas, has recently put it, “human beings don’t serve any useful function in space. They radiate heat, they’re very expensive to keep alive and unlike robotic missions, they have a natural desire to come back, so that anything involving human beings is enormously expensive.”

But the highly publicized, highly expensive, and publicly funded space projects remain dwarfed by the total amount of spending in outer space. The Dawn Project’s $600 million dollars is miniscule compared with the $23.5 billion dollars spent by the U.S. Department of Defense in 2007. The big scientific projects are arguably the benign face of the space program. But underneath this acceptable image are even more expensive and far more questionable forms of space-humanization.

Satellites and the Neoliberal Economy

The space race is being won by those who are already powerful. It has recently been estimated that by 2010 the American investment in space will reach $500 to $600 billion. This equals the value of all current U.S. investments in Europe. Who is gaining and who is losing as a result of this massive investment?

Some of these capital-investments in space at first seem relatively beneficial and benign. Communications satellites are, for example, a key way in which trade is conducted, a means by which information and capital flow on a global scale. Whether this is viewed as beneficial or benign depends on your view of global capitalism. But note that the development of the Internet, which partly depends on satellites, roughly coincided with the rise of neoliberalism. This involved widescale deregulation and privatization—what David Harvey calls “accumulation by dispossession.”

The neoliberal experiment was an attempt to recreate a profitable capitalism after the social and economic crises of the 1960s and 70s. But it has not substantially delivered on its promises. The record is, to use Harvey’s diagnosis, “nothing short of dismal.” Large proportions of the population have fallen into poverty, especially in Russia and the old East European societies that fully adopted the neoliberal creed. Global indicators of health levels, life expectancy, and infant mortality have worsened almost universally since the 1960s. Significant exceptions to this trend are those societies such as Sweden and Poland that have managed to resist or at least tame the neoliberal experiment. Neoliberalization has therefore consolidated class power in the economic, political, and cultural spheres. But the human and environmental costs have been very high. Furthermore, neoliberalization has largely failed to generate economic expansion. Aggregate growth rates have fallen from 3.5 percent in the 1960s to 1.1 percent at the present time. Only East and South-East Asia, plus most recently India, have seen substantial economic growth.

Satellites have been used as a way of exerting economic and political authority and creating the neoliberal experiment. The United States has not really won the space race. To the extent that some of the most powerful corporations using networks based on satellites are located in the United States, that country has indeed “won.” But this leaves millions of people “losing,” many of whom live in the United States. Once more it is the powerful, whether they are located in the United States or elsewhere, who have gained the most from the space race.

Satellites, Capital, and War

What other investments does the United States have in space? Since the days of President Eisenhower there has been a remarkable revival in the national missile defense program. Under the Bush administration, military spending has risen greatly. The only other epochs when the United States spent as much on national defense in constant dollar terms were during the Second World War and the Korean War.

The military-industrial-space complex has experienced a remarkable revival, one spurred on by the attacks of September 11, 2001, and the consequent discovery of new “enemies” in Iraq, Iran, Libya, Syria, and North Korea. At this point we must return to the likes of Northrop Grumman, Boeing, and Lockheed Martin. Employing around one million people, they are the largest coordinated bloc of industry in the United States with strong political connections. They are among the “big metal benders,” the major corporations in contemporary America’s military-industrial-space complex.

Unlike the Star Wars image of rockets and missiles fighting it out in outer space, the reality of today’s outer space militarization is rather mundane. It is simply a means by which hostilities are conducted on earth. But the fact that outer space is integral to contemporary “everyday” warfare makes it even more important to understand. As Loring Wirbel puts it in his book Star Wars: “when a precision bomb is dropped on Tikrit, guided to its target by Global Positioning System satellites, a space weapon has been used. When an unmanned aerial ‘robot’ plane fires a missile at a car full of suspected Al Qaeda operatives in Yemen, using electronic intelligence to confirm its target, a space weapon has been used.”

But the “Star Wars”-style weaponization of outer space (in which weapons in space target ground or space-based assets via lasers) remains a distinct possibility. Originally developed under Ronald Reagan’s presidency, it is now part of President George Bush’s Defense Initiative and is still under development.

Closely allied to the militarization and weaponization of outer space is the question of surveillance. Space is an ideal means for monitoring populations of all kinds, whether these are Taliban operatives or stationery Chinese aircraft. But the usefulness of surveillance from outer space can be overestimated. It is actually quite difficult to tell who is a Taliban operative and who is a civilian in contemporary warfare. Nevertheless the companies and societies that have access to this technology clearly have a very useful tool in their armory. Furthermore, surveillance does not only take a military form. Some workers in British warehouses, for example, are now being tagged and monitored by satellite as a means of checking on how hard they are working.

So the issue of “who won the space race” turns out to be complex. In regard to surveillance, it is again the powerful using the cosmos as a means of exerting their authority. In regard to militarization, U.S. companies, mediated by the U.S. government, may seem to have won. But militarizing and weaponizing outer space as a means of exerting further military control over the globe is a worrying definition of “winning.” Furthermore, triumphalism of this kind might well be short-lived since higher levels of global instability are a likely result. The Chinese government recently demonstrated a capacity for destroying satellites with ground-based missiles by taking out one of its own satellites in January 2004. This development potentially challenges U.S. military domination of outer space. It also raises the specter of war in outer space as a result of U.S. dominance. Who is likely to “win” under this scenario?

Media, Capital, and Control of Satellites

Another way of assessing who has “won” in humanizing the universe is to assess the media’s role in this process. The large corporations involved in media-production are especially important here.

The media, and television in particular, is highly dependent on globally broadcasting via geostationary satellites. These hover over the equator and remain stationary relative to a fixed point on earth. They are a fairly reliable and inexpensive way of transmitting TV pictures to whole countries and regions. A few of these satellites can bounce signals between a vast number of transmitters and receivers. Their importance is growing even more with the rise of digital television. Large numbers of extra channels can be broadcast without substantially increasing the number of satellites to be made and launched.

Commodification and privatization have extended as much, if not more, to the media as to other forms of production. In fact, the media were among the first to experience these processes as, from the 1970s onwards, private corporations took over or combined with public sector outlets such as the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and the British Broadcasting Corporation.

The result has been the making of a few truly massive conglomerates which have largely replaced public broadcasting and that dominate the global media market. Time Warner, the Walt Disney Corporation, News Corporation, Sony Corporation, General Electric, Viacom, and Bertelsmann are what some commentators call the “media oligopolies.” They and the content that they broadcast are highly dependent on advertising, and this means that they are less likely to make their own “original” or nationally based programs. It also means that they are focused on wealthy people who not only can afford the correct electronic equipment to access the media but have sufficient finances remaining to buy the advertised products.

However, so-called developing countries such as India and those in South America that aspire to Western consumerist values are the primary targets for the establishment of satellite-based TV companies. DirectTV Latin America, whose satellite beams sports, game shows, and pre-digested news to twenty Latin American countries, is testament to this process. This particular company is owned by Gustavo Cisneros, an individual worth over $4 billion who owns other TV companies in Latin America as well as shares in the main U.S. Spanish-language TV station and a joint venture with AOL-Time Warner.

The satellite-based transnational media moguls have shifted from ignoring the South to recognition of the potential spending power of third world middle classes, hence the expansion of satellite provision, fast-changing takeovers and buyouts of media companies, and the testing of new formats. STAR TV (Satellite Televison for the Asian Region) had already by 1995 reached 54 million homes with a footprint that stretches from Israel and the United Arab Emirates to China, Hong Kong, and Korea. CNN, BBC World, and MTV have all found satellite distributors and Southern audiences.

Focusing on the media confirms our main theme. It is the rich and powerful who have gained most from this particular kind of cosmic humanization. They have used their domination of the cosmos as a way of exerting and enhancing their power. U.S. corporations and U.S. consumers loom large but this industry, like many others, is now operating on a global scale. Attaching “winners” or “losers” to any particular country is an exercise in obfuscation. But at this point we need to exercise caution against technological determinism. These technologies are capable of being subverted by resistant groups, Al-Jazeera televison being a case in point.

Outer Space—Open for Business

Mega-projects such as NASA’s Dawn expedition distract attention from the fact that private investment in outer space is now taking place on a very large scale. And a privatized and commodified outer space inevitably tends to benefit the well-off. The British entrepreneur Richard Branson, for example, has drawn capital from his other Virgin enterprises to set up the Virgin Galactic space tourism company. Similarly, having made his millions in the early computer industry, the American entrepreneur Jim Benson went on to found SpaceDev in 1997. This is a company investing in the design of cutting-edge space technologies. The organization stretches from the production and selling of satellite services to research into the technology required for asteroid mining and eventual space settlement.

Investments have also been made in a number of new “spaceports” in the southern United States, such as Burt Rutan’s Mojave project.  Many of the projects involve developing small airfields to design and test vehicles for space tourism. These are important new outlets for capital seeking profitable returns, often via “space brokers” and other financial institutions.

Another instructive proposal is that of Declan O’Donnell’s United Societies in Space, an organization of space lawyers, to establish an International Space Development Authority Corporation, an institution not dissimilar in function to the World Bank. It would act as a space bank for investment in a space colonization program. Under their proposal, loans would be made to developing countries to enable them to invest in space.

Companies also invest in the production of space products to stimulate further consumption. A good example is Pizza Hut, which has paid to put their logos on space rockets (using intermediaries like Space Marketing Inc.). Plans in 2001 to use lasers to project the company’s logo onto the moon were revealed as a radio hoax, though ongoing research has pursued similar ideas.

Many of these developments are based in the United States. But note that outerspace investments based in other countries are now well in hand. Japan Satellite Systems Inc., for example, is now offering satellites for around 20–30 billion yen. But the main point is less the national source of these capital investments and more the fact that capital could have been invested in other, arguably more worthwhile, commodities. Space Adventures Ltd., the American space tourism company that organized the first ever paid-for voyage into outer space in 2001 (Dennis Tito ironically traveling onboard a Russian mission using old Soviet rocketry), is benefitting from wealthy space tourists keen to consume new and exotic experiences. There are surely ways that such technology could be more usefully employed in the service of the whole of humanity. 

The Losers Strike Back?

So it is once more the economically and politically powerful that have so far won the space race and it is the powerless who so far are losing out. Yet this is not necessarily the end of the story. The exercise of power inevitably breeds resistance. One form of resistance consists of localized social movements that are now internationalizing—in part via the satellite-based Internet.

An excellent example is the Global Network Against Weapons and Nuclear Power in Space. This organization does not accept that the humanization of outer space in its present form is inevitable. The network aims not just to prevent the arms race from moving into space but to demonstrate the link between this process and the protection and enhancement of private property on earth. Domination of outer space is seen by them as no more and no less than domination of global society by a bloc of already dominant class interests.

The central implication of the Global Network is that humanization of outer space is not necessarily of itself a bad thing. The question is who is doing the humanizing, and what kind of society is being reproduced on earth and in the cosmos. The impressive technologies developed for exploring and understanding the universe do not have to be used by the powerful to further strengthen their economic, military, and cultural authority. Humanizing the cosmos could be a means by which humanity enhances itself through the acquisition of new knowledge. Such knowledge could be used not to make the powerful even more powerful but to understand the cosmos, its evolution, and our place within it.

To dispose first and investigate later is an invitation to disaster. For once radioactive wastes have been disposed at sea they are irretrievable. The mistakes that are made now are made for all time.

It is a curious situation that the sea, from which life first arose, should now be threatened by the activities of one form of that life. But the sea, though changed in a sinister way, will continue to exist; the threat is rather to life itself.

Rachel Carson, Preface to the 1961 edition of The Sea Around Us.

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