Opportunities and challenges in the space station age

Marçal Sanmartí, Researcher, New Zealand Institute of International Affairs




230830 Space Station
There are currently two space stations orbiting our planet. The International Space Station (ISS), a joint venture of the American, Canadian, Japanese, Russian and European Space Agencies, and the Chinese Space Station

In 2011, the US Congress prohibited NASA from cooperating substantially with its Chinese counterpart without express authorisation, encouraging China to launch its own Space Station, Tiangong, in 2021.

This binary landscape might change drastically in the future. The ISS is aging and there are plans to decommission it by 2030. There are no plans to replace it, instead, the US Government announced plans to have the private sector fill the gap. NASA is currently studying business cases of five private space stations seeking to orbit our planet. These private ventures from the United States might not be alone. The European aircraft corporation Airbus has recently unveiled a futuristic space station concept featuring a greenhouse and centrifuge to mitigate the side effects of microgravity. Russia and India plan to launch state-owned space stations. Additionally, the United States and China are looking to build space stations orbiting the Moon. Possibly, there will be dozens of space stations launched in the next decade.

New Zealand, and other nations active in space, should not be obsessed with launching rockets to service these space stations. Even though the demand for rocket launches is increasing, most start-ups providing such services are destined be edged out of the maturing market by larger firms. Rocket Lab is a precious exception.  

So, what are the products and services that the space economy is going to need in the future? And how does that relate to space stations?  

The ISS is accelerating scientific and technological change 

Scientific research has been performed for a long time in the International Space Station (ISS), from observing aerosols and water vapor in the Earth’s atmosphere, to disease research including Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and  cancer.  Less well known is the low gravity 3D printing research that private companies are undertaking, creating next-generation optical fibre, chicken breasts to feed astronauts, metal and plastic tools and parts to fix the space station and even human organs..  

Robotics is another field being pushed in the ISS. Spacewalks might be fascinating to watch, but they expose astronauts to many hazards, especially cosmic radiation. That is why the ISS has robotic arms attached to it. The Canadian Space Agency attached one in 2001 and the European Space Agency attached another in 2021, to help connect new modules to the station. American and Japanese companies have similar plans for the near future. 

Anti-radiation materials for space stations and their robotics arms, and space suits for astronauts, have become a necessity. It is field of technological research for both space agencies and their private partners that might deliver substantial profits.

Technological research is not exclusive to the ISS, which can be difficult to access for nations outside the original founding members. Swiss scientists recently conducted research in the Chinese Space Station and in future, space stations are increasingly likely to compete to attract such projects. Competition would bring down costs and create opportunities for further research projects.

Catering to a growing space population

The number of people visiting space stations is increasing slowly but steadily, and they are demanding comfort. American company Axiom Space Inc. is creating a tourist module for the ISS, commissioning Phillipe Starck to undertake the interior design. Space visitors seek fresh food (usually grown by hydroponics), or medical treatment for the hazards related to low gravity, including problems with vision and vertigo, bone density and heart growth. They also need insurance, including against the increasing space debris that rockets, satellites and the space stations themselves are generating. It is not just tourists opting for space travel. The 2023 Russia film The Challenge was partially shot in the ISS, and Universal Pictures has further plans for a feature film shot in space, starring Tom Cruise.

Space stations have the potential to diversify and grow the Cislunar economy, potentially creating opportunities for various sectors in the New Zealand economy, from. primary industries to the film sector.

A weak international legal framework could increase militarisation in space

The international space station benefits science, technology and education, while fostering international relations. It is one of the few places where the United States and Russian still collaborate. Despite speculation it would pull out, Russia recently announced it will extend its presence in ISS until 2028.

But the likely decommissioning of the ISS means that this diplomatic tool will eventually disappear. Nation state actors active in space will seek to protect their assets from competitors, reflecting the situation on Earth.

The United Nations created the Committee on Peaceful uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) back in 1959. Unfortunately, the five UN-led space treaties in existence are several decades old and no longer fit-for-purpose, not least because they do not contemplate private commercial activity in space. There is a danger that space stations are not adequately considered under proposed legal frameworks such as the Artemis Accords, partly because they do not undertake exploration nor resource extraction. 

World powers have been testing new and very power powerful anti-satellite weapons. In 2021, the ISS passed close to debris created by a Russian weapon test, creating diplomatic tensions. Such weapons could deliberately target space stations in future, or damage them accidentally.  This creates interesting questions about whether space stations should have defence capabilities. As with many other technological developments such as AI, economic opportunities and security challenges in space come hand in hand. 

How could New Zealand respond? 

This year New Zealand Government agencies have released several documents related to space security. The New Zealand Space Agency (part of the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment) published the National Space Policy, the Ministry of Defence published the Overview of Defence Interests and Engagements in Space and the Defence Policy and Strategic Engagement, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade released the 2023 Strategic Foreign Policy Assessment. Although avoiding direct references to space security, these documents create awareness about space as a domain of intense international competition and potential conflict.

It is rare for a country such as New Zealand to host a company like Rocket Lab, with capability to launch cargo via rockets. There are 193 sovereign states in the United Nations. Less than 90 of those have a space agency and just a couple of dozen countries have rocket-launching capabilities, including New Zealand. Rocket-launches, and their vital role in the development of space stations and satellite communication, are valuable assets that need protection.  This makes it surprising that the New Zealand Security Intelligence Service does not mention space security in their recent New Zealand’s Security Threat Environment 2023 publication, even though the document has a section on technological innovation and mentions challenges coming from China and Russia, both space powers. 

New Zealand has a space sector valued at NZD 1.69 billion and is engaging in international space partnerships such as the NASA’s Artemis Accords and CsPO Space Combined Operations. Sooner or later, pressure from international partners and the private sector might push the New Zealand Government to make serious decisions on engagement with space stations orbiting, and competing, around our planet.


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