March 30, 2020

Review: Asia’s Space Race by James Clay Moltz.

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The political scene is changing, both in terms of space exploration and space exploitation, with new actors entering a modern and complex drama now unfolding in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) and beyond. This week, we take a look at Asia’s Space Race: National Motivations, Regional Rivalries, and International Risks by author James Clay Moltz out from Columbia University Press.  Moltz is a consultant to the NASA Ames Research Center and has written on the politics of space and its implications previous. But the modern space race isn’t you fathers completion borne out of Cold War rivalry. New players aren’t necessarily bound by treaties that kept the US and the USSR somewhat in check, or at least prevented the total militarization of space in the past. As events such as the 2007 anti-satellite (ASAT) test demonstrate, interests of emerging nations may not be mutual. In that instance, the successful test by China spread additional debris through an already crowded swath of LEO, possibly for years to come.

The book does an excellent job at tracing the feats and historic accomplishments of each nation, right up to modern day. Many of these tales of “early Japanese rocketry” and the like have never, to our knowledge, been gathered together in one place.  In the case of Japan, their Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) has mounted a string of recent successes, launching its automated HTV cargo vehicle to the International Space Station and conducting a successful sample return from an asteroid via the Hayabusa spacecraft. JAXA and several other Asian space agencies have also fielded astronauts (and a few cosmonauts) aboard the early Salyut, Mir, and now the ISS.

China is not partner to the ISS, but has recently taken its first steps towards a manned presence in space with its Tiangong-1 space station set to be occupied later this year and has aspirations to travel farther afield. India is also shaping up to be a contender, successfully launching a lunar orbiter known as Chandrayaan-1 in 2008 and having ambitions to field its own manned space program in 2014.

Many of these missions are a matter of national prestige. The author notes that many countries that do not have a launch capability, such as the Philippines or Vietnam still have a space program, opting instead to build and launch satellites via Russian, Chinese or U.S. rockets. Some fledging space programs, such as those of North Korea and Iran, may be little more than extensions of their military rocket capability. But as the world economy becomes more entrenched in technology, there is also a quiet jockeying to guarantee that capabilities bestowed on nations by space assets are maintained. For example, several nations are looking to field their own GPS constellations of satellites, in the event that the US decides to “pull the plug” on its service. It remains to be seen just how we’ll draw these new players into a fruitful cooperation to solve the dilemmas facing modern space travel such as space junk, bandwidth, and the peaceful use of space. Cooperation may have built the International Space Station, but competition sent us to the Moon… will the modern space race “heat up?” Mr. Moltz’s book is an excellent study on the past and present state of the politics of space!


  1. [...] automated lunar landing by 2020. South Korea has become a major player in what’s been dubbed the “New Asian Space Race,” and recently launched its KOMPSat-5 Earth observation satellite atop a Russian Dnepr rocket this [...]

  2. [...] may be headed. Fans of this “space” (bad pun intended) will recall our review of Mr. Moltz’s book Asia’s Space Race [...]

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