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Who controls space will control the Earth - Bec Shrimpton interviewed by the Berlin Pulse

As the space race is on, Bec Shrimpton explains what is there to be gained and what stands to be lost

Körber-Stiftung: The world has many problems, from war and a food crisis to climate change. Why should people care about space?
Bec Shrimpton: It is important to understand what space offers! Many of the Earth’s major challenges can be addressed with space technologies. For example, up in space, the sun shines all the time. Once the infrastructure is established you could get continuous, almost free, reliable energy that could power more than the Earth’s entire requirements.

That sounds great. But it doesn’t help in an acute crisis, right?
It does. One more example: When Russia invaded Ukraine, the US communications company ViaSat was taken down by a massive Russian cyberattack. The Ukrainian government turned to Elon Musk’s Starlink. And Musk’s existing space based internet capabilities allowed Ukrainians to communicate with each other and the world, helping Ukraine defend itself against Russian aggression.

You mentioned Russia. In August 2023, the Russians failed to land a robotic probe on the moon’s south pole. But India succeeded. What is so important about the moon?
On the lunar south pole, there is believed to be one of the largest deposits of frozen water. And there might be a way to extract it. Till now, what has stopped us from going further into space is that we literally run out of fuel. There are no gas stations in space. But if you can access water on the moon, you can theoretically create rocket fuel. That allows the leap to Mars or other asteroids, and it could be the start of a genuine space economy. Up there you have mineral rich asteroids predicted to be worth multiple trillions of dollars.

Many countries have now recognized this potential. What does this mean for the balance of power in space?
Just as on Earth, we’re heading towards a multipolar space order. The United States still has significant military and commercial advantages. But, as in other industries and technological areas, China in particular and other emerging space powers like India are catching up rapidly.

What is China’s role in space?
China has now a huge civil, commercial and military space sector, and its ambitions are largely driven by geopolitics. China wants to command, dominate and to control space. And what holds true for the United States does also for China and India: Who controls space will control the Earth.

Can you give us examples of China’s action in space?
Take technologies to manage space junk, which someone’s got to go and clean up. China has the capacity to do that, and it developed ‘inspector’ satellites and other technologies including robotic arms that can ‘grab’ space junk to remove it. But that also means it can catch US military satellites and potentially exploit or destroy them. China is beginning to produce these kinds of capabilities at a scale and a speed that is worrying actors like the United States.

So why did Australia then scale back its space strategy from 2018, which aimed at fostering its space industry?
The Australian government has dramatically cut the spending for our civil and commercial space program, because it wanted to be fiscally responsible. For me, that was a short term decision that we will regret.

Because we must make our stamp on the space economy and take our place in the global space race. Of course, investing in spaceports or manufacturing capabilities is expensive. Now there is a window to create the basis for a strong position in the global space economy. But that window will close as others move while Australia stands still. In my view, Australia could have become a space superpower.

What about Germany?
Germany is a considerable space power. It has excellent capabilities in the civil, the commercial and the military sectors, from which we can learn. And Australia can offer Germany access to space and unique collaboration operations, especially in terms of launching. We have wide open spaces, a huge coastline and low air and maritime traffic.

How do you see Germany’s diplomatic role in space?
Very active! We cooperate with Germany in fora like the United Nations to try and establish rules and norms. We collaborate with Germany and France in military space through a Five Eyes Plus grouping led by the United States and it is highly beneficial to all countries. And Germany’s strength is that it can build consensus among those actors.

Australia and Germany both want to maintain a democratic space order. But the world on Earth is not just made up of democracies.
Australia’s wants to see its values and interests protected in space, as they are on Earth. This doesn’t necessarily mean that space should be democratic, but we believe that the liberal democratic principles we have on Earth should extend to space. Current treaties, such as the Outer Space Treaty, are not designed for the increased commercialization and militarization of space. So we need to set new standards for responsible behaviour. And this is an area ripe for greater cooperation between Australia and Germany.


Read more from the Berlin Pulse here.