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Building an Enduring Advantage in the Third Space Age | American Enterprise Institute – AEI

The United States is leading the world into a new era of space activity known as the third space age. Unlike the militarization and exploration of the first space age (1957–90) and the diversification and stagnation of the second space age (1991–2015), the third space age (2016–present) is defined by rapid commercialization and proliferation. In this new era, US space capabilities and capacity are second to none, but China, Russia, and other nations are actively working to erode this advantage. This report provides quantitative insights and analysis of the trends in space launch, satellites, and space debris and makes recommendations for how to build an enduring advantage for the United States in space.

The global annual launch rate hit an all-time high of 211 successful orbital launches in 2023, driven mainly by the United States and China, which each logged their highest launch rate ever at 103 and 66 launches, respectively. The US lead is even more stark considering that it comprised 81 percent of global effective launch capacity in 2023—four times the rest of the world combined. The introduction of much larger US launch vehicles, particularly SpaceX’s Starship and Blue Origin’s New Glenn, and the higher degree of reusability these vehicles employ will further increase the US lead. These disruptive changes will give the United States a unique ability to launch much larger payloads at much lower costs, enabling new generations of satellites with designs unconstrained by size, weight, and power.

The US advantage in space also extends to satellite capabilities and production capacity. Globally, more satellites were launched in the past five years (2019–23) than in all previous years combined. In 2023, 78 percent of satellites launched were US satellites, driven mainly by the deployment of SpaceX’s Starlink constellation. Commercial satellites comprise 84 percent of all satellites launched in the third space age, and market projections indicate that the satellite launch rate will remain high for the foreseeable future, driven by the deployment of highly proliferated commercial constellations, such as Starlink and Amazon’s Kuiper.

The United States has the opportunity to press its advantage in satellite production capacity to enable new military space missions and leverage commercial space capabilities in new ways. However, disparities in commercial space licensing between the United States and other nations and the risks of capacity shortfalls, delays, and supply-chain disruptions in the US space industrial base could undermine these advantages if not addressed.

Space debris is a growing issue in the third space age that affects all satellite operators and all orbits. The vast majority of space debris is accumulating in an orbit sometimes referred to as “upper” low Earth orbit, defined as an altitude between 600 and 2,000 kilometers. While anti-satellite tests, accidental collisions, and satellite breakups are the main sources of space debris, another significant and preventable cause is the spent upper stages of rockets. China is depositing rocket bodies in space more than any other nation, which could create trouble for all satellite operators if any of these objects has a catastrophic breakup event, as happened with a Chinese rocket body in 2022. An encouraging counter trend is the innovation in commercial space domain awareness capabilities and debris mitigation technology, which are making the space environment safer and more transparent.

The window of advantage the United States now enjoys in space will not stay open indefinitely. It rests largely on America’s lead in space technology, but technology is a fleeting source of advantage because other nations (and companies) will find ways to copy, steal, or independently develop it for their own benefit—and find ways to counter the advantage it provides.

To turn this temporary lead into an enduring advantage, the United States must build on sources of national power that run deeper than technology: the combination of free markets, an open society, and access to capital, which enable the engine of innovation behind this technology. For the US advantage in space to endure, the pace of innovation will need to continuously accelerate at a faster rate than competitors can copy or counter. This report provides three sets of recommendations to accelerate the engine of innovation in the US space sector:

The United States must act quickly to seize this moment before the window of advantage closes. The third space age presents a once-in-a-generation opportunity for the United States to extend a rules-based international order into space and leverage its advantages in space for diplomatic, economic, and security advantages on Earth.