During the Cold War, American and Russian space faring efforts enjoyed a level of prestige (and more notably, funding) unparalleled in the modern world. In hind sight, we tend to attribute historic accomplishments like Yuri Gagarin’s momentous trip to into orbit and Neil Armstrong’s legendary first step onto another world as symbolic victories for our respective nations – but in truth, the space program was always about securing the strategic high ground.
It should come as no surprise to anyone, then, that Gemini and Apollo astronauts took to the skies on platforms that bore a striking resemblance to the rockets still employed to ferry our most destructive military assets, nuclear weapons, to targets on the other side of the globe. The same technology that saw rapid development throughout decades of the Cold War was employed in our flagship endeavors into space as well as our missile development programs in equal measure, and us we raced the Russians to the moon, we ran parallel races in terms of weapons stockpiles and platforms – building an ever bigger, more powerful barrel to force our enemies to stare down; all the while having our astronauts and cosmonauts grin for the cameras, lending a patriotic and noble face on the very real possibility of world-ending conflict.
This little jaunt through history is of particular import in today’s geopolitical environment because the world stands at the precipice of a new age in space travel. Soon, the United States and Russia will lose their near-monopoly on orbital operations, as rapidly developing nations like China expand their presence in space and even smaller nations begin fielding their own space programs. Space races, and the commensurate military buildup that coincides, may be a thing of the past here in America for the time being, but they certainly aren’t in nations like India, Iran, and North Korea.
Last week, the United Nations Security Council unanimously approved new sanctions that may potentially be enough to finally force Kim Jong Un to consider engaging in diplomatic talks with the international community set on seeing him relinquish his nuclear efforts. If, and that is, of course a big if, Kim does decide to take his seat at the negotiating table, what can the world expect from North Korea in the months and years to follow?
More than likely, a newly robust space program.
In December of 2012, North Korea became the 10th nation on the planet to successfully launch a satellite into orbit, ushering Kim’s state into the space age using technology that was similar to that employed in their Hwasong series of intercontinental ballistic missiles. Since then, North Korea’s rocket technology has advanced by leaps and bounds, and their space program, though drawing quite a bit less attention than their weapons programs, has continued in earnest throughout, though at a significantly lower operational tempo.