The United States and Russia have a long and illustrious history of competition that is best summed up as “war-adjacent.”  For decades, we competed with one another in battles of influence, economics, and even other nations’ armies, but when we think back to the Cold War, it’s hard not to think of the space race.  Our two nations strapped our best and brightest to the tops of nuclear-capable ballistic space missiles and hurled them toward the horizons of our own understanding, keen to demonstrate our military and technological superiority on the global stage.  In many ways, the space race defined the cold war, and the United States’ arrival on the moon, while years before the Cold War era would come to an end, served as a prominent example of American, and capitalist, superiority over their communist competitors.

Now another Cold War is brewing, but it’s not one that you might expect. Though the United States and Russia are once again staring side-eyed at one another from across the bar, a handful of nations in Asia are already amidst an arms race of Cold War proportions, and as India, China, and Japan compete with one another over influence in the world’s theater, their Cold War even has its own space race.

One India may be taking the lead in.

On Wednesday, India is launching a rocket intended to deploy a record-setting 104 satellites, crushing the previous record of 37 set by Russia only three years ago.  This record-setting flight will not only bolster India’s economic interests in orbit, but, if successful, it will serve as a demonstration of the nation’s highly capable space program.  Much like the Cold War, effectively placing objects in orbit requires a level of ballistic missile science not seen in all nations, providing for an effective measure of strength, but complex orbital mission objectives like the large-scale deployment of satellites demonstrates another, new type of military capability of increasing importance in today’s day in age: the ability to manipulate assets atop the world’s ultimate high ground.

Japan’s recent attempt at demonstrating its orbital capability was met in failure, as their mission intended to capture orbiting space garbage was riddled with complications that culminated in the orbiter burning up upon reentry as intended, but without completing one of the mission’s main objectives of deploying the space-junk tether.  Far from Japan’s only space-based failure in recent years, the technology giant is looking to improve upon their record in 2017 with a number of launches scheduled in support of various mission objectives.

China, however, may eclipse India’s space-born efforts in 2017, with a record thirty space missions planned for the year.  That means China will be launching another space operation at a rate of better than two a month throughout this entire year, dramatically increasing China’s presence in orbit just as they have expanded their military presence in the waterways throughout their region.  China already landed a rover on the moon, but intends to place another one on the dark side of the moon by 2018 and plans are already underway for their first ever Mars mission slated for 2020.

So although Wednesday may serve as an excellent opportunity for India to step out ahead of other space-capable nations with their record-setting satellite launch, their tenure atop the pile of Asian Cold War competitors may not last long.  More importantly to those of us on this side of the globe, India’s satellite launch on Wednesday demonstrates the ability of nations with smaller budgets to keep up and even outpace the old-school giants of space exploration, the United States and Russia.

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As space continues to grow in importance for the development of modern infrastructure within nations, it will certainly also continue to gain traction from a military perspective as well, begging the question, how long will an Asian space race continue before Western powers begin to perceive it as a potential threat worthy of investment to address?  Although America is leading the world in privatization of space operations, thus far, even those efforts have been aimed at effectively doing what we’ve already been doing for years: low orbit deployment and resupply operations.  What will China, India, or Japan need to accomplish before America stops looking down its nose at low-budget programs and starts allocating funds to ensuring that the US maintains its spot as among the most space-capable nations on the planet?

From the vantage point on the ground, it looks like they’re getting a pretty big head start-up there.

Image courtesy of the EPA