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Benefiting Earth or Benefiting Them? The Private Spaceflight Industry in the Service of Western Imperialism

By Gagarin

Elon Musk (left), U.S. Space Command Insignia (center) and Jeff Bezos (right).

Kent, WA, January 7 – Workers at the big American commercial spaceflight companies, such as Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin or Elon Musk’s SpaceX, are often told that the work they do is moving towards some sort of humanitarian goal. For example, Blue Origin’s website states that it was founded “with the vision of enabling a future where millions of people are living and working in space for the benefit of Earth.”1 They may have come to work at one of these companies after dodging more infamous corporations like Lockheed Martin or Raytheon which seek employees with a similar skillset. Furthermore, the commercial, private focus and branding of these companies may make it appear that they are outside of the “defense” industry – i.e., the industry that develops the weapons which enforce American imperialism. Indeed, much of their most widely publicized missions have used celebrities to portray a friendly and appealing image to the media, such as Blue Origin’s recent New Shepard flights which have sent familiar faces like William Shatner and Michael Strahan above the Karman Line that separates our atmosphere from outer space.2 However, the truth is that over the last few years American military institutions have taken an increasing interest in using the infrastructure that these companies have built to fulfill strategic objectives related to the new space race with China. The first signs of using this technology for gray zone war tactics taking place between Earth and the Moon have already become apparent as the international rush to colonize LEO (Low Earth Orbit) intensifies.

The Space Industrial Base and Its Connection to NATO, the Greatest Tool of Imperialism

Last November, the Atlantic Council hosted a webinar in which key figures discussed the findings of the “State of the Space Industrial Base” report, which emerged from a series of conferences sponsored by the Defense Innovation Unit, United States Space Force, and Air Force Research Laboratory.3 The Atlantic Council was formed in 1961 during the Cold War as a member of the Atlantic Treaty Association, which supports NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.4

Ever since its creation in 1949, NATO has been one of the biggest and most destructive tools of capitalist imperialism. It originally consisted of Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, the United Kingdom, and the United States. The organization was ostensibly created for collective defense against the Soviet Union, but it has continued to exist since the first socialist state’s dissolution in 1991. In fact, NATO has only continued to expand eastward, having gained 14 new members since then. Today, it touches part of the border with Russia through its member states Norway, Estonia, and Latvia.

During the Cold War, one of the most infamous programs carried out by NATO was Operation Gladio, a decades-long operation in which NATO enlisted the help of fascist terrorist groups to combat the spread of communism and create an atmosphere of paranoia in Western Europe. This was done through false-flag operations in which terrorist acts were perpetrated by these groups and then blamed on local communists. These actions were both numerous and widespread. For example, in 1980, a train station in Bologna, Italy was bombed, killing 85 people. This was blamed on the communist “Red Brigades”, thus damaging the reputation of the Italian communist movement in the eyes of the people. Today, the bombing is “widely recognized as a Gladio operation.”5 In 1985, shoppers in a supermarket in Belgium were shot at random, killing 28 people and wounding many more. This was again eventually linked to Belgian right-wing groups cooperating with the Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency. In 1990, the European parliament passed a resolution condemning Gladio, and it “called on member state governments to ‘dismantle all clandestine military and paramilitary networks’ associated with Operation Gladio.” This was never done, and it’s possible that the operation is still in effect.6

In more recent times, imperialist pressure from NATO has been concentrated in post-Soviet Ukraine. In 2013, Ukrainian President Yanukovych rejected an agreement to establish a political and economic association with the European Union, and this gave the pretext for Euromaidan. Ukrainian fascist ultranationalists then took power, aided by funding from NATO-aligned countries. These fascists idolize figures such as the anti-communist and antisemitic Stepan Bandera, who collaborated with the Nazi German occupiers in World War II. The antifascist Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics soon held referendums in which their people voted in favor of declaring independence from the new fascist regime.7 Now, in 2022, as Ukrainian neo-Nazis have invaded these two republics in Donbass, it appears that NATO’s imperialist machinations have sparked a conflict which threatens its own waning global hegemony.8

Competition with China for the Second Space Age

Among the speakers at the “State of the Space Industrial Base” webinar hosted by NATO’s Atlantic Council was Air Force Colonel Eric Felt, who made it clear what the greatest concern is: the “strategic fragility” of the United States’ position in the “second Space Age” compared to its competitor, the People’s Republic of China.9 The speakers call for a national “North Star” Space Vision to coordinate the military, commercial, and civil space sectors, tailing the CPC’s current Military-Civil Fusion approach to achieve military dominance by 2049.10 Indeed, the Colonel makes the fear of the imperialists explicit when he states that “it is impossible to be too worried strategically about the competition we’re facing with China…where they are graduating eight times as many STEM graduates as we are in this country.”5 The report’s suggested approach of concentrating on developing a “hybrid space architecture” through close partnership between the military and private capital is ultimately an attempt to close this gap.

It has recently become clear that the plans for building these partnerships are already being set in motion. For example, USTRANSCOM, the United States Transportation Command of the Department of Defense, has entered into cooperative research and development agreements with SpaceX, as well as talks for such an agreement with Blue Origin. The objective of these agreements is to develop a “rocket cargo” program that will use space rockets within the military’s transportation network. In fact, Thomas Martin, director of Blue Origin’s national security programs, believes that the military could provide a better market for point-to-point space transport than the commercial sector.11 As another example, the Pentagon’s DARPA gave contracts to Blue Origin, Lockheed Martin, and General Atomics last year for the development of nuclear-powered spacecraft. The Pentagon stated that they believed “[nuclear propulsion] would give a DRACO [Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations] spacecraft greater agility to implement the Department of Defense’s core tenet of rapid maneuver in cislunar space (between the Earth and moon).”12

Early Signs of Hostilities

Beyond these initial contracts, hostilities with the PRC in space have already been foreshadowed by current events. Last year, the Tiangong Space Station had two separate near misses with SpaceX’s Starlink satellites. The station was forced to implement “preventive collision avoidance control” to avoid risking the lives of its astronauts. It has been noted that the Starlink satellites had been moved without warning from their normal orbit altitude of 550 kilometers to around 382 kilometers, nearly matching that of the Tiangong Space Station. While it cannot be confirmed that these actions were deliberate, senior expert on aerospace science and technology Huang Zhicheng has stated that “we can’t rule out the possibility that the move is intended to test China’s capacity in space to check whether China can accurately grasp the satellites’ actions.”13 Erik Prince, the founder of the American private military company Blackwater, stated that such “gray-area forces offer plausible deniability and operate under the threshold of the enemy, containing conflict and avoiding a big-war and state-to-state response.” He referred to such an approach as a “hybrid model” that would enlist the help of “unconventional players such as intelligence agencies, special operations units or private military contractors (PMCs).”14 In other words, the implication of the “hybrid space architecture” which the American military seeks to develop is ultimately a greater capability to carry out hybrid war in space.

Thankfully for anti-imperialist forces, there are encouraging signs that the shortcomings of capitalist competition and the American dictatorship of the bourgeoisie will help to sabotage its own plans. The Endless Frontier Act, which Senator Todd Young of Indiana said was “supposed to be about competing, out-competing, out-innovating, outgrowing communist China,” included a last-minute amendment authored by Senator Maria Cantwell of Washington mandating that NASA’s HLS (Human Landing System) lunar lander program will support the development of two landers, when it was initially planned to only have one. This amendment was written shortly after Washington’s Blue Origin failed to secure NASA’s initial contract for the lander, which was instead given to SpaceX.15 It provides only an additional $100 million in funding for procuring a second lander, while the original proposal provided $1.195 billion, and it is unclear whether the $100 million will be enough without Blue Origin sacrificing its own earnings.16 In addition to these petty tactics, Bezos’ company attempted to sue NASA itself after they awarded the $2.9 billion contract to SpaceX. This action is perfectly hypocritical in the light of Bezos’ complaints about how “today…the losers would sue the federal government because they didn’t win,” when talking about NASA contracting out work to private companies at a “fireside chat” during the JFK Space Summit.17 Evidently, Bezos did not expect to be one of the losers. NASA’s response flies in the face of Bezos’ stated vision for the company:

“But it is not an overstatement to say that all of the successes upon which the Option A procurement is built, all of this once-in-a-generation momentum, can easily be undone by one party—in this case, Blue Origin—who seeks to prioritize its own fortunes over that of NASA, the United States, and every person alive today who dreams to see humans exploring worlds beyond our own. Plainly stated, a protest sustain in the instant dispute runs the high risk of creating not just delays for the Artemis program, but that it will never actually achieve its goal of returning the United States to the Moon.”18

The lawsuit cited “safety issues with the Human Landing System procurement process”, but the company’s true motivation was clear, and the U.S. Court of Federal Claims ruled against them in November.19

The participation of private spaceflight companies in NASA’s contracts may seem benign enough. Indeed, the website of the American nonprofit The Planetary Society states that “none of NASA’s budget is used for national defense or intelligence gathering programs; it is a civilian agency responsible for the peaceful exploration of space.”20 However, this statement paints an incomplete picture. Historically, NASA and the military have been deeply intertwined. For example, during the Space Shuttle era, the shuttle flew several classified payloads from the Department of Defense.21 Recently declassified documents from the National Security Archive show that NASA and national security agencies have collaborated “to utilize each other’s hardware and facilities to accomplish their missions,” to rely “on one another for data and expertise concerning foreign aeronautical and space programs,” and because of the requirement “to monitor and restrict certain NASA programs to eliminate threats to classified programs or deny important scientific data to the nation’s adversaries.”22 In other words, behind the peaceful rhetoric of civilian space agencies like NASA lies an often-hidden reality of close association with American military institutions.

What Can We Do?

Regardless of whether this infighting is viewed as tragedy or as farce, the threat of American imperialism looms large for not just China, but the entire world. It is clear that a hybrid system of developing the space industrial base is one of the main methods through which the American military seeks to maintain and build on this power. That is why it is more important now than ever for the American working class to reassert its own power over the interests of the capitalist class. There is precedent for this in the actions of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) throughout the 20th century, including their anti-apartheid boycotts from the 1960s to the 1980s23, as well as their May Day strike against the Iraq War in 2008.24 When workers are organized, they can begin to take actions against the interests of capital. However, in order to truly overcome NATO and the destructive force of Western imperialism, organizing workers into unions will not be enough. This will require a revolution abolishing the capitalist state and replacing it with a worker’s state. Thus, a strong vanguard party with deep ties to the working masses is required to elevate their trade union consciousness into revolutionary consciousness. This is our fundamental job as communists today: to build up such a vanguard party, with our efforts and influence concentrated first and foremost on workers in the basic industries. Only then will the working class, led by the vanguard party, be able to direct production to suit its own purposes, and only then will be able to go to space to benefit Earth, not to benefit Capital.

References

[1] https://www.blueorigin.com/about-blue

[2] Chitwood, Adam (2021, November 23). Michael Strahan Is Heading to Space on Blue Origin’s 3rd Space Flight. Retrieved January 7, 2022, https://www.thewrap.com/michael-strahan-going-to-space-blue-origin/ .

[3] https://www.diu.mil/latest/state-of-the-space-industrial-base-2021

[4] Small, Melvin (1998, June 1). The Atlantic Council – The Early Years. Retrieved January 7, 2022, https://www.nato.int/acad/fellow/96-98/small.pdf .

[5] TruthMove. (2014). Operation Gladio NATO/CIA “Stay-Behind” Secret Armies. Retrieved February 23, 2022, https://www.truthmove.org/content/operation-gladio/ .

[6] Sputnik News. (2017, November 22). Today in 1990: EU’s Gladio Resolution on 40 Years of Secret NATO Terror Armies. Retrieved February 23, 2022, https://sputniknews.com/20171122/operation-gladio-resolution-europe-1059343153.html .

[7] Red Patriot Editor Team. (2022, January 26). LYC Statement on NATO & Ukraine. Retrieved February 23, 2022, https://redpat.org/2022/01/lyc-statement-on-nato-ukraine/ .

[8] Bentley, Russell “Texas”. (2022, January 14). The Liberation of Ukraine and Murder/Suicide in the West. Retrieved February 23, 2022, https://redpat.org/2022/01/the-liberation-of-ukraine-and-murder-suicide-in-the-west/ .

[9] Atlantic Council. (2021). Re: State of the space industrial base [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2bqZznQgceg

[10] U.S. Department of State. (2020). Military-Civil Fusion and the People’s Republic of China. Retrieved January 7, 2022, https://www.state.gov/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/What-is-MCF-One-Pager.pdf .

[11] Erwin, Sandra (2021, October 20). Blue Origin eyes participation in military ‘rocket cargo’ program. Retrieved January 7, 2022, https://spacenews.com/blue-origin-eyes-participation-in-military-rocket-cargo-program/ .

[12] Sheetz, Michael (2021, April 12). DARPA awards nuclear spacecraft contracts to Lockheed Martin, Bezos’ Blue Origin and General Atomics. Retrieved January 7, 2022, https://www.cnbc.com/2021/04/12/darpa-nuclear-spacecraft-lockheed-bezos-blue-origin-general-atomics.html .

[13] CGTN (2021, December 28). Expert: SpaceX satellites’ near collision with Chinese space station could be deliberate tests. Retrieved January 7, 2022, https://news.cgtn.com/news/2021-12-28/SpaceX-satellites-may-look-to-test-China-s-capacity-in-space-expert-16m9jnnCmkM/index.html

[14] Honrada, Gabriel (2021, December 31). China protests near-collision with SpaceX satellite. Retrieved January 7, 2022, https://asiatimes.com/2021/12/china-protests-near-collision-with-spacex-satellite/ .

[15] Berger, Eric (2021, May 13). Congress fires warning shot at NASA after SpaceX Moon lander award. Retrieved January 7, 2022, https://arstechnica.com/science/2021/05/congress-fires-warning-shot-at-nasa-after-spacex-moon-lander-award/ .

[16] Janeidy Arevalo, Evelyn (2021, October 20). U.S. Senate Wants NASA to Select Two Companies to Develop Lunar Landers After the Agency Only Selected SpaceX’s Starship. Retrieved February 21, 2022, https://www.tesmanian.com/blogs/tesmanian-blog/nasa-hls .

[17] JFK Library. (2019). JFK Space Summit: Fireside Chat with Jeff Bezos [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bG0kT78SDn0 .

[18] Isaac, Steve (2021, October 7). Procurement Protest from Jeff Bezos Risks NASA Moonshot. Retrieved February 21, 2022, https://www.negometrix.com/us/blog/nasa-procurement-protest/ .

[19] Sheetz, Michael (2021, November 4). Bezos’ Blue Origin loses NASA lawsuit over SpaceX $2.9 billion lunar lander contract. Retrieved January 7, 2022, https://www.cnbc.com/2021/11/04/bezos-blue-origin-loses-lawsuit-against-nasa-over-spacex-lunar-lander.html .

[20] The Planetary Society. Your Guide to NASA’s Budget. Retrieved February 28, 2022, https://www.planetary.org/space-policy/nasa-budget

[21] Howell, Elizabeth (2016, October 26). Classified Shuttle Missions: Secrets in Space. Retrieved February 28, 2022, https://www.space.com/34522-secret-shuttle-missions.html

[22] David, James E. (2015, April 10). NASA’s Secret Relationships with U.S. Defense and Intelligence Agencies. Retrieved February 28, 2022, https://nsarchive2.gwu.edu/NSAEBB/NSAEBB509/

[23] Cole, Peter. Bay Area Longshore Workers Fought Against Apartheid. Retrieved January 7, 2022, https://www.foundsf.org/index.php?title=Bay_Area_Longshore_Workers_Fought_Against_Apartheid .

[24] Cole, Peter (2018, April 26). Don’t Like War? Then Don’t Work! Remembering When Dockworkers Shut Down the Ports on May Day. Retrieved January 7, 2022, https://inthesetimes.com/article/ILWU-war-Iraq-Afghanistan-work-stoppage-dockworkers-apartheid-May-Day .