The International Political Economy of Space

Applying Theory to Space Activity

Dr Sarah Lieberman
Canterbury Christ Church University


The politics of space is an important area for research, but one which has attracted less academic interest than other areas of political, economic and international relations. And, as state and society become ever more reliant on satellite based technology, the geo-politics and political economy of space activity will become an ever more important area of analysis. Space activity has both detractors and proponents: many argue that pursuing space based projects while citizens live in poverty is inhumane governing; others, the European Commission for example, see ongoing socio-economic benefits of such work. To understand why states go to space, we must therefore look to interdisciplinary research based on both the politics and economics of societal governance.
These interdisciplinary themes are best united under the aegis of international political economy (IPE). This broad church of theoretical discussion proposes that to understand decisions made by those in power, it is essential to understand first, who has power, second, the processes by which they exercise this power, and third, the effects this has on society at large.
The application of IPE theory to space politics brings these issues together to form a better understanding of both the global economy, and the politics and economics of space activity. This study will highlight issues from the space race of the Cold War, to the multi-national public and private funded launch of modern satellites. The geo-politics of the space age, a well-researched area of examination, will take second stage however in this study which aims to unveil the structures of power driving the politics and economics of space activity.
Using Susan Strange’s theory of IPE as a starting point for analysis, this project will evaluate the intended outcomes of space exploration, focusing on the wealth, military security, knowledge and production capacity of major space players.

The Research Idea

This project will look at the political economy of state and privately funded space activity. We argue this will provide political scientists and international relations scholars a unique insight into the dynamics of the world economy. Traditional realist, geopolitical analyses of space politics emphasised questions of power, prestige and credibility, a tendency reinforced by the Cold War environment that framed – and contributed to – the first state based incursions in space exploration.
Examining the history and politics of space exploration from a political economic perspective, however, can contribute much to our understanding of the dynamics of the world political economy and space exploration. Studying the political economics of space opens up an exciting new domain of research for IPE scholars. Little has been written on state involvement in the economics of space activity, the regulatory frameworks involved, the combination of public and private spending and effects of state based space programmes on the national economy. The prominence of the state in this domain, moreover, mandates a theoretical approach that is sensitive to the interaction between political and economic forces. Furthermore, the study of space itself will be enhanced by light shed on the issues by IPE theory and theorists.
To address these issues, this research will examine the space activity of established and emerging powers. Strange’s work on IPE, in particular her four structures of power – wealth, military, knowledge and production (1994) – will provide an initial theoretical framework through which to view and analyse the case studies.


The international politics of space has recently seen an increase in popular interest. In the UK, the BBC, in particular BBC4’s Horizon series combines scientific discussion with political points of interest relating to space topics, and the media has recently increased coverage of space issues, both scientific and political, as International Space Station astronauts have gained social media celebrity status.
In terms of academic study, the examination of space politics as a branch of international relations has remained a niche area of investigation since the 1950S / 1960s, nonetheless, some very interesting works on the politics of space have been published throughout this time. The journal Space Policy is a particularly useful resource for academic research on this issue, as are the edited volumes of work that have come from Michael Sheehan – The International Politics Of Space (2007), Natalie Borman and Michael Sheehan – Securing Outer Space(2009); and Hoerber and Stephenson’s work European Space Policy: European Integration And The Final Frontier (2015).
One work that is of particular interest to this study is the volume of essays edited by Charles D. Lutes and Peter L. Hays Towards a Theory of Space Power (2005). While this will be a useful reference point for the further study of space politics, it is now important to combine this form of study with a robust international political economy framework to best understand the basis of the international relations of space.

The Focus

This work will have a ‘real world’ application looking at the benefits that states can hope to achieve through spending on space activity. Many scholars and members of the public ask why states continue to spend money on space exploration, after the Cold War has ended, in an era characterised by significant poverty. This work on the political economy of space will go some way to answer this question by analysing the expected outputs states hope to achieve through space activity in an era of economic interdependence and globalisation.
Research questions relating to the political economy will investigate levels of state and private sector spending on space and, based on Strange’s theoretical framework, will ask: what are the financial rewards gleaned? to what extent does the state gain military power or prestige from space exploration? does space activity increase state-based knowledge capacity? do downstream technologies increase state based and private production ability? and what are the domestic effects of space programmes in terms of economic performance, industrial output, employment opportunities and institutional path-dependence?
By analysing state/actor inputs (knowledge, research and finance) and outputs (increased economy, skilled workforce, technological advancement, military capacity) using a framework based on Susan Strange’s four structures of power, this work will ask to what extent real life problems can be solved by activity 400 kilometres above the surface of the earth.

Theoretical Novelty

This work aims to build on previous work carried out by the group leader Dr Sarah Lieberman on structural power and space activity / space policy. Although other work has been completed on space policy in recent years – see brief literature review above – little work has been done on the international political economy of space. There is a particular gap in the literature regarding application of power theories, particularly IPE, to space activity. The age of space exploration has evolved during the period in which capitalism and the neoliberal framework of privatisation have achieved dominance. This means both state and corporate funding finance space exploration and ground based space technological advancement thus requiring a theoretical discussion sensitive to both the political and the economic dimensions. The means by which the state and the corporate, private world interact on the policy arena and the funding of important economic areas constitutes to a large extent the international political economy.
Using an IPE perspective, the project will draw together ideas on finance, wealth, military security, knowledge and production capacity to garner a deeper vision of the space going proclivity of powerful nation states. Moreover, this project will provide new insights into modern political economy: using Strange’s eminent work to highlight important factors via space activity, the working group will discuss and advance ideas regarding international political economy thus contributing to the creation of a relevant framework for modern application.


Strange’s comprehensive theoretical framework – with its emphasis on distinct facets of state power – will provide a basis for drawing together contributions from distinct subfields of IPE, whether realist, liberal or critical. Scholars will approach the project with an understanding of political power, but with varied approaches to its application in terms of International Political Economy. Contributions will be designed around three case studies: the US, China, and the EU. These cases have been selected for two main reasons. First, they are the most consequential actors in the politics of space and each state plays a significant role in the economy of space exploration. Second, these three cases maximise variation on a host of interesting politico-economic variables, including institutional structure, economic model, geostrategic position and national culture and identity. It is expected that the contributions themselves will consist primarily of within-case analyses based on historical process-tracing, essentially analyses of individual regions and actors across time. It is, however, our intention to remain essentially pluralist in this regard, given the relative advantages and disadvantages of the various examples of qualitative and quantitative methodology, and contributions based on comparative analysis, interpretive methods or discourse analysis, and statistical techniques will also be sought, should they highlight interesting dimensions of the political economy of space.

Work Plan

During the funding term, the project leader will ensure one teaching free term to organise the workload, arrange the workshops, edit co-authored articles and most importantly to work on producing high quality publishable work on international political economy and space activity.
The group will meet twice in a formal workshop setting to present papers, exchange ideas and work together on developing new and exciting ideas on political economy – most specifically on how Susan Strange’s theoretical work enhances our understanding of space activity among past, current and future political and economic superpowers.
After each workshop, work will be collated and submitted as single or joint authored papers to relevant journals. The project leader had already contacts with Dr Jill Stuart, the editor of the journal Space Policy and with Dr Kerry Hebden the editor of the space publication Room. Both have already expressed an interest in the publication of work derived from this project and wish to be informed of proceedings and perhaps centrally involved in workshops where relevant.
The project leader intends to produce work focussed on all four of Susan Strange’s structures of power as relating to space activity. The project outputs will therefore be: one article on the military power aspects of space; one article on the relationship between wealth, finance and space activity; one article on space, manufacturing and production ; and one article (already presented as a conference paper and accepted for publication) on the knowledge structure and the popularisation of space.


During the course of this project, it is envisaged that a cohesive and long lasting research group will be formed around the topics of international political economy and space activity.
In the immediate term, it is envisaged that the two planned workshops will result in the publication of at least one special edition of a journal hosting a set of related academic journal articles on the political economy of space activity. It is also expected that the project leader will submit journal articles to relevant academic journals including the European Journal of Political Economy.
Members of the work group will also meet at the UACES Conference in London in September 2016 to discuss space politics and present papers relating to the popularisation of space – in terms of this project it will relate to Susan Strange’s knowledge power structure. The project leader’s attendance at this conference will be funded by Canterbury Christ Church University’s own research funding, and from this conference it is intended that a further journal submission will be achieved.
Ultimately it is hoped that through this small funding bid will emerge a larger project with the propulsion to achieve a larger amount of funding in future bids to relevant social research bodies.
The overall aim of this project is to enhance our understanding of space politics through the application of IPE theories; and to better understand the global political economy through the discussion of space activity.