Graphic international news reports are testament to the fact that the world is an unstable and dangerous place. Because of Russian aggression and intransigence toward Ukraine, the state of relations between the United States and Russia continues to deteriorate. Half a world away in the East China Sea, a game of strategic cat-and-mouse is played where Chinese fighter planes buzz American surveillance flights in international waters and the Chinese navy throws its weight around in confrontations on the open ocean, including harassment of off-shore oil operations owned by Vietnam, the Philippines and other nations. American influence and reliability is increasingly doubted, mocked and challenged around the world. Relinquishing leadership has emboldened our enemies and worried our allies, forcing many countries to look to those projecting strength and resolve for their security. Because the U.S. has assumed a posture of withdrawal, we have created the power vacuum that is destabilizing the world.
These ongoing events place the current state of the American space program in stark relief. We continue to be dependent upon Russia for crew transport to and from the International Space Station (ISS). A former NASA Administrator, who is not alone in his assessment, characterized this dependency as being “held hostage.” While we do have the ability to supply the ISS with procured cargo flights from American contractors, they have delivered only a fraction of their promised mass, leaving the vast bulk of ISS re-supply the domain of the Russian Progress (unmanned Soyuz) spacecraft. China has shown their resolve to dominate cislunar space. They are actively pursuing a program of missions to the Moon. The Chinese have demonstrated their ability to fly anywhere throughout cislunar space and to rendezvous, loiter and encounter other satellite assets on station or en route to other destinations.
Our international space partners were blindsided by America’s unilateral decision to abandon the Moon – an agreed to destination and goal upon which they had been working. Meanwhile, our space agency continues to promote a stunt human mission to a “lassoed” asteroid, an idea nearly universally panned. And contrary to the realities of budget and capability, NASA continues to regale the nation with endless “happy talk” about eventual human missions to Mars, a goal that is well beyond the time horizon of any reasonable projection.
Why has it come to this? One might argue that the current strategic confusion about goals and destinations is merely a continuation of the ongoing struggle of human spaceflight to find a long-term, sustainable rationale after the end of the Apollo program. But this calculus would misread the past thirty years of space history. There has never been any doubt about the logical path beyond low Earth orbit for humans – it leads incrementally to high orbits in cislunar space, to the Moon and then to the planets beyond. Yes, it is physically possible to skip one or more of those steps (as Apollo demonstrated) but those detours lead to architectural shortcuts that, while perhaps necessary to meet short-term political considerations, do not lead to or drive long-term, sustainable human presence in space.
Many chalk up the current state of upheaval as the inevitable consequence of the end of Apollo, but we cannot remain in this spin cycle if we ever plan to move forward with a workable strategy. A current debate in space circles is not where to go, or what to do, but rather, how to do it. Issues dividing the space community – the arguments keeping us stuck in low Earth orbit, focus mainly on means rather than ends, and rockets rather than destinations. Such debate reflects a paucity of national leadership and the natural movement by others to fill the vacuum left by this strategic confusion.
Human spaceflight beyond LEO can be pursued through one of two means – a large, fully fueled vehicle can be launched directly from Earth (requiring the development of a heavy lift rocket) or a trans-LEO spacecraft can be launched as smaller pieces and built and fueled in space. The Apollo architecture used a heavy lift vehicle (Saturn V) to conduct a lunar landing mission with a single launch. This development accelerated the schedule by avoiding the need to construct a large infrastructure in Earth orbit to support a lunar mission. Thus, we fulfilled President Kennedy’s challenge and won the Moon race in less than a decade but left no lasting legacy infrastructure in space. An alternative approach would have been to incrementally build systems and emplace assets at increasing distances from Earth, including way stations, assembly points and fueling depots. Such a system is more complex and takes longer to build, but it creates permanent spaceflight infrastructure that would allow us to make repeated trips to the Moon and elsewhere. The success of Apollo has made it difficult to wrap our heads around going back to square one and building a space faring system in a permanent, sustainable way.
The new heavy lift launch vehicle (the SLS system) came about not as a result of a carefully thought-out strategy for space exploration but through an act of Congress who, faced with agency intransigence, acted to save a vital U.S. capability. The SLS launch vehicle currently being built will put about 80 metric tons into LEO, less than the older Saturn V but much more than any current or envisioned alternative. A future version could put roughly the same payload mass into LEO as the Saturn V. Critics of this program argue from two perspectives – first, that the SLS system is too expensive, both as a program and (because of projected low flight rates) by individual launch. Moreover, they claim that development of the SLS keeps spaceflight as an exclusive conclave of the federal government, requiring enormous resources to keep the program going. In fact, there is nothing (except the availability of additional federal subsidies) stopping the private sector from proceeding with their own vehicle development, at whatever pace they choose.
Thus, as framed by many in the space community, we are presented with these alternatives – do we want a human spaceflight program operated largely as it has been in the past – as an Apollo Redux, run by the federal government, with large rockets sending people to Mars for flags-and-footprint missions and other entertaining space “firsts?” Or, do we want a de-centralized program run by private corporations, providing many long-term opportunities for a variety of players to do different things in space? A line has been drawn in the sand and many advocates on each side remain intransigent and vociferous.
To ensure that the U.S. retains and grows a strong space program, we need a federally run human space program that promotes decentralization as capabilities are proven to the point that the private sector can invest in it with confidence, knowing markets and profits will exist going forward. History bears out the importance and necessity of cooperation between business and government. We have vital and pressing national concerns in space and the federal government represents our collective needs and desires as a nation. The fact that we are falling behind both Russia and China in spaceflight (witnessing the reality of how that impacts others understanding of our nation’s vitality and as a force in the world) bothers some not a whit, but it should. Earthly conflicts and tensions in international relations inevitably spill over into space and any other theater in which countries compete.
Recent events demonstrate that conflict escalates when the U.S. projects impotence in international affairs. The downsizing of our military has projected weakness, raising concerns about our national security and commitments abroad. Coupled with indecision over our national and international policies, such weakness has invited aggression around the world. Likewise, our civil space program is very visibly being dismantled just as the theater of cislunar space assumes more economic and military importance globally. Cislunar is the zone of near-Earth space where all of our national security and commercial space assets are located – and currently, they have scant protection from hostile action. A strong, robust U.S. presence in cislunar space supports and protects the nation and the world through situational awareness, asset protection and power projection.
In space we’re faced with the same options as on Earth – accept our role as a world leader and protect the interests of our allies and ourselves, or shun confrontation and accept the dictates of others. Some argue that cooperation in space leads to better relations and harmony on Earth; tell that to the Ukraine and their nervous neighbors. Many applaud this disruption in American power and influence. That type of thinking is very dangerous to the peace and prosperity of the world. We must resume a leadership role – one that looks after our national interests, wherever they are found – here on Earth or out in space. Instead of drawing down and retreating, we must stop the bleeding, retain what is left, build it back up and design it for permanence. We need to stop wasting time and money toying around with stunts and too-far-in-the-future wishful thinking. Our leadership must get down to the basics of moving our economy and national interests into space. Other countries projecting power and influence are already many steps ahead and set on a clear path to cislunar dominance.