In my last post, I explored issues related to American abrogation of responsibility in the arena of international space cooperation, primarily as they pertain to the removal of the Moon from the “critical path” in the Global Exploration Roadmap and the subsequent confusion and dismay this decision has caused our international space partners. Having looked at how poorly considered, unilateral policy decisions affect our friends, one also must look at how it could affect a possible adversary. Although we have no declared space enemies, volatile political circumstances on Earth always contain the implicit threat of escalation and expansion into the realm of space. With the increasing reliance and dependence of modern technical civilization on satellite assets, such a threat will be greater in the future than has previously been the case.
Recent world events have documented our vulnerability in regards to both foreign partners and competitors. The strong disagreement between Russia and the United States over the political status of parts of the Ukraine is currently bleeding over into the realm of space cooperation. Although our principal joint space project (operation of the International Space Station) remains on track, bureaucratic directives have interfered with and stopped Russian-American cooperation on a variety of scientific efforts. One example is an international scientific workshop on the exploration of Venus (scheduled next month in Houston), which has been thrown into disarray due to escalating Russian-American tension.
Despite this tension, our space relationship with the Russians appears, for now, secure. However, current access for American crews to the ISS is dependent entirely on the Russian Soyuz, not to mention our use of Russian-built RD-180 engines in the United Launch Alliance Atlas launch vehicle family. If diplomatic relations continue to deteriorate and turn cold (or hot), we will be in the difficult and very publicly diminished position of losing all of these space capabilities at once. Russia’s military buildup and aggression toward its neighbors, coupled with their denial (or hiked price) of resources is instructive on what their posture in space will be. China, another space power, has also become increasingly assertive toward its neighbors in Asia. In both instances, Russia and China are filling the power vacuum that has been opened up by America’s retreat from influence on the world stage (which includes space).
Looking beyond the immediate near-term, what would poor relations with Russia mean for future space operations beyond low Earth orbit (LEO)? The Russians have outlined their plans for future trans-LEO spaceflight in several venues. Remarkably and unsurprisingly, they intend to focus considerable effort on the Moon, beginning with a series of lander and rover spacecraft designed to examine and characterize the volatile deposits of the lunar poles. Initial efforts are entirely focused on robotic spacecraft, but there is nothing to stop the Russians from following these missions with human visits sometime after 2020. Indeed, recent remarks by Russia’s Deputy Premier Dmitri Rogozin have specifically outlined a vision of permanent Russian presence on the Moon within the next decade or so (the timescale is of less significance than their intent to accomplish it).
What are we to make of these claims? Who cares if Russia and China decide to do “what we did” over 40 years ago? The key difference is that they are not “doing what we did” nor are they emphasizing a lunar “touch-and-go” and an “exit strategy” so as to get on to Mars (NASA’s truncated version of a devolved Vision for Space Exploration, now totally abandoned). By focusing on polar exploration and resource characterization, Russia and China intend to go the Moon to stay. In the coming decades, such knowledge and capability will become increasingly vital and valuable, as the freedom of movement throughout cislunar space holds significant national security and economic ramifications.
I’ve outlined elsewhere the importance of cislunar space – the area between the Earth and the Moon, where most of our critical satellite assets reside. The power to freely come and go throughout this volume of space permits the holder to both protect their own space assets and to deny adversaries the use of their own. This development need not involve the weaponization of space or the deployment of offensive capabilities. Satellites are delicate physically and can be disabled through very simple expedients, such as snapping off an antenna or severing a cable. To realize this scenario, necessary capabilities are cislunar presence, the ability to maneuver throughout space (orbital changes, rendezvous and loiter), station-keeping with proximity operations and long-dwell times (preferably in high orbits well beyond LEO to mask both the presence and purpose of spacecraft). China has recently sent a variety of space probes to the Moon and beyond and has successfully demonstrated a mastery of these space skills and capabilities.
The Chinese Chang’E-2 mission, launched in 2010, was sent to the Moon to orbit it for a year and map the surface in greater detail than its predecessor Chang’E-1. After mapping the Moon, the spacecraft was sent to Sun-Earth L-2, the libration point 1.5 million kilometers from Earth. It spent the next eight months at this L-2 point, loitering but available to depart and re-position on command. After this period, the probe was sent into orbit around the Sun, including maneuvering into a fly-by of the near-Earth asteroid Toutatis. Other Chinese satellite missions have experimented with orbital maneuvering and rendezvous; one satellite possessed a robotic arm and engaged in proximity operations with its sister craft. All of these new capabilities post-date the infamous 2007 Chinese interceptor mission that destroyed an obsolete satellite and left a cloud of orbital debris to interfere with future missions (and for which China endured justifiable international criticism). Chang’E-3 soft-landed and deployed a rover on the Moon last December; Chang’E-4, 5 and 6 are being built or designed for upcoming missions to the Moon.
The extensive and permanent presence of Russia and China in the frontier of space beyond LEO would not be such a concern if we were certain that other space powers would also be present there. Although the Europeans have outlined plans (as of yet, indefinite) for lunar missions in the coming years, as in most space activities they take primary cues from the United States (which has indicated that it does not intend to conduct lunar missions). However, U.S. human missions to cislunar space may occur, in particular, as part of the testing program for the SLS-Orion spacecraft. This includes the so-called Asteroid Retrieval Mission (ARM), a concept being studied wherein a rock will be hauled to lunar orbit to allow astronauts to encounter it.
Can it thus be said that America will be on the cislunar frontier as well as these other nations? Key considerations are the intent and outcome of these two different approaches. With the ARM, the United States has proposed conducting a one-off, “make work” mission solely for the purpose of being able to check off the box of doing something new by “visiting” an asteroid (a plan that has been met with derision by many in the space community). Unlike the Russian and Chinese plans, there is no effort to assay, develop and use the material and energy resources of the Moon to create cislunar permanence and new space faring capabilities. In short, the Russians and Chinese are making plans to be permanently present in cislunar space and on the Moon, while our present leadership is adamant that since “we’ve been there,” they have no interest in going back. As such, our options to participate or even have a voice in how the new cislunar frontier develops (or command the use of space assets that control and safeguard so much of our existence here on Earth) will be severely limited, if not completely curtailed.
Some may not worry about this development, as it will take at least a decade (perhaps more, perhaps less) until the importance of others’ presence (and our absence) becomes evident. However, decisions made now hold ominous scenarios from many perspectives. Those present on the frontier will make the rules of the road. If America is not there, our rights of passage, access and use of space and its resources are not guaranteed. In international relations, a power vacuum occurs when there is an absence of strong leadership and no regional presence (or plans for any) to secure and defend our national interests. Such a vacuum is always filled (often with malign powers and circumstances not to our benefit or advantage). Recent events have shown that relying upon foreign space powers may save small amounts of money in the near-term, but can cost us dearly in the long run.
We are not at war with either Russia or China but it is dangerous for U.S. leadership to allow the country to assume a vulnerable posture, as events outside of our control can quickly change. Weakness is an invitation for aggression; we are either space powerful or space vulnerable. There is no doubt that our satellite infrastructure represents a critical national asset and that its health and proper functionality are vital to the economy and security of the United States.
Abandoning our presence on the frontier of cislunar space and the lunar surface is not an option – at least not a rational, intelligent one. Our civil space program would serve vital national interests if it were re-vectored through cislunar space to take advantage of the natural logistics depot (in specific and limited locales) available on our Moon. In time, with our presence there, this new realm in space could be developed for commercial and economic expansion. But for now, we’re slipping further and further behind the eight ball, committed to performing space public relations stunts that give no lasting value for money spent and, as current events portend, leaves us exposed amid growing national security concerns.