by Dr Bleddyn Bowen
The US National Space Council published a document on 23rd July 2020 titled ‘‘A New Era for Space Exploration and Development’. This is a particularly interesting document, as it is not legally binding, does not make a clear policy statement, nor is one of the periodical space ‘strategy’ or review documents. Yet it may be one of the more useful and revealing statements about a modern American vision for outer space in recent years.
For me, the most interesting thing about this document is that it deliberately takes aim at the fantastical thinking on humanity’s future in space, and deliberately turns away from an Apollo-style scramble to put a people on the Moon. It emphasizes a sustainable and open-ended lunar and deep space exploration program.
Through this document, the National Space Council has made an effort to dispel the persistent and fanciful notions that surround US space exploration policy and potential off-world futures, and educate the reader as to the direction of travel established by the Trump Administration’s sequential Space Policy Directives. It has tried to exorcise the ghost of Apollo – and the unrealistic expectations it creates – which haunts space exploration efforts to this day.
The document is structured like a primer to explain what the United States’ general long term goals are in space exploration, and how it sees it happening. It does not provide a clear timeline, or specific projects like so many of the broken promises of the NASA and international exploration roadmap since the end of the Cold War.
Directives and objectives
It begins by putting the recent Space Policy Directives and National Space Strategy objectives together, with a focus on how they are relevant to exploration and increasing commercial opportunities in a government-funded marketplace for services. Here the National Space Council outlines how it sees a long-term presence on the Moon working out, as well as stressing the importance of learning how to explore off-world with humans in the relatively safer and more accessible environment of the Moon before trying a human effort towards Mars.
It then mentions workforce and educational issues, but moves on quickly to outline the role of Government in realizing such a vision. Given the context of the so-called ‘NewSpace’ economy, or Space 4.0, or whichever buzzword you prefer, it is refreshing to see a fairly realistic and clear explanation of the US Government’s role as the creator of the marketplace for commercial providers to meet US Government as well as international participants’ needs.
This raises an important truth about the global space economy – it is still largely driven by public spending. SpaceX’s new taxi service has been lauded as a new era in commercial spaceflight. Whilst SpaceX has undoubtedly made breakthroughs in reusable rocket technology, it is still highly reliant on US Government launch contracts to turn a profit.
SpaceX broke ULA’s monopoly in spectacular fashion, but it has not lessened the importance of public funds in sustaining human activity in space. For now, and perhaps rightly, this vision is firmly interested in commercializing more Earth orbit operations and services rather than deep space exploration.
The Space Council’s is clear that any major habitation drives for a multiplanetary species have to have clear economic rationales for doing so (then I would say strategic rationales would follow). Public funds should not bankroll such a colossal effort unless there is a clear economic return. Otherwise, human exploration and habitation will be restricted to science missions and outposts, like Antarctica.
There are so many unknowns when it comes to lunar regolith as well as the other environmental hazards, any human visitation or settlement plan for Mars and the Moon without generations-long small scale and successive science and geological missions are fantastical. Lunar dust, for example, is quite sticky and gets everywhere. We do not know how long complex machines can work in such an environment, particularly as human and robotic activity will kick up large amounts of dust.
Leaving the dreamers of rapid human expansion into cislunar space and onto Mars behind, this vision of deep space exploration and science is perhaps the strongest official effort I’ve seen to try to move the USA on from the ghost of Apollo. It haunts any discussion of space policy today, conjuring endless and tiresome references to the ‘space race’ of the 1960s in the media to almost any activity in space today.
Memories of Apollo
But that malign spirit of Apollo is particularly problematic in American spaceflight planning and public discussion, as you may expect. Rapid advances, colossal funding requirements, and the stunning achievements or firsts of the Apollo program get in the way of incremental, properly funded, scientific and infrastructure driven sustainable space exploration plans.
Apollo should of course be remembered as the technical and policy triumph that it was, but it is harmful as a metaphor or template for sustainable and affordable space exploration visions. It is important for space enthusiasts and those of us in global space community to remember that most people don’t care that much about space, and the effort required for Apollo will likely not to be seen again. It is good therefore to see a serious effort in this document to emphasize a sustainable and open-ended program for lunar exploration (and beyond).
Another very interesting element of the document is that it ends with useful annexes that charts all of America’s current and projected plans with regard to space exploration, both robotic and crewed. As an academic researcher and teacher, as well as something of an outsider to the US space policy community, this is a particularly valuable resource and update on the large US space exploration enterprise.
Is this perhaps the influence of the scholar and teacher Professor Scott Pace, the chief executive of the National Space Council, coming through? It would not surprise me. It is welcome to see this in a major vision document from a Government body that sets out to educate its readers and citizenry. For this the National Space Council has my thanks for providing a useful resource that I will be using in my own space politics teaching at the University of Leicester in the next academic year!
Allied/international involvement appear in the language of norms and partners, but the US has had a lot of time to lay the groundwork for such things for over a decade, not least with the EU’s aborted International Code of Conduct. Is a fresh start needed or can it be resurrected and amended?
The Artemis Accords will at least force the issue of governing a busier Moon and equitably distributing the limited water resources and desirable habitation locations on its surface. This is as long as actual American progress in lunar technologies and funding matches its ambitions by the mid-late 2020s.
Space isn’t special or isolated from terrestrial politics. In the wider context of a more transactional US foreign policy, and a President that has not been the kindest towards international institutions and supranational political structures, I remain skeptical. How can the Americans succeed in more multilateral space governance, if it eschews multilateral governance on Earth. But if the USA puts its money where its mouth is, many others will want to hitch a ride to the Moon with all the political influence that buys for Washington.
Related to that is the messaging of America first in the document. This raises concerns to some about what it’ll be like to work within an American-led framework, and whether it’ll be worth it if the US really does put the money and political capital into a sustainable lunar project. Wider space diplomacy leaves much to be desired at present, in particular how militaristic language surrounding the new Space Force plays into the rhetoric of its primary competitors.
I would argue that accommodating partners, providing better benefits, and calming unilateral urges would be far more beneficial for the USA in trying to shape norms and projects in space, particularly if it is to compete with any Chinese international partnering efforts.
The European Union and Japan’s participation in a larger American framework seems a reasonable bet if Washington can learn from and accommodate the complaints and experiences gleaned from the International Space Station. Already, Japan appears to be eager to participate in the lunar gateway.
But that future cannot ignore the agency of India, China, and Russia, whose relations with the United States are not always the smoothest. Their acquiescence, if not participation, is needed for any American sustainable lunar program to succeed.
Environmental sustainability is a bit thin in this document too – any exploration of the Moon will disturb the environment, and any large scale presence and activity needs to be managed so as not to violate Planetary Protection principles, nor ruin the Moon as a shared ‘8th continent’ and environmental inheritance for future generations.
It is great to see a deliberate effort here at educating a wider audience and exorcising the ghost of Apollo. This tries to explain the United States’ vision of itself in space exploration for the next few decades. It pushes the sustainable exploration of the Moon and beyond in incremental, logical steps with no end-point in sight, and checks the hyperbole surrounding Martian crewed missions and commercial deep space companies.
But – it remains to be seen how this vision will help address ecological collapse on Earth, the single biggest threat to life as we know it. Given the timescale needed to realize the future envisioned at in this document, it feels wrong to omit discussion of how such an ambitious lunar program can help address global warming. I have no doubts that it can, but I would have liked to see this articulated in this well-meaning, exploratory, and educational pamphlet.
I do believe space exploration and space technology is part of the solution for environmental sustainability on Earth, but it cannot just be assumed as some inevitability in some Whiggish interpretation of technological progress or a ‘natural’ expansion of humans over ever more territory in the solar system. Without making a deliberate effort to tie in space exploration with the habitability and preservation of Earth and currently failing efforts to keep Earth habitable, I’m not sure how habitable the solar system will ever be for humans.
Dr Bleddyn Bowen is a Lecturer in International Relations at the University of Leicester, UK, and the author of War in Space (Edinburgh University Press). He is an expert researcher and teacher in space warfare and space policy. He is also a regular columnist for SpaceWatch.Global. His personal website can be found here.