The Value of the Moon: How to Explore, Live, and Prosper in Space Using the Moon's Resources (2016)

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If Not Now, When? If Not Us, Who?

A widespread misconception about the nature and meaning of the Apollo program has greatly contributed to our inability to establish a long-term strategic direction for our civil space program. Essentially, Apollo was a Cold War battle between the United States and the Soviet Union. Once that presidential goal had been achieved and victory declared, we moved on, since you don’t keep fighting a battle that you’ve already won. The norm for America’s relationship with the Moon has been on-again, off-again ever since. We raced to the Moon with wild abandon and then left with equal, if not greater, haste. After achieving one of the greatest national technological challenges since the atomic bomb, America departed the Moon with dispatch. The damage caused by misreading the true significance of Apollo is palpable.

Apollo’s success dramatically and unquestionably demonstrated that human spaceflight into the solar system is possible, a knowledge permanently engraved in the minds and on the hearts of so many in the space community. Those who made Apollo possible view that era as a lost “golden age” of space exploration, with the ensuing years reduced to the prosaic and mundane tasks of satellite servicing and educational, zero-gravity demonstrations. Ironically, the success of Apollo has contributed to our multidecadal inability to move forward; it has become the crippling, carved-in-stone standard that continues to influence current thinking about our civil space program. Witness the approach of our recent lunar return efforts: Each one followed the well-trod path wherein we devised and planned an Apollo-like program, then, taking our cue from previous efforts, promptly retreated when stacks of cash magically failed to appear on schedule.

It is possible that what’s missing in our debate over a return to the Moon is the benefit of a clear-eyed historical perspective, one unique to America. There is no perfect analogy to the space program, but several past events in our nation’s history suggest that some general inferences may be drawn. By examining some historical resonances of spaceflight and attempting to draw conclusions about its proper place and significance, perhaps we can discern a more productive, less disruptive path toward space capability.

Lunar Return in Historical Perspective

The United States has undertaken many large-scale, collective projects over the course of its 240-year history, but none more mythologized than the effort to put a man on the Moon ahead of the Soviet Union in the 1960s. The Apollo program has all of the appeal of great drama: A charismatic, martyred president issues a grand and seemingly near-impossible challenge to the nation, one eagerly grasped and accomplished by a can-do country, proving once and for all that the good guys win in the end. It is remarkable how this caricature is so widely accepted. In fact, President Kennedy was a reluctant spacefarer who undertook the race to the Moon only as a way to distract public attention from the less-than-stellar beginning of his first term. Kennedy had ardently asked advisors to come up with some other technical contest, something with a practical benefit that could win over friends and allies in developing nations. The desalination of seawater was his personal favorite.1

But space was making headlines in the late 1950s and early 1960s. At the time of Kennedy’s declaration in May 1961, it was widely perceived that we were behind the Soviets, not only in space but also in nuclear capability. This was a case where perceptions were more important than reality. It did not matter that the Soviets were woefully behind in the production of missiles that could actually deliver a warhead. They had already humiliated the new president twice, once by thwarting his sponsored invasion of Cuba, at the Bay of Pigs, and then again with the flight of Yuri Gagarin, the first man to orbit the Earth. America was behind in the Cold War and behind in space. Something needed to be done. What followed held momentous consequences for both Cold War rivals, and by extension, all nations.

Apollo was a special product, one of its own time and space; it does not fit into any current recognizable category of circumstances surrounding the creation of a large-scale federal engineering project. But that does not mean that a return to the Moon today is not feasible. Traditionally, such projects are undertaken for economic and/or security concerns. Both motivations are applicable to the problem of lunar return, and as such, answer both of these compelling national needs.

At the time of the 1849 California gold rush, there were only two ways to get to the goldfields. One was a long and tedious sea voyage from the East Coast to San Francisco, with the choice of taking the long route around the tip of South America or traversing the malarial swamps of Panama for a ship transfer midway through the voyage. The other was a hazardous, months-long crawl across the continent through the wilderness of the American interior. The need for a railroad to connect the nation together was a pressing concern. Several visionaries advocated for the construction of a transcontinental railroad to connect California with the rail systems of the east. After a long study and critical review of several routes, a path was selected and its construction was approved by the Congress and signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln. The Pacific Railroad Act of 1862 provided financial incentives and land grants by the federal government for each segment of rail built along the approved route. The Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroads started building inward from their termini (Omaha and Sacramento, respectively) and converged at Promontory Point, Utah, in 1869. The teams symbolized the linking together of the nation by the transcontinental railroad with the hammering of a final golden spike. Now both coasts were accessible, and the continental interior was open to migration, development, and settlement.

Some believe that such an approach is a possible model for the development of space. In place of a government-run space program, government provides a series of incentives and grants whereby private companies are induced to create the necessary spacefaring infrastructure that will see an economic expansion similar to that brought about 150 years earlier by the building of the transcontinental railroad. This analogy is not perfectly aligned with historical realities; in the 1860s, an extensive rail transportation infrastructure already existed, largely capitalized by the private sector. Comparable assets for spaceflight consist of commercial launch suppliers, but they are both less extensive and have narrower and smaller markets in the field of space than did the railroads of the nineteenth century in the field of passenger and cargo transport. Because spaceflight is more difficult and more dangerous than rail travel, the overall volume of traffic—and thus revenue—is much lower, which depresses capital investment. New Space advocates sometimes cite the US Post Office’s airmail service of the 1920s as a good business model. Although the Post Office contracted with private air companies to carry the mail, in this case, a large market (the US Mail) already existed—what was being purchased was faster delivery. That commodity is not nearly as desirable in the field of spaceflight, where timeliness is less critical than assured delivery and reliability.

One historical parallel does compare closely to an ambitious space goal in terms of resources needed: the development of the atomic bomb.2 The largest technological-scientific effort ever undertaken, the Manhattan Project engaged some of the finest scientific and engineering minds in the country. Billions of dollars were spent developing a deliverable bomb, whose feasibility was uncertain when work began. The driving imperative was national survival, always a guarantee for continued funding. The concern was that Germany was actively working on atomic weapons, a supposition later found to be incorrect. In any event, the Manhattan Project was the largest, most difficult technical project ever attempted. Its success led to the idea that government-funded research in science and technology could serve national aims, a lesson subsequently applied to the waging of the Cold War, of which Apollo was one part. The 50-year struggle against the Soviet Union led to the creation of a science-technology industrial sector upon which we drew heavily during the Apollo program. The systematic dismantling of that sector in the 1990s after the fall of the Soviet Union means that techno-industrial base is gone, making progress in space more difficult to achieve today.

Various large-scale construction projects, completed over the years, offer useful lessons in undertaking future national engineering efforts. The United States took over French efforts to build the Panama Canal in 1904, completing it a decade later in 1914. Both engineering expertise and capital investment were judiciously applied to the problems posed by the canal, which revolutionized seafaring and world trade. Noted at the time was the significant national security aspect of canal building; the Panama Canal enabled the United States Navy to easily move ships between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, creating a responsive force multiplier that turned out to be critical during two world wars. The Interstate Highway System, proposed by President Dwight D. Eisenhower and inspired by the German Autobahn, created a new automobile-based national transportation infrastructure. Its ostensible purpose was to provide a network of roads to serve the needs of national defense, but in addition, its creation has been responsible for expanding national economic activity by trillions of dollars. Thus, large-scale government programs enabled us to move farther afield, to generate wealth and prosperity, and to secure our national defense.

In past efforts, the federal government has led where the private sector has been unable or unwilling. Because spaceflight is inherently a difficult undertaking, one requiring billions of dollars in capital investment, private spaceflight, to date, has focused primarily on the existing satellite launch market. But unlike early aviation, there is no preexisting “air post” service market driving the development of a new private transportation sector. Much hope is currently invested in the envisioned but unfulfilled potential of space tourism as an emerging market. Despite cash awards and other incentives, substantial private human spaceflight remains, for the most part, cost- and market-prohibitive. Potential possibilities for space commerce have been identified in the communications, energy and construction sectors. What is missing is the ability to move cargo and people routinely throughout cislunar space.

The rationale for space development articulated in 2006 by former Presidential Science Advisor John Marburger calls for space to become part of our economic sphere.3 In part, we have already started to reach that goal, as evidenced by existing commercial markets for satellite communications and remote sensing data. Due to degradation, space assets that reside in orbits above LEO need periodic replacement, along with an occasional upgrade in technical capability. If we could reach these high geosynchronous orbits, satellites could be serviced and maintained. Additionally, we could assemble large distributed systems in GEO using people and robots working together. This approach was documented to be of great value during the 30-year history of the space shuttle program, when astronauts serviced and maintained satellites like the Hubble Space Telescope and built the International Space Station from small modules fabricated and launched separately.

A permanent presence in cislunar space serves many national economic goals. But how is this best achieved? What are the roles of government and the private sector in the development of space? Most important, how can we devise a civil space program that serves the most needs, in the most efficient manner?

The Geopolitical Value of the Moon and Cislunar Space

Modern power projection is possible only through the deployment and use of space-based assets. Air, land, and sea forces all depend on satellites for communications, navigation, and intelligence. Without them, our ability to make our way about in the world would be severely compromised. Satellites are physically very vulnerable. One need not collide with one to disable it—snapping an antenna or cutting a cable to its solar array can turn a billion-dollar satellite into a worthless piece of orbiting space debris. It is essential to protect our national satellite assets, both to safeguard our investment and, more importantly, to assure that they will function at a moment’s notice.

Some in the New Space community take a libertarian view of space development. They suppose that government—in the form of NASA, the agency given responsibility for civil spaceflight—is an impediment that creates more problems than solutions. However, a clearly defined constitutional role of the federal government is to provide for the common defense; this includes maintaining the territorial integrity of the United States and the protection of legal and economic interests of American citizens abroad. As more American commercial entities venture into the zones beyond low Earth orbit, their activities and interests become part of the defense obligations of the US government. Thus, it is not merely appropriate but essential that the federal government maintains a visible profile and role in cislunar space.

Government activities in space should consist of those actions designed to protect American interests. This protection requires the projection of national power as needed and appropriate, as well as the establishment of a legal environment whereby individual and corporate rights and obligations are observed and defended. Such a portfolio of activities requires the physical presence of government. If the government is not present in such a theater, how can it enforce its regulatory and legal decisions? One possibility is through asset seizure on Earth, but such a technique will only stifle, not encourage, space development. Just as the US Navy defends freedom of the seas and the commerce of all nations, an American presence in cislunar space will likewise defend and assure freedom of access and commerce there.

The American civil space program was originally established to conduct research into the techniques and possible beneficial uses of spaceflight. That mandate is declared in the Space Act of 1958, subsequently amended many times.4 The act outlines the role of the federal government in space and consists of nine basic objectives, including the attainment of scientific knowledge, the development of space technology and flight systems, and international leadership and cooperation. The Space Act effectively authorizes NASA to conduct virtually all imaginable activities in space, including the creation of new spaceflight capabilities.

To achieve a paradigm shift in spaceflight, we must understand how we can use lunar and space resources to create new capabilities and how difficult such activity might be. Despite decades of academic study, no one has demonstrated resource extraction on the Moon. There is nothing in the physics and chemistry of the materials of the Moon that suggests it is not possible; we simply do not know what practical problems might arise. This is why resource utilization is an appropriate goal for the federal space program. As a high-risk engineering research and development project, it is difficult for the private sector to raise the necessary capital to understand the magnitude of the problem from the perspective of an end-to-end system. The original VSE was conceived to let NASA answer these questions and to begin the process of creating a permanent cislunar transportation infrastructure. As an engineering research and development project with uncertain prospects for success, such an effort is entirely appropriate for the federal government to undertake. The results of this project could lead to the creation of new markets and wealth, as the private sector will then possess the strategic knowledge necessary to take advantage of the economic opportunities provided by cislunar space development.

China and America: A New Space Race?

Just as America is standing down from space leadership, China is stepping up its program to send people to the Moon. This circumstance has reawakened a long-standing debate about the geopolitical aspects of space travel and with it, some questions. Are we in a race back to the Moon? Should we be? And if there is a “space race” today, what do we mean by the term? Is it a race of military dimensions, or is such thinking an artifact of the Cold War? What are the implications of a new space race?

Many who work in the space business purport to be unimpressed by the idea that China is going to the Moon, even publicly inviting them to waste money on such a stunt. “No big deal” seems to be the attitude—after all, America did that more than 40 years ago. NASA Administrator Charles Bolden professes to be unmoved by the possible future presence of a Chinese flag on the Moon, having noted that there are already six American flags there. It should be further noted that 40 years of exposure to solar ultraviolet radiation has probably bleached and faded the red, white, and blue into a dull white.5

Although it is not currently fashionable in this country to think about national interests and the competition of nations in space, others do not labor under these restrictions. Our current human spaceflight effort, the International Space Station (ISS), has shown us both the benefits and drawbacks of cooperative projects. Currently, we do not have the ability to send crews to and from the ISS. But that’s not a problem; the Russians have graciously agreed to transport us, at $60 million a pop.

Why would nations compete in space, anyway? If such competition occurs, how might it affect us? What should we have in space: Kumbaya or Starship Troopers? Or is the answer somewhere in between?

The “Moon race” of the 1960s was a Cold War exercise of soft power projection, meaning that it involved no real military confrontation, but rather was a competition by nonlethal means to determine which country had superior technology, and by extension, the superior political and economic system. In short, it was largely an international propaganda struggle. Simultaneously, the two countries also engaged in a hard power struggle in space to develop ever-better systems to observe and monitor the military assets of the other. There was little public debate associated with this struggle, indeed, much of it was kept secret. As the decade passed, military space systems became increasingly more capable and extensive. Over time, they largely replaced human intelligence assets monitoring our adversaries’ strategic capabilities and intentions.

The United States very publicly won the race to the Moon, giving rise to a flurry of pronouncements about everyone’s peaceful intentions for outer space, while the larger struggle continued to play out behind the scenes. NASA’s replacement effort for the concluded Apollo program, the space shuttle project, promised to lower the costs of space travel by providing a reusable vehicle that would launch like a rocket and land like an airplane. Because of the need to fit under a tightly constrained budgetary envelope, and for a variety of other technical reasons, the shuttle did not live up to its promise as a low-cost “truck” for space flight. However, the program resulted in a fleet of five operational spacecraft that successfully flew 133 missions over the course of its 30-year history.

Although some in American space circles have called it a policy failure, the shuttle had some interesting characteristics that caused it to be considered a military threat by the USSR. An early shuttle mission had its crew retrieve an orbiting satellite, Solar Max, for repair. Later missions grappled balky satellites and returned them to Earth for refurbishment, repair, and re-launch. This capability culminated with a series of shuttle missions to the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) that conducted on-orbit servicing tasks, ranging from correcting the flawed optics of the original telescope (the first service mission) to the routine upgrading of sensors, the replacement of solar arrays and main computers, and the reboosting of the telescope to a higher orbit. The significance of these missions was that the HST is basically a strategic reconnaissance satellite: It looks up at the heavens rather than down at nuclear missile sites from orbit. The Hubble repair missions documented the value of accessing orbital assets with people and servicing equipment.

Another relatively unnoticed series of shuttle missions demonstrated the value of advanced sensors. As a large, stable platform in orbit (its orbiting mass was almost 100 metric tons), the shuttle was able to fly very heavy, high-power payloads that smaller robotic satellites could not. The Shuttle Imaging Radar (SIR) was a synthetic-aperture instrument that could obtain images of Earth from space by sending out radar pulses as an illuminating beam. It was able to image through cloud cover, day or night, all over the Earth. In a stunning realization, we found that it could also image subsurface features from space—in particular, the SIR-A mission mapped ancient riverbeds buried beneath the sands of the eastern Sahara.6 The strategic implications of this discovery were immense; as most land-based nuclear missiles are buried in silos, the use of sensors like imaging radar means that they cannot remain hidden.

These new capabilities, provided by the space shuttle, had significant policy implications for the Soviets. To them, it seemed that the shuttle was a great leap forward in military space technology, not the “policy failure” bemoaned by American analysts. With its capabilities for on-orbit satellite servicing and as a platform for advanced sensors, the shuttle became a threat that had to be countered. The USSR responded with Buran, its version of a space shuttle, which looked superficially similar to the American version. The Challenger accident showed that the shuttle was a highly vulnerable system in many respects; even as the Soviets developed Buran, the American military had already decided to withdraw from the shuttle program.

During the 1990s, we saw a revolution in tactical space—the use of, and reliance on, space assets on the modern battlefield. The global positioning system (GPS) has made the transition to the consumer market, but it was originally designed for our troops to instantly know their exact locations. A global network of communications satellites carries both voice and data, and interfaces to the partly space-based Internet, another innovation originally built for military technical research. Now, the entire world is connected and plugged in, and spacebridges are important components of that connection. Fifty years into the Space Age, we are all vitally dependent, both economically and militarily, on our satellite-based assets; space is, by default, in control of Earth’s economic sphere. Whoever controls cislunar space controls what happens on Earth.

Most people do not know about the multitude of satellites in various orbits around the Earth that affect their daily lives. We rely on satellites to provide us with instantaneous global communications that affect almost everything we do. We use GPS to find out both where we are and where we are going. Weather stations in orbit monitor the globe, alerting us to coming storms so that their destructive effects can be minimized. Remote space sensors map the land and sea, permitting us to understand the distribution of various properties and how they change with time. Other satellites look outward to the Sun, which controls the Earth’s climate, and “space weather,” which influences radio propagation. The satellites orbiting the Earth provide us with phenomenal amounts of information. Fortunately, they are not yet self-aware—but the people who operate them are.

All satellites are vulnerable. Components constantly break down and must be replaced. New technology makes existing facilities obsolete, requiring high-cost replacements. A satellite must fit within and on top of the largest launch vehicle we have. Spacecraft thus have practical size limits, which in turn limits their capabilities and lifetimes. Once a satellite stops working, it is abandoned and a replacement must be designed, launched, and put into its proper orbit, all at great cost.

Although satellite aging is normal and expected, catastrophic loss, either accidental or deliberate, is always a concern. Encounters between objects in space tend to be at very high velocities. The ever-increasing amounts of debris and junk in orbit, such as pieces of old rockets and satellites, can hit functioning satellites and destroy them.7 North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) carefully tracks the bigger pieces of space junk. Some spacecraft, such as the International Space Station, can be maneuvered out of the path of big chunks of oncoming debris, but smaller pieces, say, the size of a bolt or screw, cannot be tracked and avoided. Such debris could cripple a satellite if it collides with some critical part of the vehicle.

Antisatellite warfare (ASAT) is another possible cause of failure. It has long been recognized that satellites are extremely vulnerable to attack, and both the US and the USSR experimented with ASAT warfare during the Cold War. ASAT takes advantage of the fragility of these spacecraft to render them inoperative. This can be done with remote effectors, such as lasers to “blind” optical sensors. The simplest ASAT weapon is a kinetic impactor. By intercepting a satellite with a projectile at a high relative velocity, the satellite is rapidly and easily disintegrated and rendered worthless.

Despite their vulnerability, the destruction of space assets has seldom happened by accident and never as an overt act of war. They are left alone because they are not easy to get to. Some orbiting spacecraft occupy low Earth orbit (LEO) and are accessible to interceptors, but many valuable strategic assets reside in the much higher orbits of middle Earth orbit (MEO) between 3,000 and 35,000 kilometers, and in geosynchronous Earth orbit (GEO) at 35,786 kilometers. Such orbits are difficult to reach, requiring long transit times and complex orbital maneuvers, which quickly reveal themselves and their purpose to ground-based tracking.

After a booster failure in 1998, a communications satellite was left in a useless transfer orbit. Engineers at Hughes, the makers of the satellite, devised a clever scheme to send the satellite to GEO using a gravity assist from the Moon. This first “commercial” use of a flight to the Moon saved the expensive satellite for its planned use.8 One aspect of this rescue is seldom mentioned but it attracted the attention of military space watchers everywhere. This mission dramatically illustrated the importance of what is called “situational awareness” in space. Most trips to GEO travel from LEO upward; this satellite came down from the Moon, approaching GEO from an unobserved (and at least partly unobservable) direction, one not ordinarily monitored by ground-based tracking systems.

With few exceptions, we are not able to access satellites to repair or upgrade them. Satellites must be self-contained. Once they stop working, they are replaced. Sometimes favorable conditions allow us to be clever and rescue an asset that had been written off, but the system is not designed for such operation. The current spaceflight paradigm is a use and throwaway culture. Our history with the space shuttle program demonstrates that this template need not be the way of conducting business in the future. What is missing is the ability to get people and servicing machines out to the various satellites in all their myriad locations. Reaching LEO is easy, but MEO and GEO cannot be accessed with existing space systems. Yet from the experience of the shuttle and the ISS, we know that if these satellites could be visited, a revolution in the way spaceflight is approached might be possible.

A system with the ability to routinely go to and from the lunar surface is also able to access any other point in cislunar space (see figure 6.1). Our next goal in space should be to create the capability to inhabit the Moon and live off its local resources with the goals of self-sufficiency and sustainability, including learning the skills of propellant production and the refueling of cislunar transport vehicles. Eventually, we can export lunar propellant to fueling depots throughout cislunar space. In short, by going to the Moon, we create a new and qualitatively different capability for space access, a “transcontinental railroad” in space. Such a system would completely transform the paradigm of spaceflight. We can develop serviceable satellites, unlike current ones designed to be abandoned once they fail. This new capability will allow us to create extensible, upgradeable systems. The ability to transport people and machines throughout cislunar space permits the construction of distributed instead of self-contained systems. Such space assets are more flexible, more capable, and more readily defended than conventional ones.

With knowledge of these possibilities, questions arise as to how close we are to developing such a system and if such a paradigm shift for spaceflight is desirable. Are we still in a space race, or is that an obsolete concept? Answers to these questions are not at all obvious. We must understand and consider them fully, as this information is known or available to all spacefaring nations to adopt and adapt for their own use.

The previous space race to land a man on the Moon was a demonstration to the USSR and to the world of our technological superiority. The July 1969 landing of Apollo 11, by any reckoning, gave us technical credibility for the Cold War endgame. It was a huge win for United States and a serious blow to communism. Fifteen years after the moon landing, President Reagan advocated the development of a missile defense shield, the so-called Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI). Although many in the West disparaged this as technically unattainable, the Soviets took the program very seriously. Because the United States had already succeeded in completing a very difficult technical task, the manned lunar landing, something that the Soviet Union could not accomplish, they did not question our technical skill or our resolve. The Soviets knew that a deployment of a US missile shield would instantly render their entire nuclear strategic capability useless.

Not only did the Apollo program achieve its literal objective of landing a man on the Moon (propaganda, soft power), but it also achieved its more abstract objective of intimidating our Soviet adversary (technical surprise, hard power).9 Apollo thus played a significant role in ending the Cold War, one far in excess of what many scholars believe. Similarly, our two follow-on programs of shuttle/station, although fraught with technical issues and deficiencies as tools of exploration, were significant in our understanding and pursuit of human spaceflight, providing us with a way to get people and machines to satellite assets for construction, servicing, extension, and repair. We learned how to assemble very large systems in space from smaller pieces. From our experience constructing the ISS, mastery of these skills suggests that the construction of new, large distributed systems for communications, surveillance, and other tasks is possible. These new space systems would be much more capable and enabling than existing ones.

Warfare in space is not as it is depicted in science-fiction movies, with flying saucers blasting lasers at speeding spaceships. The real threat from space warfare is the denial of assets: Communications satellites are silenced, reconnaissance satellites are blinded, and GPS constellations are made inoperative.10 Possessing this capability completely disrupts command and control and compels reliance on terrestrially based systems, making force projection and coordination more difficult, cumbersome, and slower.

By testing ASAT weapons in space, China has indicated that it fully understands the military benefits of hard space power.11 It also has a well-developed lunar program. Currently, China’s ambition of flags and footprints on the Moon represents soft power projection. Since only the United States has done this in the past, China would celebrate a successful manned lunar mission as a great propaganda coup. Sending taikonauts, as the Chinese call their astronauts, beyond low Earth orbit is a statement of technical parity with the United States. Historically known for taking the long view, often spanning decades, unlike the short-term view that America favors, China understands and appreciates the strategic importance and value of cislunar space.12 Thus, although initial Chinese plans for human lunar missions do not feature resource utilization (ISRU), they know from the technical literature that this activity is both possible and enabling.

The Chinese are also aware of the value of the Moon as a “backdoor” to approach other levels of cislunar space, as demonstrated by the rescue of the Hughes communications satellite. The lunar mission Chang’E 2 is an instructive case in point. Ostensibly a global mapper, the Chang’E 2 spacecraft was launched to the Moon in October 2010. It successfully inserted into lunar orbit and spent the next eight months mapping the surface in detail. Then, the mission took a strange turn; after leaving lunar orbit in June 2011, the Chang’E 2 spacecraft slowly traveled to the Sun-Earth L-2 point (fixed in space relative to the Earth) where it proceeded to loiter for the next eight months. Departing the L-2 point in April 2012, the Chang’E 2 spacecraft then intercepted and flew past and within about three kilometers of Toutatis, a near-Earth asteroid orbiting the Sun. The spacecraft successfully sent images and other data of its encounter back to Earth.

This mission profile is significant in terms of space defense. The Chinese demonstrated their ability to dispatch and maneuver a craft throughout cislunar space, including the tasks of rendezvous and interception, and to command and operate this vehicle throughout the multiyear duration of the mission. Loiter, interception, and action on command are three pillars of antisatellite warfare. Moreover, a spacecraft on an interception path from above—rather than below, as would be the case for antisatellite missions launched from Earth—is much more difficult to detect and track. In short, with the Chang’E 2 mission, China demonstrated that it possesses the ability to base ASAT weapons in deep cislunar space and intercept trans-LEO space assets at will, assets that have very little in the way of defensive capabilities.

If space resource extraction and commerce is possible, a significant question emerges: What societal paradigm shall prevail in this new economy? Many New Space advocates assume that free markets and capitalism are the obvious organizing principles of space commerce, but others may not agree. For example, to China, a government-corporatist oligarchy, the benefits of a pluralistic free-market system are not obvious. Western capitalism is successful because of the enforcement of and respect for contract law. Implementation of capitalism in the developing world has met with mixed results, and truly free markets do not exist in China. What will the organizing principle of society in the new commerce of space resources be: the rule of law or authoritarian oligarchy? An American win in this new race for space does not guarantee that free markets will prevail, but an American loss could ensure that free markets would not emerge and drive expansion on this new frontier. The struggle for soft power projection in space is ongoing.

Once it was decided upon in 1961, President John F. Kennedy laid out the reasons why America had to go the Moon.13 Among the many ideas he articulated, one stands out: “Whatever men shall undertake, free men must fully share.” This is a classic expression of American exceptionalism, the idea that we explore new frontiers not to establish an empire, but to ensure that our political and economic system prevails, a system that has created the most freedom and placed the most new wealth in the hands of the greatest number of people in the history of the world. This is a statement of both soft and hard power projection; by leading the world into space, we guarantee that space does not become the private domain of powers who view humanity as cogs in their ideological machine, but rather as individuals to be valued and protected, and given the opportunity and latitude to innovate and prosper.

The Moon is the first destination beyond LEO because it has the material and energy resources needed to create a true spacefaring system. Recent data from the Moon show that it is even richer in resource potential than we had previously thought; both abundant water and near-permanent sunlight are available at selected areas near the poles. We go to the Moon to learn how to extract and use those resources to create a space transportation system that can routinely access all of cislunar space, with both machines and people. Such a system is the logical next step in both space security and space commerce. This goal for NASA makes the agency relevant to important national interests. A return to the Moon for resource utilization contributes to national security and economic interests, as well as scientific ones.

We are in a new space race, and it is a struggle that has both hard and soft power dimensions. This race is real and more vital to our country’s future than the original one, if not as widely recognized and appreciated. The hard power aspect is to confront the ability of other nations to deny us access to our vital satellite assets in cislunar space. The soft power aspect is a question: How shall society be organized in space? Both concerns are equally important and both can be addressed by lunar return. Will space remain an ever-shrinking sanctuary for science and public relations stunts, or will it be a true frontier, opened wide to scientists and pilots, as well as miners, technicians, entrepreneurs, and settlers? Decisions made now will decide the fate of spacefaring and affect our national economic and security status for generations.

The Role of Public Opinion in Spaceflight

A familiar refrain about the civil space program is that we must somehow get and keep the American people “excited” about space. NASA has spent a great deal of energy pursuing this elusive goal. Its outreach efforts are designed to convince the taxpayers that spending money on space is a good investment. The most common approach is an appeal made to impress upon the American people how the many benefits from spin-off technologies, goods, and capabilities inspired or created by space research and development have affected their lives in positive ways.

The Aldridge Commission received a presentation from NASA Public Affairs that contained 50 years of polling data on the question, “Do you support the American space program?” The poll numbers on this question have bounced around through the years, ranging from close to 60 percent to as low as around 40 percent. Surprisingly, no matter what the agency was doing, how it was faring, what disasters it endured or the triumphs it had achieved, the typical breakdown was roughly 50–50, plus or minus 10 percentage points. This result, nearly constant over the course of the 50-year history of the space program, is as rock-solid as almost any polling number in existence over a similar time span.14

Yet, NASA wrings its hands over this result: “How can we excite the people? If we could just come up with the correct public relations plan, the public and Congress will shower us with money and support!” I believe that these numbers have a different significance. If your poll results are always around 50–50, then, in a fundamental sense, people are indifferent about what you are doing. Apparently, the public really doesn’t fixate on what NASA does. True enough, many do have a fascination with spaceflight; attendance at the National Air and Space Museum is consistently the highest of all the museums on the National Mall in Washington. But as with any museum visit, their curiosity is easily satiated, and few dwell on national strategic and economic goals and objectives in space on a daily basis.

While NASA sees its 50–50 polling approval as a problem, I see it as an opportunity. In broad and vague terms, people support our space program. It is a source of national pride, and Americans don’t want to see NASA on the chopping block. They like the idea of going to new places and making new discoveries; they just don’t center their thinking on the sausage making of space policy. What they want from their government is a space program that does interesting things and not too many dumb ones, with programs that inspire the country and make us smarter, hopeful, and proud.

Given this relatively benign public mood and a funding level almost literally “in the noise” compared with other federal programs—at less than 0.3 percent of the federal budget, much smaller than most believe it to be—NASA’s strategic direction should focus on the incremental buildup of our capability to go farther, stay longer, and develop and increase human “reach” beyond low Earth orbit, first, into cislunar and then into interplanetary space. Our Moon is situated where it can play an important role in this buildup, since it is the first place beyond low Earth orbit with the resources needed to develop and expand our spacefaring capability. Initially, this means oxygen and hydrogen—vital, consumable resources necessary to support a human presence, and as rocket propellant for refueling spacecraft. Provisioning in space begins here.

Perhaps the public doesn’t care about the Moon or even the space program in general. But even if this is true, it is irrelevant. Few concern themselves with the requirements and properties of infrastructure development such as railroads or highways, yet no one denies their value, nor does it stop their productive use of them. As a modern, technical society, we depend upon space and the assets and resources found there, for a wide variety of purposes. In order to take advantage of these opportunities, we need freedom of movement on the ocean of space—the ability to go where we need, whenever we want to. The development of lunar resources holds great promise by giving us the flexibility to pursue a set of long-term goals in space—goals that will ultimately allow us to go anywhere, for any amount of time, to do almost any job we can imagine, as well as doing those things that we can not yet imagine.

Moonrush: Issues in Private Sector Lunar Activities

A number of American companies, at differing levels of involvement and with greatly differing degrees of technical credibility, claim to be attempting lunar spaceflight. A stimulus to this activity is the Google Lunar X-Prize (GLEX), a $20 million contest to safely land a payload on the Moon and conduct a number of specified milestone activities.15 Although this seems like a stunt, the rationale behind GLEX is serious. Prizes are employed by other technical fields of endeavor to stimulate development and innovation. Winning a prize has multiple benefits: It awards money, confers prestige by succeeding over competitors, creates acclaim, and generates business opportunities. Competing is also a good way to compress timescales of technical innovation and development: to win the prize, achieve “x” by “y” time.

Although space entrepreneurs and experts often tout the value of prizes in stimulating new technical accomplishment, their efficacy in the field of space to date has been less than impressive. The Annsari X-Prize for the first commercial suborbital flight was won in 2004, but as of 2015, no other commercial suborbital flight has taken place.16 Space businessman Robert Bigelow established America’s Space Prize, a $50 million award for the first commercial provider of the transport and return of five human passengers to LEO. The prize was announced on December 17, 2003, the hundredth anniversary of the first Wright Brothers flight, and it expired in January 2010 without a single attempt to claim it. The GLEX was announced in 2007 and had a deadline of 2012, a deadline that has been extended twice, first to 2014 and then to the end of March 2015. A third extension to the end of 2017 was recently announced. I do not inventory these dismal statistics to disparage prize offers. I merely point out that they have a poor record of creating new capabilities.

Most discussions about lunar resources focus almost exclusively on the technical issues associated with extraction, transportation, and use. Little has been offered on the legal issues involved in lunar or extraterrestrial mining—staking a claim, in other words, just as a miner does on Earth. This vacuum exists for a very straightforward reason: No one knows the legal status of commercial space mining and planetary surface activity.

Several international treaties, the most pertinent of which is the 1967 U.N. Outer Space Treaty, set the current legal regime for space activities.17 Signed by 129 countries, including all of the major spacefaring nations, the treaty bans nuclear weapons in space and prohibits any nation from establishing territorial claims on extraterrestrial bodies. This formulation left open the question of private development and ownership, although the treaty states, “Outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, shall be free for exploration and use by all States without discrimination of any kind, on a basis of equality and in accordance with international law, and there shall be free access to all areas of celestial bodies.” Note well the language: “free for exploration and use by all States.” That wording would appear to guarantee the rights of a nation to mine the Moon, extract a product, and then—what?

Certainly one would suppose that this language ensures that a government facility could manufacture rocket propellant to use in its own vehicles. But does it permit a private company based in that nation to make the same product and then offer it for sale on the open market? Certainly the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) can issue restrictions on American companies in regard to impinging upon the activities of another American company—say, for example, Moon Express landing a vehicle near an installation of Bigelow Aerospace inflatable habitats on the Moon. But who else is obliged to observe those restrictions? International companies that launch from their own soil do not require FAA commercial licenses. Unless some reciprocal agreement is reached between all of these nations, their private companies do not have to respect the access and “control zone” rights of other nations’ companies.

The situation becomes even murkier when considering the possible interactions of a private American company on the Moon and the national representatives of a foreign power. Suppose another country such as China decided for whatever reason to land a government-funded, military-controlled spacecraft on a patch of lunar territory that the FAA had previously set aside for the exclusive use of Bigelow Aerospace. Legally, the FAA license has nothing to do with China, which is not bound to observe any restrictions. When international relations are peaceful and productive, conflicts are unlikely to arise. But political situations change, sometimes at the drop of a hat, and certainly on timescales shorter than industrial development cycles.

Prime locations on the Moon, as on any other extraterrestrial object, are not limitless, and access to and use of the most desirable and valuable sites for resource prospecting and harvesting may become contentious. In terms of water production for rocket fuel and life support consumables, ideal sites are in zones of enhanced duration sunlight (“quasi-permanently lit areas”) near the Moon’s poles, proximate to permanently shadowed regions and thus deposits of water ice. At such locales, electrical power can be continuously generated in order to extract the nearby water ice. There may be only a few dozen zones where initial ice harvesting facilities may be operated with reasonable efficiency, on which more prospecting data will give us a better picture. If this turns out to be the case, then who gets the rights to produce the product? What constitutes staking a claim? First come, first serve? Or does might make right?

This issue leads us to consider the presence and role of the federal government in space. I contend that a strong federal presence in space is necessary to ensure that our rights are established and that our values are protected and promoted. In the hypothetical context mentioned of Bigelow and China mentioned before, a single American company facing a determined nation-state is not likely to prevail in a manner favorable to the interests of free market capitalism. Legal recourse on Earth would be limited—more likely nonexistent. It is also unlikely that the United States would go to war over the infringement of some corporate plot of land on the Moon, at least during the early stages of commercial space. However, when the federal government establishes a presence, it serves notice to the world that we have national interests there. Their presence makes any infringement on the property and access rights of American corporations less likely to occur in the first place—and more easily resolved if such a situation arose, creating a much more favorable climate for private investment in space activities.

There is no reason to assume that all nations will voluntarily cooperate in space, if for no other reason than nations do not behave this way on Earth. Sometimes national rights of way and access to resources must be guaranteed by a physical presence, backed up with threat of force. This is the way of life at sea here on Earth and the reason we have a blue-water navy—not only to defend our country but also to project power and protect our national interests abroad. Historically, the navy has conducted exploration and goodwill tours in peacetime and power projection in times of tension and war. A space navy could do likewise as humanity moves outward into the solar system.

Ultimately, we will need to face up to our national and collective responsibilities to protect American commerce and interests wherever they reside. Given the cost risk of opening up space to commerce, companies need assurance that government can, and will, help protect their investment. In the very near future, our theater of operations will include cislunar space. The idea that the private sector alone can develop near Earth space is not realistic, nor even advisable. It remains a dangerous, unpredictable world, and clear-thinking leaders need to plan for future confrontations, if only, so that they can be avoided. Any display of weakness will be exploited—and not to our benefit.