The Dark Side of the Moon
For space science, like nuclear science and all technology, has no conscience of its own. Whether it will become a force for good or ill depends on man, and only if the United States occupies a position of pre-eminence can we help decide whether this new ocean will be a sea of peace or a new terrifying theater of war.
— John F. Kennedy, 1961
The recent 50th anniversary of mankind’s first moon landing got me thinking.
Not just about the incredible drive and dedication and courage and heroism and sacrifice of all those who’ve been part of America’s space program in the past…
But also about the very future of the United States — and what role the exploration and control of space will (or should) play in it.
The more I ponder that, the more worried I get about the moon. Here’s why…
The Eagle is Stranded — In Bureaucracy and Politics
Like pretty much everyone in America who doesn’t believe the lunar landing was a hoax, I thought the nation’s tributes to the 1969 Apollo 11 mission to the moon were pitch-perfect.
The amazing Washington Monument projection show in particular should’ve swollen the chests of all who’d call themselves American.
But to me, an erstwhile student of political science and history…
All that deep-blue-hero stuff only underscored just how far behind I believe we’re falling in the space race generally — a field of human endeavor the United States dominated for decades — and the “moon race” in particular.
Now obviously, not being a government official with a top-level security clearance, I couldn’t possibly know everything that may be going on with regard to America’s space program…
But I can read a newspaper, search the internet, and I’ve got a decent memory. And it seems to me that what Washington has mostly been doing for the last decade is resting on its laurels — and scaling back its commitment to space, perhaps in part for political reasons.
As just one example, President Obama’s 2010 budget cuts effectively cancelled the Bush-era Constellation program to replace the Space Shuttle with the next generation of manned Earth-orbit and lunar exploration spacecraft. Coupled with the 2011 shut-down of the Shuttle program itself — which could easily have been extended through at least 2020…
This means America now needs Russia’s assistance to get its personnel to the International Space Station that NASA is contractually responsible for managing. So far, our space taxi bills have topped $2.5 billion. But Russia’s commitment to provide this service to us reportedly expires in February of 2020, barely six months hence.
In other words, American hopes of returning to space in any capacity in the near future rely on private rocketeers like SpaceX and Boeing, both under contact with NASA for human transport to the International Space Station. SpaceX in particular was supposed to be capable of ferrying Americans to the ISS as early as 2017…
But at the time of this writing, they’ve yet to launch a single manned space flight. And recent estimates by the GAO (Government Accounting Office) project that it’ll be at least sometime in 2020 before America will once again be able to reach the space station we in large part invented and are supposed to be running.
Some say Trump’s series of Space Policy Directives mark a reversal of this atrophy in America’s space program. Their stated goals include putting a permanent human presence on the moon within the next decade, and using that outpost as a launching point for manned missions to Mars…
But even if all these ambitious new goals come to fruition, and more or less on time (which is never a certainty when it comes to the space program), I wonder if it’s going to be enough to keep America at the vanguard of lunar exploration.
And in my opinion, that’s a very important place for our nation to be, because…
China Moon Ain’t Just a Carry-Out Joint Up the Street
Earlier in this piece, I used the phrase “moon race.”
To be clear — that’s not just my characterization of the current state of affairs in space. It’s also what Sergey Dubik, deputy chief of Russia’s state-owned space corporation, Roscosmos, has called it.
“I consider that a ‘moon race’ has begun,” Dubik’s on record saying, “And now what’s happening is simply a kind of competition between the three space powers.”
Those powers are Russia, the U.S., and China. And what’s scary to me is that while America has been mostly talking about its commitment to lunar exploration — even as it diverts funds away from the space program toward really productive things like studying cow farts…
These other powers are increasingly doing things on and around the moon.
I find this especially troubling, because unlike the International Space Station orbiting the planet in the upper levels of Earth’s atmosphere, or similar future floating outposts in deeper space, the moon is actual, physical real estate.
And even though there are laws and treaties in place (like the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, among others) that are supposed to keep any sovereign state from claiming or controlling the moon outright, there’s a lot of wiggle room in those agreements.
For example, there’s a provision in the Outer Space Treaty forbidding the 109 participating states (yes, Russia, China and the U.S. are among them) from using the moon or any other celestial bodies for anything but “peaceful purposes.” It also disallows any kind of military bases, fortifications, or weapon systems there…
Yet it doesn’t prohibit military personnel from conducting research that could be used for weapons development — or ban the installation of facilities or equipment necessary to conduct said research. This area becomes even grayer when you consider that China’s space program is entirely run by its military.
Because of this, one could argue that all of their space “research” is conducted in the furtherance of some state military domination strategy, to one degree or another. Recent history proves China to be hell-bent on such things here on Earth, rules and treaties be damned. Why should it be any different on the moon?
This dovetails into another poorly defined area of spacefaring law, too — the private development of resource assets. While the Outer Space Treaty and other agreements prohibit nations from annexing lunar land or laying wholesale claim to its resources, their guidance is far less cut-and-dried on the private sector side of the equation…
Theoretically, private companies could put their own security forces with powerful weapons on the moon in defense of their resource claims and equipment. But again, the line between public and private interests is all but nonexistent in China. So they could claim “private enterprise” on virtually anything, even if it’s clearly militaristic.
All this is just scratching the surface, too. I could tell you more, but I don’t have to…
The Handwriting Is in the Stars — We Need Only Read It
Mark my words: Because of its incredible strategic importance, the moon is going to be a major bone of contention between the U.S., Russia, and China in the coming decades. And the space race is going to test the limits of international and treaty law more than anything we’ve ever seen here on Earth.
China and Russia know it, too. That’s why they’re starting to tag-team in this cosmic wrestling match. In fact, just days ago, they announced their collaboration on a new modular orbital space station — plus they’ve got joint projects involving propulsion engineering and other things as well, including moon research…
The thing is, China doesn’t need to partner up with anyone to win the space race. Earlier in 2019, they put an unmanned craft on the far side of the moon, something no other nation has ever done. They’ve got another moonshot slated for this year as well. Just to underscore this point: China didn’t even put a man in space until 2003!
What’s more, they’re clearly not shy about building on, ripping off, or buying into cutting-edge technology developed by other nations or private companies to keep their momentum going in the long-term contest for the cosmos.
Bottom line: Like Kennedy foreshadowed in his famous 1961 speech, “only if the United States occupies a position of pre-eminence” can we be assured of not being put to harm in the space race by China’s ambitions for dominance — or Russia’s, or anyone else’s, for that matter. So to my view, the solution is simple…
The U.S. and its private-sector innovators must re-establish and maintain our pre-eminence in space, including on the moon. We need to get there first, and stay perpetually ahead in technology, utilization and footprint. That way, we can prevent it from becoming the “terrible theater of war” JFK warned us about.
To be clear: I’m not saying the U.S. is always pure of heart and motivation. It’s not…
But I, for one, trust America to responsibly exercise whatever measure of control is possible over the moon, Mars, and the far-flung reaches of space a lot more than I trust China, Russia, India, Europe, or heaven forbid, the United Nations.
Now all we need to do is figure out how to best incentivize both private enterprise AND government policy toward this end, and everything will be fine.
That should be easy enough in Washington, right?
Freedoms Editor, Whiskey and Gunpowder