To the Moon and Back
On July 20th 2019, the world celebrated the 50th anniversary of the first manned mission to touch down and explore the Moon’s surface. At the time, this was generously presented by the Americans as an achievement for all mankind, but it was, in fact, a near knock-out punch in the Space Race between the US and the Soviet Union. This race was, among other things, a competition for prestige in the eyes of the world and a validation of each country’s individual development model. It was also what Jerry Pournelle and Stefan Possony termed “technological war” in their landmark book “The Strategy of Technology”. Conquering and developing space or “the high frontier” became a priority for the rapid advancement of the military applications of the new space technologies – reconnaissance, early warning, command, control and coordination of conventional and strategic military assets etc.
This race was, among other things, a competition for prestige in the eyes of the world and a validation of each country’s individual development model.
Reality has proven to be far less exciting than the various sci-fi authors recruited to help the US draft policy in this area had imagined – more remote sensing and fewer lasers and “rods from God” in space – but the vistas of space development were expansive at the time and overwhelmed ambitious superpowers with their potential. That Golden Age of Space ended with a whimper, not a bang. In just three years, we will mark, since celebration is not the right word, the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 17 flight, the last manned mission to touch down on the Moon. Slashed budgets following the diminishment of the USSR led to lower ambitions and an emphasis on cooperation. Outside of Low Earth Orbit, where the International Space Station is our single manned outpost, robotic exploration has taken the lead. However, great changes are afoot, with new entrants in the field, both state and corporate, and with a revolution in launch costs in the making which might rewrite the rules of the game. This article traces a few key issues and why daydreaming about cities on Mars is not yet warranted.
The advent of the New Space industrial concerns, best represented by Elon Musk’s SpaceX, has given rise to hopes that manned exploration of space and eventual colonization are back in the cards, as men like Elon Musk, Robert Bigelow and Jeff Bezos are motivated primarily by an idealistic streak to see man conquer space which speaks to the insatiable drive and curiosity of what Oswald Spengler called “the Faustian civilization”.
At the same time, countries such as China and India view their aspirations as superpowers hinging also on space, not just for prestige, but also for the strategic capabilities space affords. China is the third country to have landed rovers on the Moon, India hopes to follow soon with Chandrayaan-2 and both countries are said to have their eyes on manned exploration. Excluded from participating in the ISS concern by a US veto met with sighs of relief from other partners, China is building its own space infrastructure and partnerships.
Three great trends are driving these changes.
In just three years, we will mark, since celebration is not the right word, the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 17 flight, the last manned mission to touch down on the Moon.
Firstly, under the aegis of SpaceX, the impossible happened and a Big Tech company stopped working on cost-plus government contracts (where companies are guaranteed profits regardless of overruns and inefficiency) and started lowering prices. Reusability took the stage and it promises to be a game changer, but SpaceX made waves with fixed contract prices for launches that were 50% lower than those of rivals, even without reusability. Everybody is dabbling in reusability and commercial off-the-shelf solutions now, but the entrenched corporate culture of the military-industrial complexes of the world would have never gone down this route had Musk not ruined the game for profiteers.
Secondly, space capabilities have become more and more numerous and more powerful, opening the door to new applications. This raises the number of direct users and indirect beneficiaries of space as a business. The 2019 State of the Satellite Industry Report, published yearly by Bryce Aerospace (figure below), found year on year increases of launch revenues of 34% and of satellite manufacturing revenues of 27%. 2100 satellites, along with innumerable pieces of debris, now occupy the vicinity of Earth, offering myriad services from the trivial to the convenient and, lastly, the critical.
There have been no years in the past eleven when the overall rate of growth in the space industry, including the acquisition of services such as television broadcasts, did not exceed global economic growth by a significant margin.
Countries such as China and India view their aspirations as superpowers hinging also on space, not just for prestige, but also for the strategic capabilities space affords.
This leads us into the third factor. The number of satellites is much greater than ever before. In 2014, the number of satellites launched yearly suddenly doubled. This reflected the ongoing development of commercial space and the new Space Race, but also the maturing of the smallsat and cubesat architectures. Traditional satellites are one-off designs for a specific purpose, unless they are part of a constellation. They cost a great deal but offer significant capabilities. The new architectures offer vastly lower costs by using off-the-shelf parts and by employing the latest advances in miniaturization of sensors and other devices. They do not have the lifespan of traditional satellites like the Hubble Space Telescope, but they can be deployed in vast numbers, replaced cheaply and offer surprising capabilities to entities previously excluded by high costs, such as universities, smaller companies, private groups etc.
Now, companies like Google, Facebook and SpaceX are planning to employ these technologies to create constellations of thousands and tens of thousands of satellites to deliver Internet services globally, among others.
The security issues
The emerging Space Race has an important military backdrop which worries stakeholders and adherents of the non-confrontational, rules-based order creakily assembled these last few decades. This had happened before but, alas, was forgotten by our tendency to view the past with rose tinted glasses. For every moon base and peaceful research laboratory in space, there were two corresponding plans to place weapons or fast reaction expeditionary corps in space (as was the military interest in the US Space Shuttle).
2100 satellites, along with innumerable pieces of debris, now occupy the vicinity of Earth, offering myriad services from the trivial to the convenient and, lastly, the critical.
Donald Trump has thrown the US hat in the ring once more, loudly setting the goal to return to the Moon by 2024, just in time to crown his second term, a cynic might say. The US had had a comfortable lead in space issues, under a NASA with declining budgets and through the efforts of a less well known but highly important military space program, of which the most visible elements are the spy satellites of the National Reconnaissance Organization and the Boeing X-37 unmanned space plane that spends years at a time in orbit testing systems. It remains to be seen whether President Trump’s space initiative will make NASA great again.
Meanwhile, important security stakes are emerging in space. Firstly, we have the increasing crowdedness of the space lanes, which will become worse when the mega-constellations of entities like SpaceX and Google are launched and maintained. The debris issue is akin to environmental pollution on Earth and has few good options for mechanisms for the governance of sustainability of this important real estate and global commons. There are also other space-specific risks, such as solar storms and other forms of “space weather” which ebb and flow in the public imagination in accordance with the impact of these semi-regular disruptive events.
However, in contending with our critical dependence on space systems, we must also acknowledge deliberate threats. These are plentiful, as the yearly Space Threat Assessment Reports from the Center for Strategic and International Studies make clear. These include cyber-attacks, jamming, laser blinding or destruction, electromagnetic pulses and, of course, kinetic threats. It was just recently, on March 27th 2019, that India became the third acknowledged country to destroy a satellite just to prove it can, after the US and China. Russia has also developed significant ASAT capabilities, including through electronic and laser warfare, as well as kinetic weapons. Exotic ASAT weapons include Matryoshka satellites which disgorge smaller satellites which may destroy other satellites with a minimum amount of debris creation, such as by nudging them from their orbits.
The 2019 edition of the Space Threats Assessment Report documents not only the profusion of ASAT capabilities, but also the increased accessibility of such solutions and what this proliferation will mean for space security and the possibility of space conflict. Space can become not just battleground for military conflict, but also for hybrid warfare, with deniable cyber-attacks and other operations to disrupt an adversary through his reliance on space systems. This reliance is all the more important coming from critical infrastructure systems such as energy, transport, communications and banking, all of which may be severely affected by the destruction of space systems or the alteration of their output, such as positioning, environmental data etc. Space Hybrid Operations have been the object of several studies showing that the Space Powers are extending their low intensity competition and probing to the area of space, trying to detect and exploit the vulnerabilities of adversaries while solving their own.
Deliberate threats include cyber-attacks, jamming, laser blinding or destruction, electromagnetic pulses and, of course, kinetic threats.
With this in mind, it comes as no surprise that NATO has declared space as an operational environment in 2019, alongside land, sea, air and cyber, and has developed policies to support NATO operations through the use of space, within the context of its own restrictions on developing and owning space infrastructure. The first NATO space mandate was in 2012, with a second one in 2016, an action plan in 2017 which created a Space Working Group, and, in 2018, a first policy on reporting space operations. The 2018 Brussels Summit declaration promised a strategic space document for NATO, which was approved during the Ministerial meeting of 27-28 June 2019. Recent NATO exercises, such as Trident Juncture in November 2018, have included significant space components.
It comes as no surprise that NATO has declared space as an operational environment in 2019, alongside land, sea, air and cyber.
Space is also an area of peaceful geopolitical confrontation. A recent report from the Prague Security Studies Institute highlights the use of comprehensive space partnerships by Russia and China to create a dependence on their infrastructure and technology that has geopolitical consequences through what the report authors call “space sector capture”. As of March 31st, 2019, PSSI had identified 216 Chinese and Russian transactions in 88 countries (110 active, 8 cancelled, 57 past and 41 pending) which, while varying from case to case, “generally offer vertically integrated “package deals” […] frequently involve some combination of the design/manufacturing of satellite(s), launch services/ launch insurance, ground segment construction/ equipment, provision of operating personnel, the training of local staff, and financial assistance”. This landmark analysis, regardless of reader interpretations of Chinese or Russian intentions, proves that there is a global competition, that is both profitable and strategically relevant, for influence through space dependencies and aspirations, one which ESA, the US and others cannot afford to ignore.
To the Moon…
President Trump has a significant track record of talking up a storm on Twitter and not translating it into policy. NASA had responded to directives from the White House to reorient efforts towards a crash-program in sending men back to the Moon – a political can of worms is in that one word, as seen by media discussions of the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 flight –as soon as possible, but it will take more than a hectoring from Donald Trump to get things moving.
Risk aversion increased not just through cultural changes, such as the febrile emotionalism of the 24h news cycle, but also the increasing cost of such too-big-to-fail programs, which made them vulnerable to cancellations.
NASA has to trim many of its programs, including those that brought spending to politically important congressional districts, in order to find the resources to work on this problem. Its budget will have to be increased by a substantial margin. At the height of the Apollo program, NASA spent 5% of the US budget. It spends a tenth of that today, when there are many more interest groups also clamoring for bigger pieces from the shrinking pie, in the age of the greatest persistent deficits in world history. This extra funding needs to be stable for it to have effects. The US has lost incredible amounts of money by developing programs which it has lost the will to finance to see through to the end or to utilize their resulting products. The NERVA nuclear powered missile program is one such example, spending 1.4 billion dollars between 1958 and 1972, in fits and starts, without ever having flown. Other such programs include the Bush-era Constellation and the Obama-era Space Launch System (parodied as the Senate Launch System), which amounted to the most expensive PowerPoint slides ever seen, while the aging Space Shuttles became ever more haggard and dangerous to fly. Eventually, the Americans ended up relying on Russian rockets for manned spaceflight and they do so to this day, until SpaceX’ CrewDragon capsule is finally man-rated.
Generally, big programs that attract the public’s attention rarely last very long, because of the high-profile nature of the expenditures and the nature of the democratic political system. Between John F. Kennedy’s announcement that the US was “going to the Moon” and the Apollo 11 mission, only eight years elapsed, a stunning feat of engineering and project management. Recent trends indicate that major programs rarely survive the handover of the Administration from one President to another or an average of two electoral cycles. Our current political systems are not amenable to accommodating risky long-term spending programs with improbable payoffs and a high “tragedy quotient”. Therefore, Trump’s Space Program has, at most, 6-8 years to come to fruition before it is axed by a future Administration pursuing its own spending priorities.
At the same time, Donald Trump’s declarations upset many carts. The prior plan to get back to the Moon envisioned an improbably long chain of intermediary projects, including the creation of a station in lunar orbit to serve as waypoint. The Obama Administration, wanting to push the envelope without committing to Mars, started planning to send astronauts to do the first asteroid visit but, when that proved infeasible, the plan became to tow a 10-meter diameter asteroid to lunar orbit and have research flights to it. The latter idea was much contested, but the former would have merit in supporting extensive manned exploration of the Moon, especially if fuel for return trips could be manufactured on-site. Otherwise, the addition simply complicates an already dangerous undertaking by adding a number of space rendezvous in lunar orbit. There is also the problem that all of these milestones make the ultimate goal of landing men on the Moon recede into the far future, extending the program and increasing the likelihood of its cancellation on political and fiscal grounds. This argument was used by noted engineer and Mars Society leader Robert Zubrin with regards to the Moon return, echoing his objections to NASA’s plans for Mars in the 1980s, which never came to fruition.
Donald Trump took on the Moon station idea and let it roll, receiving support for it from traditional US space partners such as Canada, Japan and ESA. Prime Minister Trudeau even announced that Canada would develop a new version of the CanadArm external robotic manipulator for inclusion in this station. Therefore, the shock was all the greater when Donald Trump pivoted against the Moon station idea in favor of direct flights to the surface, which would slim down the program for it to be potentially achievable during his second term. The fickleness left a bad but familiar taste in the mouths of US partners, but was positive in the respect that Zubrin outlined in his recent “Moon Direct” proposal (a rehash of his older Mars Direct proposal), to achieve the goal as quickly as possible, with as few detours as possible.
…and back again
The US, despite its undoubted technological edge over the past, faces significant challenges in restoring its drive for space exploration, especially in the face of risk aversion and of a mentality that sees space expenditure as frivolous prestige projects as opposed to issues such as poverty, social justice and security.
Of course, Donald Trump has to contend with a much greater force, one that grounded the US Space Shuttle fleet for years at a time (twice!) and has led to robotic space exploration supplanting manned flights even in our astronomic vicinity – risk aversion. The latter period of the Space Race saw a significant shift in culture and organizational culture, starting in society but also affecting entities like NASA. Mission failures became hard to stomach and brought about swift program cancellations and delays. As a result, risk aversion increased significantly among space program administrators. This was most felt in the human spaceflight area, prompting a pivot towards unmanned probes. There had been significant casualties before and near misses, but the mission-oriented nature of the program and the tolerance of the greater public enabled the absorption of the losses. However, the Challenger Disaster of 1987 showed that things have changed. Exploding with the first “normal person” to go into space on board, high school teacher Christa McAuliffe, the catastrophe shook American society and grounded the Space Shuttles for almost three years, while also shelving plans for “civilian” passengers. The Columbia disaster also grounded the Space Shuttle fleet, with an exception being made after an international outcry for a mission to repair and extend the lifespan of the Hubble Telescope.
Risk aversion increased not just through cultural changes, such as the febrile emotionalism of the 24h news cycle, but also the increasing cost of such too-big-to-fail programs, which made them vulnerable to cancellations.
Robert Zubrin critiqued the change in a 2012 article:
There is a potentially unlimited set of testing procedures, precursor missions, technological improvements, and other protective measures that could be implemented before allowing human beings to once again try flying to other worlds. Were we to adopt all of them, we would wind up with a human spaceflight program of infinite cost and zero accomplishment. In recent years, the trend has moved in precisely that direction, with NASA's manned spaceflight effort spending more and more to accomplish less and less.
Zubrin asked how rational is it to spend huge sums to marginally reduce risk to the crew of the perpetually deferred Mars mission or any other mission and contrasted the attitude to that of earlier explorers, who would have never accomplished anything had they insisted on an almost perfect safety profile.
Imagine you are the manager of a Mars robotic-rover program. You have a fixed budget and two options for how to spend it. The first option is to spend half the money on development and testing, the rest on manufacturing and flight operations. If you take this choice, you get two rovers, each with a 90 percent chance of success. The other option is to spend three-quarters of the budget on development and testing, leaving a quarter for the actual mission. If you do it this way, you get just one rover, but it has a success probability of 95 percent. Which option should you choose?
The right answer is to go for two rovers, because if you do it that way, you will have a 99 percent probability of succeeding with at least one of the vehicles and an 81 percent probability of getting two successful rovers—an outcome that is not even possible with the other approach.
Whether Trump can affect such a significant shift in attitudes and drag society towards a mission-driven point of view remains to be seen. What can be said is that the US, despite its undoubted technological edge over the past, faces significant challenges in restoring its drive for space exploration, especially in the face of risk aversion and of a mentality that sees space expenditure as frivolous prestige projects as opposed to issues such as poverty, social justice and security.
The commemoration of one of the greatest achievements of mankind comes with the realization of a not-too-distant commemoration of a loss of ambition. The memory is bittersweet, as new rivals develop space ambitions and seek to counter US dominance in space and to deny it the military advantages stemming from its vast inventory of space assets. The stars seem aligned for a new Space Race, but it will depend on the political will of the participants to see to it that man goes back beyond Low Earth Orbit to stay, rather than plant a flag to (geo)political posturing. Real missions are necessary to bring out the best in the people driving this new competition for, as Robert Zubrin noted:
It's when the space program lacks a mission that it cannot bear risk. Instead, it (and we) can only recoil in horror at the spectacle of the Columbia crew—which included Israeli Col. Ilan Ramon, the pilot who led the daring raid that destroyed Saddam Hussein's Osirak nuclear bomb factory—dying on a flight devoted to ant farms, recycled-urine-based finger paints, and other science fair experiments.
And, behind the posturing regarding science, technology and sustainability, we find a heated inter-state competition with military undertones and significant security stakes. For these alone, Donald Trump was right to declare a new focus on space.