BRANDON J. WEICHERT | SPACE NEWS
The White House wants everyone to know that NASA’s moon plans are still on track, despite this bizarre tweet from the president:
When President Trump wrote the above tweet, the media had a field day with what they assumed was an inaccurate depiction of our solar system. Yet, the president did follow up his claim that the moon “was a part of” Mars by emphasizing “defense and science.” This is important because the administration’s space program goes beyond simple exploration of the cosmos. There are geostrategic aims embedded within the push to rehabilitate America’s otherwise ailing position in space.
The Moon Is a Part of Mars—Kind Of
In fact, the moon is (or at least should be) part of America’s overall mission to — as Buzz Aldrin more or less puts it — get our butts to Mars. First, the moon is a great place for American astronauts to hone their space skills in preparation for a push to Mars. Second, the moon is also a geostrategic location that would give whichever nation that came to dominate it great advantages over the other nations of Earth.
As the head of the Chinese lunar program, Ye Peijian, said in 2018:
The universe is an ocean, the moon is the Diaoyu Islands, Mars is Huangyan Island. If we don’t go there now even though we’re capable of doing so, then we will be blamed by our descendants. If others go there, then they will take over, and you won’t be able to go even if you want to. This is reason enough [to go to the moon].
What Peijian had said echoed the writings of noted American space strategist, Everett C. Dolman, whose work, Astropolitik: Classical Geopolitics in the Space Age made exactly this case. Likening space to the ocean, just as Ye and Chinese strategists have done in recent years, Dolman was able to craft a compelling case for applying traditional geopolitical outlooks to space. For Dolman and other space nationalists, such as myself, space is not a weapons-free sanctuary—and it never has been. Militarism in the cosmos has always belied the airy notions of peaceful exploration of the vast darkness we call space. Throughout his unlikely campaign for the presidency in 2016, Trump appeared to intuitively grasp this fact. More importantly, he consistently advocated for a total reinvigoration of not only America’s ailing civilian space program, NASA, but for America’s national security space program as well.
Under the Trump administration, the White House Space Council has been reconstituted; individual space experts who have advocated for drastic reforms to America’s military and civilian space policies have been hired to lead the administration’s efforts; steps have been taken to create some form of a space force; and promises have been made to return Americans to the moon by Trump’s second term. Further, the administration recognized the importance of natural resources in space exploration.
Thus, the White House has encouraged greater commercialization of space (beyond simply relying on space for satellite communication).
The Flag Follows Trade
Yet, Trump’s random tweet demanding that NASA focus on efforts to land Americans on Mars and effectively ignore the moon undermines the overall administration plan for space. Yes, NASA’s efforts to return to the moon have been disastrous. The space agency has focused too much on building the lunar Gateway around the moon. And, NASA’s efforts to build its capability to go beyond the moon have also been fanciful. Rarely haveare the requisite resources needed to place a human being on Mars been granted to NASA’s Mars program. Nevertheless, Trump’s recent tweet will only sow confusion and complicate the already herculean task of building a permanent, manned American presence in the space beyond Earth orbit.
Besides, as Sino-American tensions increase vis-à-vis the trade war, and as China threatens to drive the cost of the coveted rare earth minerals to unsustainable levels, the United States will need a proverbial ace up its sleeve. The moon, as well as a retinue of nearby asteroids, are chock full of the very rare earth minerals we require to sustain our advanced way of life. Rather than complicating NASA’s designs to return to the moon with bizarre presidential tweets, the administration should be demanding greater resources be dedicated to the lunar mission forthwith. Public-private cooperatives should be set up immediately to assist American businesses in innovating ways to mine for Rare Earth metals on the celestial bodies throughout our solar system.
One of the biggest hurdles for the private sector to develop space beyond what it is currently used for is the fact that startup costs are so high. Having the outspoken—and consistent—backing from the government would go far in accomplishing the ultimate task in ensuring that American firms can exploit space for American economic and strategic benefit. By refocusing his efforts on Mars rather than the moon and eventually Mars, the president risks ceding a strategic chokepoint in space to a rival actor, such as China, while simultaneously preventing the development of vital infrastructure in space that would ultimately support a successful mission to distant Mars.
The Earth-Moon System and Its Importance
Lastly, it’s important to comprehend that the Earth and its moon form a combined geostrategic system in our solar system. The United States relies heavily on satellites in geosynchronous orbit for advanced military communications, early missile warning and key surveillance. America’s enemies know this and have striven to devise ways to deny the United States military access to these critical systems in high orbit during a crisis.
When China placed its Chang’e-4 rover on the lunar surface, it also placed two satellites in orbit around the moon (at Lagrangian Point 2). At the time, members of the Air Force National Air and Space Intelligence Center feared that China was attempting to place offensive satellites near to America’s critical satellite constellations in geosynchronous orbit around the Earth. As George Friedman had cautioned in his magnificent 2009 work, The Next 100 Years: A Forecast for the 21st Century, an advanced state could place offensive weapons systems on the moon itself and launch a surprise—if meandering—attack on the Earth’s surface from these weapons emplacements on the moon. In fact, in March 1959, the U.S. Army wrote to President Eisenhower that “…a lunar outpost…is of critical importance to the U.S. Army of the future.” Had the plan, known as Project HORIZON, been approved by former President Dwight D. Eisenhower, then the Army would have had troops and weapons on the moon by 1966.
While Eisenhower wrote this suggestion off as fantastical, the Chinese have dared to dream. Not only has Beijing announced its intent to place permanent mining settlements on the moon in the 2020s, but President Xi Jinping has declared space as essential to the fulfillment of his “China Dream” by 2049.
Thankfully, these fears have yet to be fully realized.
But, the fact that the lines of demarcation between certain orbits around Earth and those around the moon can be blurred for strategic purposes, indicates that the Pentagon, private space companies, and NASA must focus on increasing American presence on and around the moon. U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Arthur Trudeau, who advocated for the establishment of a military base on the moon by 1966, believed that the base “should be a special project having authority and priority similar to the Manhattan Project in World War II.” The late general was 100 percent correct—and the Chinese appear to have taken up his calls.
The president’s tweets on this matter should sound more like Lt. Gen. Trudeau’s comments nearly 60 years ago. As it stands, though, the tweet throws a spanner into the space policy works at a crucial time. In the timeless words of the president: Sad!