NASA’s renewed efforts to build a sustained human presence on and around the Moon have spurred plans to integrate lunar research with exploration and commercial activity. Meanwhile, international rivalries have prompted the Defense Department to reform its space activities, while that same competition puts pressure on NASA to pursue a more direct path to the lunar surface.
The federal government has initiated a major reorientation of its space policies under the Trump administration, spanning both the civilian and military spheres.
NASA’s new effort revolves around its Exploration Campaign, which is shifting the agency’s focus in crewed spaceflight from low Earth orbit to the Moon. In returning to the Moon, NASA is emphasizing it wants to establish a lasting presence there, built on a stepwise strategy that intertwines exploration with commerce and science.
Meanwhile, DOD is reorganizing its space-based activities in view of the increasingly sophisticated capabilities of rival nations, especially China and Russia. Arguing those countries are transforming space into a more militarized domain, the department is seeking to increase the speed at which it fields new space technologies as part of its broader effort to be more agile in responding to new threats.
While NASA and DOD are proceeding under the common goal of advancing U.S. interests, some tensions between their efforts have emerged. In particular, critics are taking aim at NASA’s Exploration Campaign, arguing that national prestige requires the agency to pursue a more direct path in returning astronauts to the lunar surface. In addition, while NASA is gesturing toward collaboration with China in space exploration, national security concerns are creating pressure to keep that country at arm’s length.
Moon scientists strategize new missions
One year ago, President Trump issued Space Policy Directive 1, which orders NASA to advance its human exploration program by reestablishing a U.S. presence on the Moon before undertaking a crewed mission to Mars. To pursue that goal without a major budget increase, NASA is planning to gradually transfer over its activities in low Earth orbit to the commercial sector while partnering with other private entities to reach the Moon.
The centerpiece of NASA’s lunar plans is a Moon-orbiting outpost called Gateway that astronauts would occupy part-time before undertaking missions to the surface in the late 2020s. The agency aims to launch Gateway’s first component in the next few years, while also supporting other robotic missions to the surface. NASA is already considering proposals for scientific instrumentation and technology demonstration payloads that will fly on small landers built by commercial partners. NASA plans to reveal the identities of those partners tomorrow, and the first missions could launch as early as next year.*
Meanwhile, the lunar science community is beginning to construct a more long-term research strategy. In October 2017, the Lunar Exploration Analysis Group (LEAG) convened a “Back to the Moon” workshop, and in February 2018 it released a report on current opportunities in lunar science. The community has also held more specialized workshops this year on subjects such as the science that can be conducted on lander missions and using Gateway, prospecting for ice at the lunar poles, and building equipment that can operate through the lunar night.
On Nov. 14 and 15, LEAG reviewed all these efforts at its annual meeting. It also looked ahead to how the Moon will figure into the next National Academies planetary science decadal survey, which is due for release in 2022 and will play a critical role in NASA’s mission planning. Participants discussed the prospects of mission concepts NASA has already examined, including the Lunar Geophysical Network, the Lunar Polar Volatiles Explorer, and a sample return mission from the South Pole-Atkin Basin. NASA planetary scientist Sam Lawrence, who chairs LEAG, also suggested the survey might consider less traditional subjects such as economic geology and the future role of human exploration in lunar science.
For its part, NASA has expressed interest in reworking established conceptions of science missions and recently created a senior position within its Science Mission Directorate to guide its efforts to integrate science and exploration. One point the agency is stressing is that the Moon and the space around it should be regarded not only as an object for research but as a platform for scientific observations of the Sun, Earth, and the broader universe.
NASA is also planning to leverage international partnerships in pursuing its lunar campaign. The European Space Agency is making its own plans for exploring the Moon in tandem with NASA’s, and NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine has said he would like to collaborate with China on lunar exploration. However, NASA’s ability to cooperate with China is currently restricted by a statutory provision that requires it to first secure permission from Congress.
The Defense Department’s current focus on space arises out of concerns about the increasingly sophisticated capabilities of foreign powers to disrupt or destroy U.S. space-based assets.
On Nov. 15, Under Secretary of Defense for Policy John Rood remarked to the National Space Council Users’ Advisory Group that the situation has changed significantly since he last worked for DOD during the George W. Bush administration. He recalled, “We would engage in some, frankly, what in hindsight look like very quaint academic debates about what constitutes a weapon in space, how might we prevent the weaponization of space. … However, the world has moved on and 15 years later space has been militarized to a very great extent by [the] countries we are principally concerned about.”
Rood asserted potential adversaries, notably China and Russia, are engaging in a “gray zone competition” that disregards distinctions between peaceful and military uses of space.
President Trump has responded to this situation by calling for a Space Force as an independent branch of the U.S. Armed Forces. As Congress prepares to respond to that controversial proposal, DOD is taking less contentious steps, including setting up a unified Space Command and a dedicated Space Development Agency. Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan recently told reporters that the latter organization, which aims to accelerate the delivery of new space technologies, could be established within the next few months.
Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering Mike Griffin told the Users’ Advisory Group he is less concerned about how DOD organizes its space efforts than the pace the department sets. He has repeatedly said the U.S. should move quickly to advance distributed satellite architectures, space-based sensors that can detect hypersonic missiles, and space-based ballistic missile interceptors, among other capabilities.
From 1987 to 1991, Griffin was a principal figure in the U.S.’ Strategic Defense Initiative, giving him a personal interest in reviving space-based missile defense efforts. However, a declaration of official U.S. policy on that matter awaits the release of DOD’s long-delayed Missile Defense Review.
(Image credit – U.S. Army photo by Bryan Bacon)
International rivalry casts shadow on NASA’s Moon strategy
The role of the Users’ Advisory Group is to provide input to the National Space Council, a body that is led by Vice President Mike Pence and charged with steering U.S. space policy as a whole. Some of the advisory group’s members have been critical of NASA’s lunar exploration plans, arguing its schedule is insufficiently ambitious.
Asked by group members about those plans, Griffin said competition with China warrants an aggressive approach. He remarked,
My worldview is that NASA has always been an instrument of national security policy, not an instrument of ‘Gee, wouldn’t it be nice to explore?’
Calling space exploration a “matter of geopolitical cachet,” he elaborated, “To me, one of the highest values of Moon and then Mars exploration is the clear demonstration the United States remains a nation which can lead enterprises to do things that others just plain can’t do.”
As NASA administrator from 2005 to 2009, Griffin led an effort to return astronauts to the Moon by 2020 that the Obama administration later cancelled.
Emphasizing he was offering his “private opinion,” Griffin sharply criticized NASA’s Gateway plans, calling it a “stupid architecture” from a space systems engineer’s perspective. He said such an outpost would only make sense once spacecraft propellant is being manufactured from materials on the lunar surface.
Griffin said NASA should be concentrating on making a crewed landing. Referring to NASA’s schedule for accomplishing that milestone, he remarked, "I think 2028-30 is so late-to-need as not to even be worthy of being on the table. Such a date does not demonstrate … that the United States is a leader in anything."
*Update (11/29/2018): The companies providing commercial lander services are Astrobiotic Technology, Deep Space Systems, Draper, Firefly Aerospace, Intuitive Machines, Lockheed Martin Space, Masten Space Systems, Moon Express, and Orbit Beyond.