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Lunar base
The US should take the lead in establishing an international effort to make use of lunar resources, working in partnership with the private sector. (credit: NASA)

Major unfinished business in the the US space program

An open letter to President Barack Obama


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Dear Mr. President:

In 2010, you announced a new space policy with a flexible path of developing increasingly advanced capabilities rather than pointing to a destination like Mars. You stated the goal:

Our goal is the capacity for people to work and learn and operate and live safely beyond the Earth for extended periods of time, ultimately in ways that are more sustainable and even indefinite.

Regarding implementation of this goal you stated [emphasis added]:

I understand that some believe we should attempt a return to the surface of the Moon first, as previously planned. But I just have to say pretty bluntly here: We’ve been there before. Buzz has been there. There’s a lot more of space to explore, and a lot more to learn when we do. So I believe it’s more important to ramp up our capabilities to reach—and operate at—a series of increasingly demanding targets, while advancing our technological capabilities with each step forward.

To achieve the goal that you set it is necessary to return to the Moon.

The key to sustainable and permanent operation in space is to build wealth generating capacity beyond Earth orbit. Operations in space that are sustainable for indefinite periods of time require that there is a mechanism to fund development that is not dependent on extraordinary leaders or short-term politics. Infrastructure is key to long-term economic development. Infrastructure reduces costs and risks and, together with sound and stable government policy, creates the conditions where commercial business can flourish. Only commercial business can provide the sustained funding that could enable people to operate in space indefinitely.

To achieve the goal that you set it is necessary to return to the Moon. Launching material from the gravity of the Earth has been the most expensive budget line in all space programs thus far. The best way to reduce launch costs is to only launch what is necessary. The gravity of the Moon is only one-sixth that of the Earth and the Moon has no atmosphere. Technologies are on the drawing boards to convert materials that are in abundance on the Moon into products that can be sold, including building materials for structures, structural elements of spacecraft, water, and fuel. By building the capacity to use lunar materials less will need to be launched from the Earth at great risk and expense.

Lunar development is the surest way to develop capabilities to reach, and operate at, a series of increasingly demanding targets, while advancing our technological capabilities with each step forward.

Resolving unfinished business

You have taken steps to address problems such as Cuba, Iran, and prison reform that have remained unresolved through multiple administrations for decades. Space is a similar problem. Notwithstanding some incredible achievements in space, there has been no forward motion since the 1970s on such critical issues as agreement on mining rights and other property rights necessary for industrial development of the Moon. Another major unresolved issue is what happens with International Space Station (ISS), the $150-billion investment whose potential as part of the critical infrastructure for commercial development of space remains to be realized.

China

This raises the issue of China, which was not invited to be part of ISS and is not involved with any collaboration with the US in space. China even withdrew from the International Geophysical Year in 1957 in the face of US interference. More recently, soon after you announced your space policy, the Wolf Amendment was tacked on to NASA funding legislation that forbids any bilateral collaboration between NASA and China. Secretary of State John Kerry has said that strategic competition with China is counter to US interests. Space is a strategic domain. The exclusion of China from collaboration in space breeds distrust and breeds strategic competition. This is a deep problem whose resolution is critically important for US national interests.

Russia

Major achievements in space remains a source of pride for the people of Russia. The US collaborated with the Soviet Union in space even at the height of the Cold War. The legacy of this collaboration may have been an important element in US-Russia engagement in the aftermath of the collapse of the former Soviet Union, contributing to the surprisingly peaceful transition to independent state in the region. Now, Russia is increasingly assertive with a profoundly disturbing impact on stability in Europe. However, collaboration in space continues notwithstanding a major escalation in rhetoric. There is the prospect for a successor international collaborative program to ISS that involves the existing partners (NASA, Russia, ESA, Japan, and Canada), and additional new partners. Collaboration in the peaceful uses of space strengthens the potential for long-term collaboration in other domains of mutual interest for the US and Russia and other parties.

Successor program to the ISS

It is critically important that a successor program to the ISS be more expansive and include operations both on the Moon and in cislunar space. The successor to the ISS needs to be scoped large enough to drive down operating costs in the long term through shared infrastructure and the use of lunar resources. However, the American taxpayer cannot be expected to fund significant increases in the NASA budget.

By involving all G20 countries in the successor international collaboration to the ISS, the cost to each partner would be manageable and more could be done.

Such a larger successor to ISS must involve more partners to share the risks and costs of building technical capabilities to mine the Moon and process lunar materials, and for investment in the infrastructure that is needed for industrial production on the Moon and in cislunar space. The successor to the ISS must anticipate the central role of commercial business and the use of public-private partnerships, such as NASA’s commercial crew program, to enable private business to bootstrap to profitable operations eventually independent of government support.

Forging a consortium to take on a much larger program than the ISS would lay the foundations to address the goal that you set in 2010: “for people to work and learn and operate and live safely beyond the Earth for extended periods of time, ultimately in ways that are more sustainable and even indefinite.” Such a much more ambitious project would inherently cost more than any single country, even the US, would be willing to undertake. But, despite the fact that most G20 countries have the technical capacity to undertake larger-scale space projects, only a few are involved in ISS. By involving all G20 countries in the successor international collaboration to the ISS, the cost to each partner would be manageable and more could be done. US leadership is key to forging such a partnership that must include China.

International Lunar Decade

The International Lunar Decade (ILD) offers a non-binding framework for coordinating international collaboration towards building a large-scale successor to the ISS that includes industrial operations on the Moon as well as infrastructure and logistics capabilities in cislunar space.

ILD is planned for launch in 2017, the 60th anniversary of the International Geophysical Year that marked the dawn of the space age with the launch of Sputnik in 1957. ILD is conceived as a global initiative to be implemented through existing organizations including the International Space Exploration Coordinating Group (ISECG) that presently includes 14 major space agencies, including China; the International Lunar Exploration Working Group (ILEWG) that includes all space agencies active in lunar research, including the US; the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) that has over 77 members and is the UN organization involved in space policy; and other organizations.

The US should take the lead in launching a process to resolve the matter of property rights and other policy issues required for mining and other commercial activity to take place on the Moon.

No increase in NASA budget allocation is assumed here, but a significant expansion of capacity for space development is expected through the sharing of costs and leveraging the capabilities of a greatly expanded number of international partners, as well as a sustained and increasing role for public-private partnership and commercial activity in space. The G20 Summit that will take place in November 2016 in China presents an opportunity to engage the most powerful economies on Earth in the challenge of creating the long-term financing instruments needed to achieve the goal that you set in 2010 to build the capacity “for people for people to work and learn and operate and live safely beyond the Earth for extended periods of time, ultimately in ways that are more sustainable and even indefinite.” The G20 is the appropriate forum because of the extraordinary potential for job creation and capacity building around the globe that a very-large-scale space program offers.

To assure that the successes that your space strategy has engendered can be sustained we recommend the following actions:

  1. The US endorse the International Lunar Decade as a global event celebrating space as well as the framework for international collaboration leading to sustainable activity in space beyond Earth orbit, through a recommendation made to the UN (COPUOS) to declare the International Lunar Decade as a UN-sanctioned activity.
  2. The US take the lead in launching a process to resolve the matter of property rights and other policy issues required for mining and other commercial activity to take place on the Moon.
  3. Working with existing ISS partners, and ISECG and ILEWG, develop a plan for large-scale international collaboration in space, with the ISS becoming an element of a larger program with more partners that includes operations on the Moon and in cislunar space aimed at reducing the cost and risk of activities in space as well as expanding the potential for profitmaking commercial business beyond Earth orbit.
  4. Through the G20 process, explore the potential for establishing an international financing mechanism for space development that would enable private companies—including small businesses around the globe—to pursue innovative solutions to materials processing, energy, communications, life support and other technologies required for sustainable development in space.

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