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Since President Trump signed Space Policy Directive 1, formally directing NASA to return humans to the Moon, in December 2017, he has provided mixed messages on the value of the Moon versus going straight to Mars. (credit: NASA/Aubrey Gemignani)

America’s incoherent Moon strategy is weakening its space leadership

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On December 11, 2017, the Trump Administration issued Space Policy Directive 1, where NASA was directed to go back to the Moon. Since then, the US is no better off than it was on December 10, 2017 with regard to the Moon. Vice President Mike Pence stated as much when he lamented in his March 26, 2019, speech at the fifth meeting of the National Space Council in Huntsville, Alabama:

In Space Policy Directive-1, the President directed NASA to create a lunar exploration plan. But as of today, more than 15 months later, we still don’t have a plan in place. But Administrator Bridenstine told me, five minutes ago [emphasis added], we now have a plan to return to the moon…The truth is, despite the dedication of the men and women who are designing and building and testing the SLS [Space Launch System], you all know the program has been plagued by bureaucratic inertia, by what some call the “paralysis of analysis.”

The Trump Administration has failed to offer a coherent space strategy for the Moon that sticks, notwithstanding claims to the contrary.

In contrast, China’s Lunar Exploration Program (CLEP) has impressed the world with a “humanity first” lunar far side landing on January 3, 2019. What is even more interesting, and not much discussed, is that Chang’e-4 accomplished another first for humanity: demonstrating a cotton seed spouting 384,400 kilometers from Earth, as part of a larger Chinese program of human settlement on the lunar surface. While many Western analysts dismissed these accomplishments as of little value (see “Red Moon revisited”, The Space Review, March 11, 2019), or that the Moon has dubious or no strategic value, major spacefaring countries in the Asia-Pacific clearly think otherwise. Chang’e-4 has a radar that is penetrating the lunar surface, as we speak, searching for resources.

At the same time, India’s Chandrayaan 2 lunar mission has arrived at the moon, and while its lander appears to have failed (see “Schrödinger’s lander”, The Space Review, September 9, 2019), the orbiter is operating well. According to the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), Chandrayaan 2 will map the lunar surface and prospect for resources. Critically, another Asian space faringnation, Japan, signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with India on space cooperation. As part of that cooperation, Japan will partner in India’s Chandrayaan 3 lunar mission for purposes of resource prospecting and lunar sample return. China, in the meantime, announced several follow-on lunar missions, to include sample return and lunar settlement. So proud is China of its lunar success that Ye Peijan, the “father of China’s Lunar Probes” at the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS)—the same person who asserted that “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”—is being awarded China’s highest state honor.

China’s space growth was recognized by Pence in his National Space Council speech in March:

Now, make no mistake about it: We’re in a space race today, just as we were in the 1960s, and the stakes are even higher. Last December, China became the first nation to land on the far side of the Moon and revealed their ambition to seize the lunar strategic high ground and become the world’s preeminent spacefaring nation.

In that same speech, Pence asserted that, “And as President Trump has said, in his words, “It is America’s destiny to be…the leader amongst nations on our [own] adventure into the great unknown.” However, despite all such assertions, the Trump Administration has failed to offer a coherent space strategy for the Moon that sticks, notwithstanding claims to the contrary. NASA’s Artemis Moon project, planned to land American astronauts on the lunar South Pole by 2024 faces domestic opposition over which state (Texas or Alabama) should get the billion-dollar project to build the lander that takes those astronauts to the Moon. Meanwhile, still others like Newt Gingrich believe that building that lander should be contracted over, not to NASA, but to the wining private space company based on a $2 billion space contest. SpaceX’s Elon Musk has welcomed that proposal. In the meantime, Jeff Bezos asserted in a public speech this May that his company, Blue Origin, has been building a lander, Blue Moon, that should be ready by 2023, in time to meet that 2024 deadline set by the Trump Administration, for sending a man and a woman to the Moon.

China has not only expressed far-reaching space ambitions to mine the Moon and asteroids propelled by a coherent space strategy, but has also demonstrated capability to sustain presence on the Moon.

Trump’s commitment to that lunar landing has wavered and gone off-center since then. On June 7, 2019, Trump undermined his own 2017 Space Policy Directive 1 to NASA to go back to the Moon, when he tweeted that the Moon should not be the focus of U.S. space strategy, creating policy confusion. Instead, Trump urged NASA to focus on what they have already been doing, before his own space policy directive 1: focus on getting to Mars. On June 10, 2019, NASA administrator, Jim Bridenstine hosted a town hall to explain NASA’s “Moon to Mars program,” in essence a defense of Trump’s tweet. On July 19, during the 50th anniversary celebrations of the Apollo 11 historic landing at the White House, Trump asked Bridenstine “To get to Mars, you have to land on the Moon, they say…Any way of going directly without landing on the Moon? Is that a possibility?” This statement contradicted Trump’s earlier 2017 directive:

It marks a first step in returning American astronauts to the Moon for the first time since 1972, for long-term exploration and use. [emphasis added] This time, we will not only plant our flag and leave our footprints — we will establish a foundation for an eventual mission to Mars, and perhaps someday, to many worlds beyond.

Neither has Trump offered a compelling vision speech on US space power (the likes of John F. Kennedy’s 1962 Moon speech) that is powerful and inspiring. This inability to steer space leadership has resulted in loss of American prestige and influence, and countries are looking elsewhere for leadership.

China has not only expressed far-reaching space ambitions to mine the Moon and asteroids propelled by a coherent space strategy, but has also demonstrated capability to sustain presence on the Moon. To augment those lunar ambitions, China is proposing far-reaching technologies like Space Based Solar Power (SBSP) that would sustain a planned Moon base. In support of those space resource ambitions, Xi established the People’s Liberation Army Strategic Support Force (PLASSF) in 2015, tasked with developing doctrines and warfighting capacities for space power projection. The PLASSF is equal in grade to the PLA Army, PLA Navy, PLA Air Force, and PLA Rocket Force, and directed by Xi’s space dream. One of most innovative leaders is PLASSF Deputy Commander, Lieutenant General Shang Hong, known for futuristic thinking on what space means for power projection capabilities.

In contrast, the Trump Administration has undermined its own policy directive by issuing contradictory statements and subsequent contradictory presidential interventions. As a result, US power and leadership to influence the shape of the future space order has been weakened. Already, this lack of American strategic coherence has resulted in the loss of American power in the Asia-Pacific region, with China fast catching up, as per the Asia Power Index 2019 released by the Lowy Institute, Australia. However, this course can be reversed, with some deft strategic interventions. The time is now.

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