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If elected, a Biden Administration should press forward with many space initiatives, like a return to the Moon, to keep pace with China’s space ambitions. (credit: NASA)

US space missions require bipartisan support for optimal long-term success

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Missions to explore and develop outer space necessitate long-term resource commitment and policy focus. This kind of long-term strategy formulation and identification of “decades out” space policy goals (2020–2049) and resource commitment is evident in China’s space program. Soon after China landed on the far side of the Moon in January 2019, the China National Space Administration (CNSA) announced plans to establish a permanent lunar research base by 2036. In February, China’s Tianwen-1 Mars mission, launched July 23 of this year, will attempt to enter into Martian orbit, and later land on the Martian surface and release a rover to carry out a survey of Mars’ surface to include its soil composition. According to Chinese media, the scientific goals of China’s Mars mission are:

Mapping the morphology and geological structure, investigating surface soil characteristics and water-ice distribution, analyzing the surface material composition, measuring the ionosphere and the characteristics of the Martian climate and environment at the surface, and perceiving the physical fields and internal structure of Mars.

If Biden does win, it is useful to highlight certain space policy goals that will urgently require bipartisan continuity to ensure American leadership in space.

The major advantage China has over the US is this ability to focus on 20-year timelines, given the Communist Party of China is in power and supported by a one-party authoritarian political system. That is why America needs a bipartisan focus on space missions, be it to develop a lunar presence or missions to deep space. An examination of US space policy over the years reveals a stunning lack of continuity between presidential administrations, compromising US leadership and national security in space. For instance, George W. Bush aspired to return to the Moon by 2020 in his “Vision for Space Exploration”. His successor Barack Obama changed that focus on the Moon by stating “been there, done that,” and instead focused on an asteroid landing. The Trump Administration, especially as a reaction to China’s farside Moon landing, changed the US space focus back to a “Moon to Mars” mission. Vice President Mike Pence, who heads the reconstituted National Space Council, stated as much in its fifth meeting in Huntsville, Alabama, on March 26, 2019:

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.

This change in policy focus and mission goals suggests US space policies suffer from lack of long-term resource commitment to a space goal, ignoring the vital technical requirement for long investment phases for space development, the return on which will be realized 10 to 20 years from now.

If, as national polls indicate, Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden wins on November 3, that would mean his Vice Presidential candidate, Kamala Harris, will most likely be running the National Space Council if his administration decided to retain the council. If Biden does win, it is useful to highlight certain space policy goals that will urgently require bipartisan continuity to ensure American leadership in space. This kind of analysis becomes even more critical given the lack of information about Biden’s views on space. We are not sure yet what a potential Biden administration space mission will be.

Since Obama and Biden left office, there have been significant changes in space discourse, including a shift from space exploration to space utilization and development. Space is viewed as an economic investment with the possibility of return on investments to the tune of trillions of dollars. Global space leadership is no longer defined by short-term “flags and footprints” missions but long term “presence and space habitation” missions. This change necessitates bipartisan support for developing space resource utilization capacities to include in situ resource manufacturing, a lunar permanent base, and space based solar power (SBSP). Each of these offers potential to address global environmental problems. For example, SBSP has the potential of addressing global climate challenges and renewable energy concerns by providing solar power 24 hours a day without the constraints of terrestrial systems.

Leadership in outer space will decide the global geopolitical balance of power. That was the case during the Cold War, and it is the case now.

A Biden Administration should continue to develop military space capacity for strengthening space situational awareness (SSA) specifically space security and access beyond low Earth orbit (LEO) and geosynchronous orbit (GEO). While securing space assets in LEO and GEO against adversary actions like hacking, jamming, or blinding is imperative, developing US Space Force capacity for the cislunar region is becoming critical given plans by competitor nations to dominate that space. The recent Memorandum of Understanding signed between NASA and USSF extends USSF’s sphere of interest beyond GEO to the Moon and beyond. A Biden-Harris administration should continue developing such cislunar capacities.

A Biden Administration should continue the space policy focus offered by the current administration’s “A New Era for Deep Space Exploration and Development” stating the US vision for space:

The U.S. vision for space is one in which there is a sustainable human and robotic presence across the solar system, and where there is an expanding sphere of commercial, non-governmental activities, with increasing numbers of Americans living and working in space. This vision begins with a campaign to utilize Earth’s orbital environment, the surface of the Moon, and cis-lunar space to develop the critical technologies, operational capabilities, and commercial space economy necessary for a sustainable human presence on the Moon, Mars, and beyond. The United States and its partners demonstrated the ability to maintain a permanent human presence in space with the International Space Station. This presence, however, still depends on support from Earth. As a next step, the United States should seek to develop the Moon, use it as a proving ground for technologies and processes that will provide greater independence from Earth through extraterrestrial operations, such as manufacturing, mining, and conducting cutting-edge lunar science, which will enable America and its commercial and international partners to mount historic human missions to Mars and beyond.

Obama signed into law the 2015 Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act that offered American citizens ownership of space resources. This was followed by the Trump Administration’s efforts to develop an international collaborative effort particularly for utilization of lunar resources under the Artemis Accords. This has resulted in building global democratic norms for safe use of lunar resources and non-interference in each other’s lunar zones, once established. So far, seven nations—Australia, Canada, Italy, Luxembourg, Japan, the United Arab Emirates, and the United Kingdom—have signed onto the Accords. The more nations that sign the Accords, the broader its appeal and legitimacy will be.

The Artemis Accords becomes strategically relevant given China’s efforts to develop an authoritarian, Communist Party-led international Moon development mission. Chinese high-level space policy makers equate the Moon and Mars to disputed islands on the East China and South China Seas, where first presence offers certain entitlements. If the Belt and Road Initiative is any indication, such China led international efforts subsequently result in development of a Chinese commercial legal system where Chinese dispute resolution mechanisms apply. The lack of an independent judiciary in China should give any nation pause if similar legal mechanisms are developed for the Moon and asteroid mining. A Biden Administration should continue to support international efforts to develop a firm basis for ownership of space-based resources, accelerating private space companies’ abilities to flourish in this competitive sector.

Leadership in outer space will decide the global geopolitical balance of power. That was the case during the Cold War, and it is the case now. But with the current shift to space-based resources and commercial activities, the stakes are even higher. The US space program cannot afford another shift in mission focus with every change in presidential administration. Here is the bottom line: once you fall behind in space capacity, it takes decades to catch up and it can prove costly, both from a national security and societal perspective. If President Trump wins a second term on November 3, we should see continuity in the space policy priorities his administration identified since 2017, including to build public-private partnerships, streamline space commerce institutions, create and advance the Space Force, development of lunar exploration, and planning for Mars exploration. Alternatively, if Biden wins on November 3, he would do the American people a great service by continuing with bipartisan efforts for the Moon, building further the Space Force’s space culture and grand strategy, and strengthening public-private partnerships and international collaborations. Such long-term bipartisan commitments will ensure American leadership in space.

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