Ex-NASA executive Charles Miller’s recent (Wall Street Journal, 2/3/12) op-ed on returing to the Moon was particularly interesting for its explicit linkage to commercial space and national security.
In the short term — As I commented last year in Space News (6/29/11) — such front-burner aspects of a Moon program will be trumped by the slow economic recovery.
President Obama’s cancellation of Constellation — the U.S. program to return to the Moon by 2020 — was not a big surprise. It appears to be merely a speed bump on the road to near-term international commercial and scientific development of Earth-Moon space and even humans to Mars.
For more perspective on a Moon base, Click: Is the Moon a “Golden Oldie” or a “One Hit Wonder”?
In 1990, Lawrence Livermore scientists proposed an inflatable base on the Moon within a decade that would become self-sufficient, require only 60 tons of hardware transported to the Moon, and cost only ~ $ 11 B.
Miller makes the Moon base cost-effective by reducing Earth launch costs by a factor of 10+ to $ 500 per pound and achieves this by focusing on development of a totally reusable spaceplane. The technology requirements remind Miller of the X-37, an unmanned Mach 25 resuable spacecraft that launches like a rocket and lands like an airplane similar to the Space Shuttle.
According to Miller, reusable spaceplanes are the key to commercial space.
The nation that builds the first true reusable spaceplane will be in a position to dominate the much broader commercial space industry … such as satellite servicing, tourism, and medical breakthroughs from zero-gravity research.
The X-37 began as a NASA project in 1999 but was transferred to DARPA in 2004 where it became a secret program. Recently the X-37B spaceplane celebrated one year in orbit although its mission is classfied as is its return date.
In 2010 Tom Burghardt (Space Daily; May 11) asserted that the X-37 will help achieve Air Force Space Command’s stated goal of “space dominance” that includes,
a johnny-on-the-spot weapons platform to take out the satellite assets of an enemy, or as a launch vehicle that can deliver bombs, missiles or kinetic weapons anywhere on earth in less than two hours.
Miller confirms that our critical strategic assets in space (e.g. comsats, surveillance satellites) are currently vulnerable to potential anti-satellite weapons being developed by China (successfully tested in 2007) and even North Korea and Iran, but that spaceplanes “will transform national security” by their ability to rapidly replace such orbiting assets, and thus reduce the incentive to attack them in the first place.
Traditionally, the Moon has been viewed as the most secure location for Earth surveillance, as expressed in 1984 by the famous physicist Edward Teller at the Lunar Bases and Space Activities of the 21st Century Conference. (I also spoke at this event on importing water from the moons of Mars for use in the Earth-Moon system.)
Teller stated he would like to see an outpost on the Moon (~12 people) as soon as possible. As a “special proposal” he recommended that,
Surveillance of the Earth — permanent continuous surveillance that is hard to interfere with — is an extremely important question, important to us, important to the international community, important for peace-keeping … It is in everyone’s best interest to have observation stations that are not easy to interfere with.
Teller also suggested that in the name of global peace, Earth surveillance images obtained from Moon orbit should be made “universally available.”
More recently (1/6/12), Apollo 17 astronaut Harrison Schmitt — the first scientist on the Moon — sees the current status of civilian space as a geopolitical crisis for America.
America’s eroding geopolitical stature, highlighted by the July 21, 2011, end to flights of the United States Space Shuttle, has reached crisis proportions. Obama Administration officials now spin the nebulous thought of Astronauts flying many months to an undetermined asteroid in 2025 as an actual “National Space Policy”. On the other hand, Republican candidates for President have not yet recognized the importance of international civil space competition in the federal government’s constitutional function to provide for the nation’s “common defence”. Candidates appear to be uninterested in having the United States lead deep space exploration, including establishing American settlements on the Moon …
Meanwhile, China is building a major new deep space launch facility in Hainan and developing new rockets and spacecraft to take over the exploration of the Moon from the United States and the free world.
Given the geopolitical significance of the Moon in the coming mid-decade Maslow Window, I have surveyed several friends in the military and NASA communities, and none claims knowledge of any studies of potential national security applications of a Moon base done over the last 10-15 years.
The closest I could come was a chilling Moon-related military scenario in George Friedman’s (Stratfor.com) book The Next Hundred Years (2009); he agrees with Teller’s opinion of the value of Earth surveillance from the Moon and suggests that, “Sustaining and defending a base on the Moon will actually be easier than doing the same for orbital systems.”
Although no specific references are provided, Friedman insists that:
These forecasts are based on real technology, reasonable extrapolations about future technology, and reasonable war planning.
In Friedman’s mid-21st century scenario, both Japan and Turkey — two key space powers by then — become understandably threatened by powerful U.S. command and control “battlestars” in Geostationary orbits that can very rapidly direct a variety of weapons — advanced versions of the X-37, lasers, hypersonic missiles — at any point on Earth or in space.
By this time many nations will have bases on the Moon, however Japan and Turkey build an underground base on the Moon’s farside where they secretly use lunar materials to develop, build, and launch missiles to attack the Battlestars in Earth orbit.
I won’t give away how the story ends here. However, it is unlikely that “secret” military activities could go unnoticed for long on the anti-Earth side of the Moon. For example, many astronomers have already chosen the Moon’s farside as the best location for a radio observatory in this part of the solar system.