Luna: second space race?

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In the next years, we are going back to the Moon. Why am I so sure of it?

The U.S.A. started their ambitious Artemis program of crewed spaceflights towards the lunar south pole, as well as their Gateway program – a small space station near the Moon. Europe is studying the possibility of using Ariane 6 to perform lunar missions, and started the EL3 program, a cargo lunar lander. Russia also wants to go. India sends scientific probesso does Israël. China has plans to build a Moon Base and already started to accomplish feats of strength.

Drawing by Dave Simonds for The Economist, 2018.

What for ? Haven’t we already “been there 50 years ago” 😩?

Last time, I tried to explain why I think we should explore and settle space.

But why is everyone starting with a return to the Moon ?

Some people talk about the return to the Moon as if it were a pissing contest between the U.S. and China. This quote from the director of lunar missions is pretty interesting on this regard :

“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. If others go there, then they will take over, and you won’t be able to go even if you want to. This is reason enough.”Ye Peijian

Let’s take 30 seconds to reflect on the implications of such talk, by someone in this position. Apparently, this kind of talk can also be heard in the U.S.

Anyway, China is applying a relentless strategy to establish a presence in cislunar space over the next decades, so that they won’t be denied access to it. For now, they are progressing well. A lunar base in 2030. A big spaceport in Earth orbit resupplied by reusable rockets, from which nuclear-powered shuttles depart to the Moon and other places of the solar system. Sounds futuristic ? They are working on it today, it is their roadmap.

In response, the U.S. department of defense initiated an ambitious program to research and demonstrate nuclear thermal propulsion for the first time since the 60s. The National Space Council also recommended to the government to establish:

  • A policy regarding space resources utilization
  • A strategy to defend the strategic interests of the United States in cislunar space
  • A plan to reinforce cooperation in space with allied nations

These last months, we’ve seen come to life the SPD1 directive, the Artemis program, and the Artemis Accords. These elements fulfill pretty much exactly the recommendations of the National Space Council.

Geopolitics are therefore still driving Human Spaceflight, with a taste of underlying competition and conflict. First come, first served ? It’s a pity, because it looks like we are translating the conflicts we’re having here on Earth to space 😔. We should stay vigilant that this is not going towards a “West vs. East” paradigm, like a 21st century remake of the NATO vs. Warsaw pact. The United States kind of started going this way with their Artemis Accords reserved to “freedom loving nations“, as put by the Vice-President Mike Pence.

China vs. United States. Drawing from the Financial Times.

In this FISO podcast (at 41m45s), Mike Gold, associate administrator of NASA, paints the situation a bit differently than what we could interpret by just reading the news.

There, he talks about the Artemis Accords, and says that the “safety zones” as introduced by these Accords are not a way to enforce private property in disguise. Safety zones would not be exclusionary zones, they would not impede with everyone’s right of free access to all of space. They would simply be an implementation of the non interaction principle from the Outer Space Treaty, that asks everyone to avoid harmful interferences with other nations’ activities. He gives the example of a 15-30 meters safety radius around a rover, area in which it could cause damages in case of malfunction. This is far from claiming a whole crater for exclusive use of the U.S. on the basis of safety zones, as we could have speculated 👍.

By the way, still according to Mike Gold, even if there exists a law in the United States that limits cooperations between NASA and CNSA, it would not prevent China from joining the Artemis Accords. However, they contain principles that China didn’t apply so far : transparency and open sharing of scientific results. Joining the Artemis Accords would force a major policy change in China. False invitation ?

Maybe there is a real discordance happening in the United States. On one side, the government is having a very nationalist “Amercia First” way to promote space exploration. On the other, NASA is talking more about sustainable space development, building a private economy, and promoting coordination to reduce confusion and avoid conflicts.

China is saying they are open to cooperations in future space missions. Dmitry Rogozin, director general of Roscosmos, said that he would be more interested in a cooperation with China than the United States to establish a lunar base. As it stands now, he thinks the United States are taking a too strong leadership, and that it is not a truly international program. It will be interesting to see how Europe reacts. We will probably try to cooperate with everyone, but what would happen if, for instance, the American systems are not using the same standards a the Russian-Chinese ones, what design will we choose ?

Tweets by @katlinegrey on 13/07/2020. Transcription of Dmitry Rogozin’s radio interview.

Everyone say they are open for cooperations, nobody would like to be pointed out as the bad guys, as it would reduce opportunities of partnerships. So let’s hope that these invitations to cooperate are not just sayings, that they are really meant, and that there will be a gesture of good will between the United States, Russia, and China. Even if it didn’t manifest as a joint program, simply agreeing on some points of space law would have a profound meaning.

International treaties prevent the militarization of space. Even without deploying weapons in space, a nation probably should develop some infrastructures there. Which ones?

Today, a lot of services are made available by machines in space. What would happen in case of conflict? What if they were destroyed, or simply put out of order? Losing GPS and satellite communications would severely cripple military and civilian organizations. No more Earth observation from space. No more television. No more weather forecasts. Sometimes, no more internet.

What does the Moon have to do with it? Well, space is big, so the Moon is far. But not so far. In fact, it is in a very interesting place, where it takes several days to physically travel, but only a few seconds to exchange information (radio waves travel at the speed of light). There are also raw materials available on-site to build things and survive, reducing the cost of any activity there.

One of the least recognized resource of space is the possibility to put a large distance between yourself and the rest of humanity. Perfect vacuum and no (or reduced) gravity are also useful for a lot of things. Anyway…

Which unique installations could we place on the Moon?

There is a pretty straightforward way to take advantage of the Moon: playing with the large physical distance and low delay of communications. For instance, a high security storage and telecommunications facility.

If someone tried to destroy it, a missile would take days to travel there. It would leave time to try to intercept it and move critical data. This facility could also be used as an outpost to observe Earth. The near side of the Moon is always facing Earth, what better place to build a huge telescope from local materials? On Earth, it is possible to conduct secret military operations. But launching a missile towards the Moon would be spectacular, and everyone would be aware. According to international treaties, it would be an unambiguous declaration of war.

This is just a single idea. A dissuasion mechanism that secures space assets without being an active threat. Why destroy telecommunications or observation satellites if there is a redundant unit ready to be activated on the Moon a few seconds later? Other forms of resilience exist. For instance, it is way more complicated to destroy or cripple 100 satellites from a constellation than a single bigger satellite.

Today, the Moon is a remote place that we could not consider worth of being secured. But in fact, it is the same as oceans and airs, it only requires a skilled domestic industry and properly designed equipment to establish a presence there. In a not-so-far future, perhaps the Moon and more generally space will become strategic locations for national security. So we should not miss the boat and secure ourselves a spot there. I’m not saying that I approve, but it seems to be the way geopolitics go today. It is explicit in the case of China and the United States, maybe less for others, but I dare you to find a better reason to spend so many billions of public budget. Even in Europe, we are investing billions to have an independant access to space (Ariane) and positioning system (Galileo).

To stay independent when the Moon will play a strategic role, will Europe need to develop their own crewed spacecrafts?

In any case, let’s hope that conflicts – catastrophic events for orbital debris production – will never happen, otherwise we would risk to lose all access to space.

It is also for this reason that we need means of deterrence.

It’s not obvious what to think about the current state of things…

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