Jim's Blog

This is our Sputnik moment.

Posted by on November 07, 2016 | comments
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I’d like to thank the Lunar Exploration Group for having me, and thank Bob Richards of Moon Express for inviting me to address this group. Before I begin, I’d like to acknowledge Dr. Paul Spudis, who is here tonight, for his book the Value of the Moon and Dennis Wingo for his book Moon Rush. Both books have been valuable sources of information.

On October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union launched a shiny sphere 23 inches wide into orbit.  Sputnik harmlessly transmitted radio pulses, but it called into question the technological prowess of the United States of America and, correspondingly, our competing political and economic systems.  We responded overwhelmingly.  In 1962, President Kennedy addressed Rice University (my alma mater) and stated that we were sending Americans to the moon because it is who we are as Americans.

Around the world, free people and representative governments aligned.  The American spirit led.  On July 20, 1969, the free world won the space race when an American flag was planted on the moon.  From that day until December 14, 1972, twelve Americans walked on the moon resulting in a treasure trove of knowledge not only about the moon, but about our solar system, our galaxy, and the universe.  Even better, it was one small step toward a giant leap in winning the Cold War.

Ten years after the last Apollo Mission, Ronald Reagan introduced the Strategic Defense Initiative to defend the free world from nuclear ballistic missiles.  While professional thinkers and academics in the United States denounced it, called it destabilizing, and even suggested it was impossible to achieve, the Soviet Union took it very seriously, made every effort to eliminate it, and spent whatever it took to compete.  They eventually went bankrupt.  SDI, while not fully implemented, was a geopolitical success built on the credibility of Apollo.  As Ronald Reagan said, “We win.  They lose.”

Through SDI, the Brilliant Pebbles program was born to track ICBMs and provide fire-quality coordinates for their kinetic destruction.  In 1994, the Strategic Defense Initiative Organization (now the Missile Defense Agency) created plan whereby a Brilliant Pebbles satellite would be outfitted to orbit and map the moon.  Testing not only military sensors, the Clementine mission made history when a bistatic radio frequency experiment using the Goldstone radio antenna in California showed evidence of water ice through enhanced circular polarization of the radio signal.  The ice was at the poles of the moon in the dark shadows that never see light.  Later experiments by NASA and other space agencies provided more evidence suggesting 10 billion tons of water ice at each lunar pole.  Many in this room have been involved in these experiments.

This single discovery should have immediately transformed America’s space program.  Water ice not only represents a critical in situ resource for life support (air and water); it can be cracked into its components, hydrogen and oxygen, to create the same chemical propellant that powered the Space Shuttle.  Even better, this chemical propellant sits at the poles of the moon, which receive almost constant sunlight for photovoltaic power, which is necessary crack the water into hydrogen and oxygen.

All of this is available on a world that has no atmosphere and a gravity well that is 1/6 that of earth.  In other words, standard aerodynamic limitations do not apply.  Fairings on the moon are not necessary and launches are not limited by volume or size.  While mass is still a limitation, it is a lot less of a limitation than that of earth.  These features fundamentally undermine the single biggest impediment to space-based capabilities:  the tyranny of the rocket equation.  Remember, every time we launch from earth, 80% of the mass is propellant just to get to low earth orbit.

From the discovery of water ice on the moon until this day, the American objective should have been a permanent outpost of rovers and machines at the poles with occasional manned missions for science and maintenance.  The purpose of such an outpost should have been to utilize the materials and energy of the moon to drive down the costs and increase the capabilities of cis-lunar space.  Let’s talk about why.

The watershed discovery of lunar ice happened at a time when space was transforming all of our lives.  Today, our very way of life depends on space.  We have transformed how we communicate, navigate, produce food and energy, conduct banking, predict weather, perform disaster relieve, provide security, and so much more.  Each of these market segments continues to grow and improve the human condition on Earth, but a 2013 study by the Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee determined that the debris population in low earth orbit will continue to grow due to collisions even if nothing new is launched.  Catastrophic collisions such as Iridium 33-Cosmos 2251 will occur every five to nine years.  Each such collision will create thousands of pieces of debris and result in more collisions.

Instead of no new launches, however, launches will continue with increasing frequency and new constellations of hundreds and even thousands of satellites will be placed in orbit.  In this environment, satellites will require shielding and, correspondingly, heavier launch solutions.  Firms will need replacement satellites, more robust distributed architectures, and higher cost insurance.  In sum, the costs will reduce investment returns, challenge capital formation, and limit our ability to maximize the utility of space.

In situ resource utilization of water ice on the moon is one tool of many tools with the potential to reverse this trend.  Instead of abandoning satellites depleted of station keeping fuel (many of which break apart and create additional conjunction hazards), we should service satellites with hydrogen and oxygen from the moon for a fraction of the cost of launching energy or new satellites from Earth.  Yes, this requires manufacturers and operators to modify their satellites, but they might do so if low-cost in-orbit servicing were available.  It would be a simple economic decision to extend the life of their multimillion and in some cases billion dollar investments.

The in-orbit maintenance, servicing, and refueling market, already being planned, could be greatly enhanced by an architecture that includes staging nodes, fuel depots, transit spacecraft and lunar landers.  This architecture makes economic sense when considering the cost of building and launching new satellites.  And the economics improve when considering the returns from orbital satellite assembly and a new generation of communication satellites with unprecedented bandwidth.  To be clear, satellite servicing and assembly requires a lunar program that is permanent to include long term human habitation, machines, rovers, and resource production.

Let’s talk about China.   In 2007 China used a direct ascent anti-satellite missile to shoot down one of its own weather satellites creating thousands of pieces of orbital debris.  Since then, they have been testing such missiles all the way out to geostationary orbit.  Recently, the Chang’E 2 spacecraft orbited and mapped the moon.  It then travelled to the Sun-Earth L-2 point before travelling to a near-earth asteroid.  Such devices could be used for a kinetic intercept path from above GEO or other spoofing, dazzling, or jamming activities.  Attacks from above GEO would be very difficult if not impossible to detect.  In 2014, the Chinese hacked into the U.S. National Weather Service and compelled us to stop collecting space-based weather data for a period of three days.  That significant if you’re from Oklahoma.  They currently have two astronauts (taikonauts) on their domestically produced space station: the Tiangong-2.  The Taikonauts flew there on domestic Chinese rockets and capsules:  the Shenzhou Program.  They currently have rovers and machines on the moon, and they have developed unhackable, unjammable, unspoofable quantum communications.  It is clear the Chinese understand the geopolitical value of space operations.

The United States has also recognized the tremendous geopolitical value of space and the cost savings of buying commercial.  The United States Department of Defense is already dependent on commercial communication satellites in Geostationary Orbit, which now provide 80% of the DoD’s unprotected over-the-horizon communications.  Last year, the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency (NGA) announced its commercial geoint policy, which is spurring new commercial constellations of remote sensing and imagery satellites.  The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration also produced a commercial space policy for space-based weather data.  NASA, of course, is currently using commercial capabilities to resupply the ISS and soon will use commercial services to fly astronauts to and from the ISS.  The U.S Government understands that in the future, and even today, it will be a customer of routine space services, not a provider of routine space services.  One of those services could also someday be in situ resource utilization from the Moon to fuel and power missions to locations deeper into our solar system, such as Mars.

This is only possible because of all the risk that the government has already retired for these capabilities.  Now, the U.S. government should play a part in developing the tools for lunar energy resource development, cis-lunar satellite servicing, and maintenance.  The U.S. government must work to retire risk, make the operations routine, and once again empower commercial companies.  This has already worked to an extent in low Earth orbit, and now we should apply this model to cis-lunar space. This is not only appropriate for economic development and to improve the human condition on Earth, but to provide for national security, which is now entirely dependent on space-based capabilities.  Every domain of warfare today depends on space.

I was proud to work with Rep. Honda to get language into the House CJS appropriations bill this year directing NASA to work with commercial partners to develop small scale missions to the lunar surface.  I want to thank those of you within NASA who have already begun moving out on this Congressional directive.  I’m pleased that NASA announced on Nov. 1st an RFI for small lunar surface payloads to potentially fly on US commercial lunar cargo transportation vehicles.

Once the cis-lunar market develops to service and maintain our traditional space-based military and commercial capabilities, other opportunities will naturally follow.  The surface of the moon is composed mainly of oxides of metals:  iron, magnesium, aluminum, silicon, titanium and others.  While these oxides can be used to produce oxygen for life support and metals for additive manufacturing in situ, they will not likely be exported to earth.  However, it is possible, if not likely, that highly valuable platinum group metals are much more available on the moon from astroblemes than they are on earth.  Such a discovery with cis-lunar transportation capabilities would fundamentally transform American commercial lunar development and could profoundly alter the economic and geopolitical balance of power on Earth.  This could explain the Chinese interest in the moon.  The question is: What are WE, the United States, doing to make sure the free world participates economically in such a discovery?  The U.S. government has a role to play here.

Competition for locations on the moon (the poles) and resources is inevitable.  It must be stated that constitutionally, the U.S. government is required to provide for the common defense.  This includes defending American military assets in space AND commercial assets in space, many of which have and will have a dual role of providing commercial and military capabilities.  President Kennedy said, “Whatever men shall undertake, free men must fully share.”  The U.S. government must establish a legal framework and be prepared to defend private and corporate rights and obligations all within keeping the Outer Space Treaty.  And to enable freedom of action, the United States must have cis-lunar situational awareness, a cis-lunar presence, and eventually must be able to enforce the law through cis-lunar power projection.  Cis-lunar development will either take the form of American values with the rule of law, or it will take the form of totalitarian state control.  The United States can decide who leads.

The first element of an American legal framework that needs to be implemented is an enhanced payload review process.  The U.S. government is required to provide authorization and continuing supervision for lunar and cis-lunar space activities in keeping with the Outer Space Treaty.  Currently, the State Department does not believe the US government has the tools to approve and supervise many of the new non-traditional space activities.  Congress needs to provide the legal and regulatory process.  The process should be known, transparent, allows for recourse, and provide the certainty that the industry needs to capitalize its missions.  The objective is to provide the maximum regulatory certainty with the minimum regulatory burden. The enhanced payload review process needs to be codified in law so future missions will not be jeopardized when China or others compete for or challenge locations and resources.

The second element of an American legal framework must be enhanced space situational awareness and reporting.  Currently the DoD provides the preponderance of conjunction analysis and reporting because it has the tools to do so.  Unfortunately, as space has become congested, competitive, and contested, the Air Force is not properly resourced for routine international and commercial space traffic analysis and reporting.  Additionally, the Air Force, not being a regulatory body, does not have the authority to do anything other than advise international and commercial entities.  SSA and reporting should be managed by a civilian agency with regulatory authority, because there could come a day when space situational awareness information is used to enable space traffic management.  The FAA Office of Commercial Space Transportation is right agency to manage these activities.

Space represents what is exceptional about the United States of America.  We are characterized by a spirit of adventure, risk taking, and entrepreneurialism.  When our national security is threatened, we respond.  When challenges seem overwhelming, we strive.   When we experience a setback, we double our resolve.  It is who we are.

This exceptionalism is not genetic.  It is born of a competitive, free enterprise, merit-driven culture.  Today, American entrepreneurs have revolutionized access and operations in space.  In fact, our very way of life now depends on space.  We have transformed how we communicate, navigate, produce food and energy, conduct banking, predict weather, perform disaster relieve, provide security, and so much more.

The United States of America is the only nation that can protect space for the free world and responsible entities, and preserve space for generations to come.

This is our Sputnik moment.  America must forever be the preeminent spacefaring nation and the moon is a path to being so.

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