By Cody Knipfer
Though the United States has long been the leader in outer space, that leadership is no longer guaranteed. As NASA struggles with policy instability and uncertainty over its long-term objectives, other countries are entering outer space with ambitious aspirations of their own. China looks to the Moon with the goal of eventually landing humans; Russia does as well. While international partners seek deeper space cooperation with the United States, NASA has different plans. The European Space Agency’s idea of an international “Moon Village,” a lunar base serving as a focal point for scientific and business collaboration, has been met with indifference by NASA’s leadership.
In effect, the United States risks conceding the role that secured its traditional eminence in outer space: organizing, coordinating, and inspiring international efforts toward shared exploration goals and achieving bold undertakings. If NASA defaults on that leadership, others will sure pick up the mantle – and with it, the ability to shape and define the norms, values, and expectations that govern outer space. Yet, despite the challenges facing the US space program, this need not be the case.
Within the next half-decade, the focus of NASA’s human space program will be on missions to the Moon. If all goes as planned, NASA astronauts will be spending upwards of a year in lunar orbit by the mid-to-late 2020s. Meanwhile, several commercial space companies have announced their intent to conduct business on or around the Moon by the early 2020s. The convergence of these plans presents the United States with a strategic opportunity: strengthen the vitality and sustainability of the American space program by supporting the economic development of outer space.
By partnering with and contracting out private industry in lunar exploration, NASA may more cheaply acquire the capabilities it needs to achieve its exploration goals than developing them on its own. The funding that contracts could provide would, in turn, aid these companies as they refine their business models and mature their technologies. Such investment, coupled with the significant private capital going into these commercial capabilities, would create the infrastructure in space that the agency will require in the future.
Declining budgets and slowing in-house innovation are what threaten NASA’s capacity to play a principal role in international projects while conducting its own exploration. Constrained funding, according to NASA’s chief of human spaceflight, “doesn’t make for a very compelling human spaceflight program.” Nor does it make for a sustainable one; NASA will need to make tough decisions as it prioritizes technologies, projects, and destinations. It will need to forgo opportunities to cooperate on missions with spacefaring partners. Notably, the agency already plans to abandon the International Space Station, the most significant collaborative project in the history of space exploration, as it heads off to the Moon.
If NASA saw itself as a catalyst that could seed innovation in the commercial sector and grow the space economy, it would be able to co-opt the lunar ambitions of private space companies into its own projects and those of its partners. These private lunar ambitions are unprecedented. They include human mission to the Moon, cargo delivery to the lunar surface, lunar landers to mine the Moon’s water deposits, and commercial space stations in lunar orbit. Investors and owners anticipate a self-sustaining market emerging as commercial lunar capabilities develop and new customers, be them foreign space agencies or other private companies, seek their services.
This vibrant space economy, led by American companies, would reinvigorate US space policy and entrench its space leadership. It would secure the United States’ space presence in locations and projects that NASA opts not to engage. It would give international partners a means to cooperate, collaberate, and work with the United States external to the country’s civil space program. It would allow the United States to maintain a competitive edge on possible adversaries seeking to “one up” it in space – a Chinese flight around the Moon, for example, would be less of a triumph if SpaceX had been doing it for years. All the while, the capabilities and services commercial space companies could provide would make planning and achieving projects easier, cheaper, and quicker for NASA.
All of this will require a much-needed change of strategic thinking within the agency, which has traditionally owned and operated its own hardware through every step of a program. However, some precedent exists for such partnership. As a successful first step toward this model, NASA has been purchasing the services of commercial space companies to launch cargo and crew to the International Space Station instead of building its own rocket to do so.
President Trump has expressed interest in greater commercial involvement in the US space effort, though that decision will largely rest on funding allocated by Congress and the direction NASA takes with its exploration plans. The agency now stands at a difficult crossroads: forge an uncertain future by sticking to its traditional approach, or choose to make the most of this emerging commercial ecosystem. For the long-term sustainability and success of the American space program, needed to maintain its leadership at a time when more countries seek achievement in space, the ideal path is partnering with private industry.
Cody Knipfer is the Technology & Cybersecurity Fellow at Young Professionals in Foreign Policy (YPFP). Cody is also an Associate at PoliSpace and expects to receive his MA in International Science and Technology Policy in 2018 from George Washington University's Space Policy Institute.