On Dec.11 US President Donald Trump signed the administration's first space policy directive, which formally directs NASA to focus on returning humans to the moon and preparing to lead to Mars and beyond. He vowed that the United States will remain the leader in space exploration, emphasizing that “This time we will not only plant our flag and leave our footprint — we will establish a foundation for an eventual mission to Mars and perhaps someday to many worlds beyond.” The motion is in line with the president’s promise to keep the US at the forefront of the space race. The effort envisages partnering with international and commercial space firms.
In his remarks, the president said that the NASA human spaceflight program will create jobs. He also mentioned the defense and military applications of the space program. “And space has so much to do with so many other applications, including a military application,” the president said without elaboration. Speaking at the ceremony, Vice President Mike Pence, who heads the National Space Council, said the new policy will “enhance our national security and our capacity to provide for the common defense of the people of the United States of America."The National Space Council, a space advisory group, was reestablished by the president in June. It suspended its activities in 1993.
NASA said initial funding for the new policy would be included in its budget request for financial year 2019. At present, the US does not have a rocket capable of getting astronauts to the moon. It will have to develop one for that purpose. NASA is building the Space Launch System, a new rocket to conduct its first launch next year. The US space shuttle program ended in 2011. Since then Russian Soyuz rockets have been supplying the International Space Station.
The US is eyeing up the huge deposits of precious metals and minerals in abundance on the moon and the other planets. Russia has recently called on the United Nations to place controls on the exploitation of these natural resources. The measures are needed to prevent possible “planet grabs”. Moscow wants the UN to draw up new laws to ban states and private companies from laying claim to parts of the moon or even asteroids just because they place a flag on them.
The president had a good reason to mention military applications. Of course, a lot of things are classified, but it’s an open secret that the space exploration and defense policy are intertwined. In the defense budget document just signed, President Trump says his plan “recognizes the need for American superiority not only on land, at sea, in the air, and in space, but also in cyberspace.” The idea of US military permanent presence in space, and the moon in particular, is not new. It has been explored since a long time ago.
During the election campaign, President Trump said he wanted a ballistic missile defense (BMD) system with «a heavy emphasis on space-based early warning and missile tracking technologies». Putting weapons in space has topped the security agenda of Trump’s administration since the President took office in January. During the congressional confirmation hearing Defense Secretary James Mattis called for bigger investments into space exploration for defense purposes. The space-based weapons are to be elements of the global ballistic missile defense.
It’s worth noting that James Frederick Bridenstine, who is nominated to be the first member of Congress to lead NASA, is more associated with the Defense Department than scientific research and space exploration. He is a retired naval aviation officer with combat experience received in Iraq and Afghanistan. Bridenstine was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant Commander in the US Navy Reserve in 2012 while flying missions in Central and South America in support of America’s war on drugs.
The US administration has the will and the means to launch a space program with military applications. It has the industrial and technological potential, experienced personnel, and the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (Orion MPCV) under development by NASA for launch on the Space Launch System. Under President Trump, the NASA annual budget has grown from $15.5 to 19.5 billion. The new space exploration initiative is to be joined by Japan, offering its cutting-edge technology.
One of the goals of the space program is making other space-faring nations left behind weakened by the race. In the days of Ronald Reagan, many supported the Star Wars plans or the Strategic Defense Initiative because they believed it would be an important factor to weaken the Soviet Union. Today, the goal is to weaken Russia and China. The two nations join together in the space exploration effort. They have tried to introduce international controls on space research to prevent its weaponization. The plans have failed to produce results due to the opposition of the United States.
A space exploration program is too costly for one country to shoulder. It should be an international effort. The participants could be either close US allies only or all nations that can contribute, such as India, Russia, China and many others. It could be either a race or constructive international cooperation. If it is a race, as it seems to be, it will undermine existing arms control instruments and international security because space weapons are global in scope and capable of covert and surprise attacks on any point on the planet at any point in time. Mistrust and mutual suspicions will grow. The deployment of space-based technologies will result in the rejection of new treaties to regulate nuclear weapons and their means of delivery.
50 years ago – in October 1967, the Outer Space Treaty entered into force. The major international arms control agreement was reached in the heat of the Cold War. It bans the stationing of weapons of mass destruction in outer space, including in orbit of the Earth, the Moon or any other celestial bodies, prohibits military activities on them, and details legally binding rules governing the peaceful exploration and use of space. The treaty states that the establishment of military bases, installations and fortifications, the testing of any type of weapons and the conduct of military maneuvers on celestial bodies shall be forbidden. However, it does not prohibit the placement of conventional weapons in orbit. The US wants to lead and there is no doubt that the military application will to large extent define the implementation of the program. With the arms control process in doldrums, this problem acquires special significance. Cooperation is much more realistic and beneficial than the space race looming but with the present state of US-Russia and US-China relations the chances for it are slim.