On May 25, 1961, President John F. Kennedy in a speech before Congress announced the goal of sending an American to the moon and back before the end of the decade. Eight years, one month, and 25 days later, on July 20, 1969, U.S. astronaut Neil Armstrong set foot on the lunar surface, joined a few moments later by Buzz Aldrin.
To fully appreciate how much the Americans accomplished in just over eight years, consider the situation in mid-1961. On April 12, the Russians had embarrassed the United States by blasting cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin into space. And while American astronaut Alan Shepard followed Gagarin into space a few weeks later on May 5, his mission was only a 15-minute suborbital flight. Gagarin’s flight lasted 108 minutes and completed a full orbit around the planet. We were way behind.
Moreover, compared to what eventually became the Apollo lunar spacecraft, these early forays into space were extremely primitive. Basically the entire Mercury program, designed to achieve spaceflight in low earth orbit while keeping an astronaut on board, consisted of putting an aerodynamic pressure vessel atop a souped-up intercontinental ballistic missile. By contrast, the many modules and maneuvers required to safely deliver three astronauts to the moon and back, were orders of magnitude more complex. Yet America made all that progress in just over eight years.
If you told anyone in 1969 that nobody would return to the moon for another 50 years, they would have laughed at you. The nation had high expectations for the high frontier. But while progress in manned spaceflight since Apollo has been impressive, it’s been slow. Skylab was launched, using leftover Apollo boosters, in 1973, tumbling back to earth in 1979. In 1981, the first of five space shuttles was launched. After 135 missions, including two ending in catastrophe, the last shuttle flight took place in 2011. Since 1998, the United States has been a partner in the International Space Station, but for the last eight years our astronauts have been getting there and back on Russian rockets.
The Case for Aggressive Spending on Space Development
Back in the days of the Apollo program, there was no budget request that was denied. It was a top priority of the federal government, and though it had setbacks including the deadly capsule fire during a test in 1967 that killed three astronauts, the spending never slackened and the commitment never wavered. Was it worth it?
By nearly all accounts, yes. To build a craft capable of leaving earth, delivering humans to the moon, and then get them home again, within eight years, is probably the greatest human engineering achievement of all time.
An excellent summary of the most significant spin-offs coming out of the Apollo program is a Computer World article from 2009, which focuses on the IT advances. We have the Apollo project to thank for the integrated circuit, dramatic advances in rocketry, “remarkable discoveries in civil, electrical, aeronautical and engineering science,” complex software, lightweight and incredibly durable composite materials, and, for a few specifics—everything from CT scanners to liquid-cooled garments to freeze-dried food.
Needless to say, all these innovations eventually would have come about, with or without Apollo. But they would have arrived years later, and quite likely by the efforts of some other nation. The technological spin-offs that would accrue to a new 21st-century national endeavor pursued with the fervor of the Apollo program would help America immeasurably in its possibly existential race to stay technologically ahead of powerful rising nations, China in particular.
The Military Urgency of Space Development
In 1984, during the heyday of President Reagan’s promotion of a Strategic Defense Initiative (“Star Wars”), James Oberg, writing for Omni, published an article titled “Pearl Harbor in Space.” He explained how a single enemy spacecraft, launched from earth around the moon to slingshot back to earth in order to achieve a retrograde orbit (counter to earth’s rotation), could in a few days destroy every geosynchronous satellite.
A killer satellite in a retrograde orbit, would circle towards what are now hundreds of geosynchronous satellites stationed at 22,300 miles above the earth. This unique orbit is the only altitude at which satellites remain positioned perfectly stationary above a fixed point on the earth below. Because the cross section of the geosynchronous great circle is only about 100 kilometers, a killer satellite in retrograde orbit easily could identify and destroy everything in its path, one by one, using optical or radar guided missiles, or maneuverable kinetic energy “brilliant pebbles,” or a laser, or a particle beam, or an electromagnetic pulse. Within days, communications across the planet would be crippled.
This is just one vulnerability that national space defense has to counter. China and Russia already have tested ground-based and airplane-hosted weapons to take out America’s other layer of space based communications and surveillance satellites in low earth orbit. The impact of one major EMP burst over the North American continent would likely fry what remained of land-based communications assets. In all three instances, space-based military defense is the only countermeasure.
A recent article in American Greatness, Angelo Codevilla underscores the urgency of building a U.S. Space Force. He mentions the need to protect our own satellites, to defend against ballistic missiles, and, now more than ever, to eliminate hostile satellites carrying weapons payloads designed to destroy lower altitude targets on land, sea, and in the air. He correctly emphasizes that space is the new high ground in warfare, and that “we are not seeking it even as China and Russia reach for it.”
Codevilla also notes that, “for a variety of tactical reasons, [China’s and Russia’s] needs for satellite protection are not as great as ours.” One of these tactical reasons bears note: the United States is a maritime power. Our vital national interests are served by maintaining open sea lanes and air traffic corridors across the planet. China and Russia, by contrast, are land-based powers, between them controlling most of the Asian continent, with interior land lines for control and logistics.
Establishing military supremacy in space should be an explicit goal of the United States. But this effort, which we can only hope has been underway for decades via classified programs, can be furthered by a new wave of exploration and commercialization.
Other Reasons for Space Development
Where NASA has faltered, private concerns have stepped up. Entrepreneurial billionaires are racing to bring tourism and commercial development into outer space. Richard Branson has founded Virgin Galactic, building a spaceport in New Mexico and expecting to operate private space tourism flights “within the next few years.” Jeff Bezos has founded Blue Origin, for purposes of space tourism as well as to build rockets that would launch cargo into orbit. But America’s own SpaceX is the private concern that has made the most progress.
Elon Musk’s SpaceX on March 2 conducted a launch of the “Crew Dragon” spacecraft, boosted into orbit by their Falcon 9 rocket with a payload capacity of 25,000 kilograms. SpaceX recently tested the Falcon Heavy, capable of launching 64,000 kilograms into low earth orbit. The Falcon Heavy’s payload capacity is more than twice that of any active rocket, yet is less than half what the Apollo Saturn V could lift into orbit, 140,000 kilograms. While today’s rockets are mostly reusable and far more sophisticated, when it comes to raw lifting capacity, we still have a long way to go, just to get to where we were.
Space tourism, space exploration, and space colonization are reason enough for America to expand operations in space, but there’s much more. With the cost to place a kilogram into low earth orbit down to $5,000, compared to $30,000/kg during the Space Shuttle era, companies are testing many types of zero-gravity manufacturing. Among the mind-boggling new possibilities are using 3D cellular printers to build replacement human hearts and other organs.
Another zero gravity innovation is cost-effective production of exotic fiber optic cable that is extremely difficult to manufacture on earth. In zero-gravity environments, gallium-arsenide semiconductors can be built, or grown, in layers one atom thick, with no distortions, yielding solar power at efficiencies that could be as high as 60 percent. Zero gravity combined with high-temperature smelting available on demand using solar thermal collectors makes high-quality metallurgy feasible in outer space.
It may also be possible to generate solar electricity in orbit and beam the power to receivers on earth, potentially delivering inexhaustible clean energy. With the advances in robotics and AI, along with steadily decreasing costs to deliver payloads into orbit, it is likely that by the end of this century an entire self-sustaining economy will be in space, much of it automated, mining the moon and asteroids for materials, and constructing manufacturing facilities and power stations to create great wealth.
The Synergies of Commercial and Military Initiatives in Space
The high ground of space eventually will render most conventional military assets obsolete. Weaponized satellites in orbits with perigees as low as 125 miles would be able to release swarms of robotic, intelligent drones, or brilliant pebbles, or fire lasers or particle beams. Ships, planes, and land-based weapons systems—including missiles—would be no match for a military that controls space.
Not only will military assets in space protect national interests down on earth, they also increasingly will be necessary to protect national interests up there as well. The commercialization of space to the point where it becomes an economic engine of vital benefit to the earth-bound economy is not a question of if, but when. It could happen within a few decades.
America needs a bold vision for space that incorporates exploration, industrialization, and militarization. The cross-pollination of technologies developed in each of these three areas will catalyze development in the others. The technological spin-offs will more than rival those of the Apollo project. Satellite solar power stations. Orbiting industrial parks. A moon base. A Mars expedition. And a Space Force. We need to do it all, ASAP, with the same urgency we gave to the Apollo mission 50 years ago.
Or someone else will.
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