essay | How to make space great again

December 15, 2016

(Credit: NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts)

By Brent Ziarnick, Peter Garretson, Everett Dolman, and Coyote Smith

President-elect Donald Trump often says that Americans no longer dream and must do so again. Nowhere can dreams be more inspiring and profitable than in space. But today, expanding space enterprise is not foremost on the minds of Americans or military strategists. As a recent CNN special showed, defense thinkers feel embattled in space, focused on protecting our existing investments rather than developing new ones that seize strategic advantage.

Major Brent Ziarnick, Lieutenant Colonel Peter Garretson, Everett Dolman, and Coyote Smith are members of the United States Air Force’s Space Horizons team. Space Horizons is a research group chartered by the Air University to explore the future of American space activity. The opinions herein are those of the authors alone and are not necessarily the views of Air University, the U.S. Air Force, or the U.S. government.

The first step to make space great again is for the United States to offer a constructive vision that can satisfy many American space needs, including defense. The Trump administration has an opportunity to transcend pessimism in space and focus America where it thrives: aggressive yet peaceful competition. Interested readers can view our complete recommendations, but a new Trump national space policy should declare:

The U.S. will be the first nation to mine an asteroid. The trillions of dollars in mineral wealth from asteroids can fuel a vibrant in-space economy capable of lifting up all humankind. America must lead this process.

The U.S. will be the first nation to extract resources from Earth’s moon to operate a commercial transportation service to and from the lunar surface. Our moon offers vast resources and tremendous logistical advantages for the development of that in-space economy. The U.S. will conduct research and establish public-private partnerships to advance the technology and the development of self-sustaining commercial services. The U.S. should also commit to being an early customer of such services, and it should take a leadership role in helping private industry develop businesses based on lunar exploration.

The U.S. will be the first nation to operate a propellant depot and on-orbit refueling service. Being able to refuel on orbit is key to an agile and fully reusable space transportation system. The United States will be the first to prove this technology and offer it as a commercial service to others.

The U.S. will be the first nation to operate a private space station. A thriving space economy must provide broad, affordable access to space across society, and it must have ordinary citizens living and working there permanently. As someone deeply knowledgeable about the hotel industry, the president-elect might understand the value of a U.S.-branded orbital tower.

The U.S. will operate the first fleet of fully reusable launch vehicles. Central to assured access for our citizenry is the ability to come and go to space with aircraft-like operations. A fully reusable architecture, technically feasible but never championed by the government, makes private spaceflight and even greater projects possible. America will provide the transportation system that fuels the larger global ecosystem of innovation.

The U.S. will build the first profitable solar power satellite. No single innovation in space could be as transformational as unlocking the vast potential of space-based solar energy generation to power Earth’s electrical needs; that could provide the hundreds of terawatts of renewable energy necessary to provide first-world living standards to the entire planet in a green and environmentally sustainable manner. The logistics system to create this space-power grid would require moving millions of metric tons of satellites to geostationary orbit and, consequently, will be orders of magnitude larger than any envisioned government-centric space program.

The U.S. will build the first comprehensive system to defend Earth from hazardous asteroids and comets. This planetary defense capability will initially start small, providing adequate defense against both 50-meter and 300-meter diameter objects with years of advance warning, and be built to provide comprehensive protection against extinction-level events. The United States will design, construct, and seek to test this capability in the current administration, and aim to maintain a standby global defense capability soon thereafter.

The U.S. will fly the first mission to another star. Interstellar spaceflight will be the ultimate expression of humanity mastering space travel. The American people must be the first to be ready.

This list of goals sounds audacious, perhaps outrageous, but it is entirely within the capability and character of the people who built the Transcontinental Railroad, the Hoover Dam, and conquered a continent. Americans are leaders in every one of these fields. It is only necessary for the new President to unleash America’s potential — once unleashed, American innovators will move these dreams toward reality faster than anyone can imagine.