Guess What Could Be Totally Missing From the New U.S. President’s Intel Briefing
Oh, just the entire outer-space thing
by PETER GARRETSON
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Air Force, the U.S. Department of Defense or the U.S. government.
It’d better not.
Global Trends is an important document that presents the U.S. president-elect with insight into the key trends in society, economy, energy, politics and technology and their implications for peace, security and prosperity for the next 20 years.
In particular, it examines how technology may transform society and the relations between citizens and governments, is designed to stimulate thinking about possible global trajectories and discontinuities over the next two decades.
How such a widely coordinated future-focused document, which gets insights from government officials, scholars, business people, civil society representatives and think tanks could have missed space entirely is quite a mystery.
It got office space, cyberspace, airspace and ungoverned space, but somehow, except for mentioning Chinese ASATs and a passing reference to data-solutions, missed the truly mega-trend of outer space.
One might wonder if space represents a blind spot in current D.C. policy and academic circles — that it is literally oblivious to the vast tectonic shifts happening with relation to space, which are likely to be deeply transformative to society and definitely has implications for global peace, security and prosperity.
Certainly nothing in the last decade has been published from any of the major think tanks that even approaches the space-awareness of the 1977 “Long Term Prospects for Development in Space (A Scenario Approach)” from William Brown and Herman Kahn.
Does it matter if NIC Global Trends doesn’t acknowledge space? Yes it does. Such a blind spot is dangerous both for the next administration and the future of American power.
Take for example the deep structural shift in the international environment away from a “space-race” based upon prestige by performing some “first” for a global audience, and to very measured set of steps to position one’s nation to exploit the vast wealth — trillions of dollars in annual revenues — from space-based mineral and energy resources.
“The moon could serve as a new and tremendous supplier of energy and resources for human beings,” said Ouyang Ziyuan, chief scientist of China’s moon-exploration program. “This is crucial to sustainable development of human beings on Earth. … Whoever first conquers the moon will benefit first.”
“Our long-term goal is to explore, land and settle [the moon],” chimed in Wu Weiren, China’s chief designer for moon missions. More recently, Lt Gen. Zhang Yulin — deputy chief of the Chinese military’s armament-development department, suggested that “China would next begin to exploit Earth-moon space for industrial development. The goal would be the construction of space-based solar power satellites that would beam energy back to Earth.”
If the NIC scenarios had imaginatively painted this scenario with all its consequences, is it likely that any U.S. senior policymaker would think that the moon is old news, that we’ve “been there, done that.” Statements so ill-calibrated toward the international environment show how the NIC’s previous assessment failed to alert policymakers to the deeper trends.
Global Trends needs to be exploring the scenarios that showcase the confluence of the changing ends, ways and means related to the space domain. Specifically, NIC Global Trends scenarios need to specifically address lunar and asteroid mining, space solar power, and space settlement. These are important topics to explore because there is both a range of serious actors working in this space and because these could have vast societal consequences.
In the United States, these underlying societal attitudes are manifesting themselves in the exploits of self-financing industrialists such as Elon Musk (SpaceX, Tesla, Paypal), Jeff Bezos (Blue Origin, Amazon), Paul Allen (Vulcan Aerospace, Microsoft) and Robert Bigelow.
Musk is building rockets and a space-based internet not for their own sakes, but to finance taking millions of people to build a city on Mars and become a multi-planet civilization. “In terms of the first [manned] flight to Mars, we are hoping to do that around 2025,” Musk said.
Bezos openly talks about a vision of “millions of people living and working in space” and moving heavy industry and energy to space in order to save Earth.
All of this reflects a shift in societal attitude rejecting space exploration for space exploration sake, or for the sake of “showing off” in favor of viewing space exploration as an activity we do toward some larger end — species survival, space settlement, space industrialization, space resources. Changing ends will result in different outcomes.
An example of this profound shift in social attitudes can be seen in the consensus position of the Pioneering Space Summit, a get-together of the major luminaries in space policy and space advocacy. “The long term goal of the human spaceflight and exploration program of the United States is to expand permanent human presence beyond low-Earth orbit and to do so in a way that will enable human settlement and a thriving space economy,” the summit organizers stated. “This will be best achieved through public — private partnerships and international collaboration.”
The statement also indicates a profound shift in who are the actors in space, with a trend in U.S. society of private actors taking on increasingly important roles.
How can the NIC miss the importance of private citizens seeking to settle other worlds, or the vast consequences of a significant part of human population or industry moving to space? Whether this comes to fruition is of course in questions — a key uncertainty that policymakers must consider, and consider whether they wish to promote.
In the United States, lobbying by asteroid mining companies such as Planetary Resources, Deep Space Industries and Moon-focused Bigelow Aerospace resulted in a 2015 Space Act, which “directs the president, acting through appropriate federal agencies, to facilitate the commercial exploration for and commercial recovery of space resources by U.S. citizens.”
“A U.S. citizen engaged in commercial recovery of an asteroid resource or a space resource shall be entitled to any asteroid resource or space resource obtained, including to possess, own, transport, use and sell it,” the act continues.
Analysts who believe that support for NASA’s Asteroid Redirect Mission is based on some altruistic science motive, and is not about helping the United States get a leg-up on this competition for space resources are naïve. But activity in the United States is bottom-up, not top-down — in part because the full consequences of a lack of an executive policy have not been painted in future-oriented documents like Global Trends either for the executive of the public.
In the absence of anything resembling a space development or space industrialization policy, U.S. companies are going abroad and interesting new actors are appearing on the scenes. Luxemburg courts U.S.-based space mining companies, Dubai woos U.S.-based space solar power companies.
Scenarios related to lunar and asteroid mining need to be considered early, both because of the vast economic potential, but also because of the non-uniform distribution of concentrations of resources which result in particular scarcities that may engender inter-state conflict.
Space solar power is perhaps the most consequential scenario for the NIC to explore. As has been previously argued by this author and the Pentagon and more recently by Mike Snead of Spacefaring America, probably no other energy technology could scale as rapidly to meet all global energy demand and have such a significant effect on reducing atmospheric carbon.
The NIC should be exploring this scenario, not only because it would so profoundly alter the energy, economic, logistic and power structure of the world, but also because America’s primary strategic competitor is so intent on it.
“Thus, the state has decided that power coming from outside of the earth, such as solar power and development of other space energy resources, is to be China’s future direction,” wrote Gao Ji, Hou Xinbin and Wang Li from the
China Academy of Space Technology.
“[Space-based solar] development will be a huge project, it will be considered the equivalent of an Apollo program for energy. In the last century, America’s leading position in science and technology worldwide was inextricably linked with technological advances associated with implementation of the Apollo program. Likewise, as China’s current achievements in aerospace technology are built upon with its successive generations of satellite projects in space, China will use its capabilities in space science to assure sustainable development of energy from space.”
The lack of cognizance by policymakers constitutes grounds for strategic surprise. “China had built up a solid industrial foundation, acquired sufficient technology and had enough money to carry out the most ambitious space project in history,” wrote Wang Xiji, designer of China’s first carrier rocket. “Once completed, the solar station, with a capacity of 100 megawatts, would span at least one square kilometer, dwarfing the International Space Station and becoming the biggest man-made object in space.”
“Such a station will trigger a technical revolution in the fields of new energy, new material, solar power and electricity and possibly another industrial revolution,” Wang continued. “Whoever takes the lead in the development and utilization of clean and renewable energy and the space and aviation industry will be the world leader.”
If China “did not act quickly, China would let other countries, in particular the U.S. and Japan, take the lead and occupy strategically important locations in space.”
China has made public a video of its mature design and its stunning construction sequence.
Absent the alert that a NIC Global Trends statement could provide, it is likely that China’s space-solar demo will be another Sputnik moment for America. The reader can get a sense of scale of the potential consequences for energy, climate and global wealth from this video made for the team that won the U.S. Defense Department’s Diplomacy, Development and Defense Innovation Challenge.
Literally almost everything in space has changed, and yet most people seem to view it through the same old Cold War lens. The motivating ends of space activity have changed from status-seeking “firsts” to human settlement and wealth-seeking.
The means is shifting from state-based enterprises to private companies and public private partnerships. The means is shifting from expendable rockets to re-usable rockets, that favor high launch rates by lowering recurring costs.
Linked to this is a private sector movement to a silicon-valley-style economies of scale in satellite production. While the total number of satellites on orbit today is about 1,300, the private sector could rapidly change that as well, altering the scale of both launch and on-orbit constellations and the fundamentals of global high-speed internet if even part of the planned 890 OneWeb, 2,956 Boeing or 4,000 SpaceX satellite constellations come to fruition.
Next the private sector seeks to create an in-space infrastructure to space-source material and energy for in-space manufacture, construction and servicing for vastly more ambitious endeavors — entirely new heavy industries such as mining, settlement and space solar power.
And the actors have changed, where once there were basically only two actors of consequence, the United States and the USSR, there are now a host of space-capable actors.
China has rapidly eclipsed Russia to have the second largest on-orbit constellation of satellites. Asia now hosts the majority of space-faring states. China has rapidly eclipsed Russia in the size and ambition of its space program, and the programs of the Asian states in general appear to be animated by visions of space development.
And yet in many ways states are not the most dynamic actors — private corporations such as SpaceX have already eclipsed the pace and ambitions of the best-funded space agency, NASA.
SpaceX will soon send a robotic lander to Mars. Moon Express has received approval for the first private landing in 2017. And the FAA has agreed to review Bigelow’s plans for commercial space operations.
NASA is in many ways a distractor — it’s not where the action is — and a symptom of policy miscalibration. A focus by the NIC on NASA’s anemic and “ho-hum” destination-focused exploration-for-exploration-sake program will certainly miss the underlying societal trends and opportunities that a President-elect should be aware of.
The inability of the United States to grasp at a policy level these deep changes has also opened up a new nexus and ecosystem of small forward looking states with investment capital such as Luxemburg and the UAE working with U.S. companies.
Small programmatic decisions by this president-elect will or will not position U.S. companies to be at the forefront of a new commercial age of space. These near term decisions may decide the speed at which an end-to-end space transportation and supply chain are built to incorporate the solar system into our economic sphere of influence, including promoting or hindering the development of commercial fully-reusable launch vehicles — a lead the United States should consolidate.
Policy decisions will decide whether we lead or get left behind in the developing multi-trillion-dollar markets. Such decision will decide the rule-sets, governance and finance structures. The necessary precursor to a properly calibrated national space policy is an accurate appraisal by the intelligence community of the mega-trends happening in space.
For the NIC to fail to grasp and inform the president-elect of this significance would be like failing to alert a president-elect of trends that signaled a sensitive period to shape an international domain for commerce, as happened in the Chicago Conference on aviation and the creation of the International Civil Aviation Organization.
Or to shape international financial governance institutions, as happened with the Bretton Woods conference. Or the opportunity to standardize development through the creation of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. Ahead are opportunities of similar consequence.
To miss what is going on with regard to space today is equivalent to failing to inform a monarch of the importance of the development of ocean-going vessels and plans by other sovereigns and their corporations to establish colonies in Africa and the New World — and the potential futures that emerge from an activist or do-nothing approach.
A new age and new reality of space-mercantilism is upon us, and the president-elect needs to know.
Peter Garretson is an instructor of Joint Warfare at the U.S. Air Force’s Air Command and Staff College. He leads Air University’s Space Horizons initiative, which seeks to re-imagine space power in the age of space industrialization.