Another week gone, with surprisingly little coming out of the news. I’ve found 1 story which has a very big impact on both aerospace ambitions, and ambitions for humanity itself.
A national space policy for the century
For around 2 years, United States Air Force (USAF) officers have looked into impacts on national security due to the ever increasing commercial space industry. The team is called ‘Space Horizons’ and consists of a few professors and civilians, but mostly mid-ranking USAF officers. It was initiated in 2015 under Lieutenant General Steven Kwast in efforts to help be America’s ‘think tank’ for air, space, and cyber threats.
Recently, this group released a draft of a National Space Policy for America, which sets out key strategic methods in being able to lead the USA to the forefront of space. The draft contains goals for the US to accomplish in the next 100 years, and I will try and summarise and comment on most of them.
A domain of vast opportunity
‘It is the policy of the United States that Space represents a domain of vast opportunity and commerce for all humankind.’ This is the opening policy, and I think it is a big one. Here the US is stating that they don’t intend to work on these aims alone, they intend to try and unify the nations of Earth in order to further advance humanity into the outermost reaches of possibility, instead of claiming it for their own. While not publicly new, this is taking massive leaps forward. It shows that the US is willing to put aside its differences with nations in order to better humanity, which is something that every nation should strive to achieve in my opinion.
Safety and Prosperity for All Mankind: Securing the Blessings of Liberty and Prosperity
‘Space holds solutions for many pressing planetary problems and holds the key to our species’ long-term survival and prosperity. Therefore, space is critical to our nation’s long-term survival and prosperity.’ In this policy, Space Horizons proposes that the US has ‘a thriving in-space economy and permanent self-sustaining human settlement’ so that this gets the ball rolling in terms of colonising other planets, and eventually, other star systems. I am unsure about this specific policy. On the one hand, yes it does further science and helps to push humanity to its technological limit and change the nature of how humanity as a collective society will function, but on the other hand, is it really necessary? However it is well known that since the dawn of humanity, we have been explorers. We have always wanted to see what’s on the other side of the hill, where is better food? What’s across the ocean? What’s on the surface of Mars? Some could argue that without this drive that humans have to explore, we wouldn’t have even left Africa. We would still be living in caves, drawing on the walls and going out to hunt for food with the same routine day in, day out. It is this drive which has helped push humanity to innovate and solve problems, and it is this drive which I believe will help humanity to solve the problems of today; climate change, fossil fuels depleting, and world hunger. Just look at the innovation that has gone on in the past decade! We now have commercially viable solar panels, electric cars, and GM crops. These are innovations which will help change humanity for the better.
There is also another section which talks about defending the Earth from known dangers of space such as asteroids, comets, and solar flares. This is good, however as I discussed in my last news round-up, the Department of Defence no longer wants the role of ‘Space Police’, they only want to monitor vessels of importance to the military, so this could be a big ask of the FAA, the organisation taking over that role, given that they will be relatively new to the role if this draft turns into a real policy.
Assuring Access and Commerce in the Space Domain
‘It is the policy of the United States that space should be free for all lawful commerce and state activity of all nations, their chartered public and private institutions, and their citizenry free from harmful interference.’ Another standard policy. This talks about how no-one owns any bit of space, it is all open to be used for commercial business and investments, and that no nation can lay claim to it. However this reminds me of an interesting case from the 1980s, where Dennis Hope wrote to the UN claiming that he owned the Moon, since the 1967 United Nations Outer Space Treaty said no country could own the moon, but it says nothing about individuals. He never received a reply, and so took that to mean that he had claimed it. Since then he has gone on to claim Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter’s moon Io, and Pluto, as well as divide them up and sell them as plots of land, acre by acre. One acre sells for $19.95, and there are discounts for larger plots. The reason why the UN never responded is that the treaty applies to both nations and the citizens in those nations, and yet Hope is still selling plots of land to this day, and has made an absolute fortune off of it. Who’s to say that the same thing could happen here? Surely countries may dispute that the space above their country is their space, and any space not above any country is ‘international waters’?
Ensuring Freedom of Navigation and Protecting the Space Environment
‘It is the policy of the United States to care for and maintain the safety of navigation in the space domain.’ This policy talks about dangers in space which could affect objects in space such as satellites. It states that the US will design and test self-defence systems that allow objects which pose a threat to satellites or human life to be deflected, or destroyed if able, and be able to clear a safe pathway for satellites should they become surrounded by debris.
This policy also says that the US will encourage other nations to try and develop these systems for themselves as well, and will also suggest schemes to try and solve the ever growing ‘space junk’ problem. While the ‘space junk’ schemes are a good idea, I am not so sure that each nation should have the technology to take down any satellite which poses a threat to life. Surely this kind of technology could be abused by other nations, and could possibly start a space war. This kind of technology, in my opinion, should only be able to be used by the UN in special circumstances that demand immediate action.
Reaching Higher and Farther
‘It is the ambition of America to be the first nation to lead humankind in starflight.’ This is one of the longest policies, and covers the ambitions of the US in terms of how it wants the technology of space to develop. Firstly, it wants to return images from a probe to a stellar neighbour with an earth-like exoplanet such as Proxima Centauri, before the eve of America’s quadricentenial. This is a big aim, and I think it will be much like the Apollo program, where it looks like an exponential curve of difficulty, however it will be the innovations of humanity which will drive this aim forward.
Another aim is to encourage humans to become a multi-planetary species, and to expand the habitat of humans beyond Earth. This again links back to the deep-rooted explorer trait which all of humanity contains, and allows significant advancements to be made in all aspects of life.
The next aim I find to be the most interesting, and it states that it wants to trigger a ‘space industrial revolution’ and allow humanity to access limitless energy and mineral resources that are present around us in space, which will in turn allow humanity to make several advancements in space technology and allow us to build things such as space solar panel farms, colonies, and eventually, starships. This could be huge. Imagine if humanity found a superconductor which didn’t need to be at sub-zero temperatures, and so created a massive solar farm in space. This could solve all of the Earth’s energy worries, and would turn the entire planet into a ‘green earth’ with next to none carbon emissions. This aim also talks about wanting to start the process of looking into space mining technology, which would in turn start to allow the process of a revolution to begin, and would allow humanity to mine asteroids and moons for much needed resources.
This next aim would solve the climate change problem. It says that it wants to be committed to ‘the greening of our planet and the energy security of the world, to enable the creation of a space-power grid to supply nearly limitless green energy to every nation.’ Boom. Just like that, energy worries become a thing of the past. If we crack this problem, it means that we can stop harvesting our world for more resources to be used up. We can instead rely on space to serve up energy for us. This also means that we could harness this potentially limitless resource and use it to fuel projects that need an immense amount of energy, such as nuclear fusion, which would again spark a whole revelation of new innovating ideas which would shape society.
One other aim is ‘to expand access to space for every citizen’, and this includes making it commercially viable for the average consumer to travel to space, as well as have an economy which could support space infrastructure and business, as well as possibly support permanent space habitats, either within the Earth’s sphere of influence or beyond. This could help promote the idea of colonising other planets to ordinary people. If the idea is commercially viable, why not? Especially if the settlements are connected by new space transport which reduces the travel time by weeks, if not, months. This would mean that humanities influence throughout the solar system, and even the galaxy, would exponentially increase in size. People in other solar system could live exactly the same lives as they did if they were on Earth. This aim also says that it wants to bring the inner solar system within the economic sphere of influence, meaning that these planets could be colonised, and whole societies could be set up there, and they could all operate under one universal economic system. I’m no economist, however that does seem that it would be pretty difficult, given how much the system struggles on Earth at the moment, it would be difficult to come up with a totally new system that would be able to function on multiple worlds under many billions of people.
The final aim in this policy is ‘to promote research in space propulsion’. From this it is clear that the US understands that all of the aims above are not possible with current technology, and that there needs to be a breakthrough in how humans approach space travel before these aims can be taken seriously. It aims to encourage this research by developing prototypes to allow the private sector to transition. This sounds like eventually the US doesn’t want to be in charge of all the space transportation, it wants private companies to take over. This is where I feel that SpaceX will take over. Elon Musk is doing incredible research into reusability of rockets and rocket propulsion, and I feel that his company is going to be the one to figure out economically viable frequent space travel,and SpaceX will be the ones ferrying us around in space. The aim also says that it will support research into nuclear propulsion, both fission and fusion. This means that huge amounts of funding is going to go into fusion, and once that is figured out to be economically viable, this will trigger a whole wave of new technology.
In order to help make these interests possible, this policy says that the US will implement ‘a new series of space-related educational grants’ in order to help inspire the next generation to take up STEM fields, and help make the aims lain out above a reality. The US will also look to install state-of-the-art facilities at Universities across the US, in order to help facilitate the breakthroughs that are required to meet these goals. For me this policy is one of the most important ones, as without this policy, all of the goals that have been set out in this draft become unobtainable, as the knowledge required is just simply not there. This is a good move from the US, it is investing in the youth of today in order to help accomplish the dreams of tomorrow.
In conclusion, the US is aiming to change the current method of space transport, by investing money into different propulsion research and aiming to fund scientific breakthroughs by young minds of today, in order to be the first nation to: mine an asteroid, mine the moon for propellant and minerals, operate a propellant depot/on-orbit refuelling service, operate a private space station, operate a commercial Earth to orbit spaceline of reusable launch vehicles, build a solar power satellite, and establish a hazardous asteroid early warning system. In my opinion, as long as they are funding the minds of today to crack these problems, anything is possible.