Trump’s Space Force Gets the Final Frontier All Wrong
A new space race may be on, but the United States should opt for peaceful exploration rather than military presence.
Just before Valentine’s Day last month, NASA made one final call to Opportunity, the little Mars rover that had been trekking across the red planet since it arrived in 2004. The space agency lost contact with the robotic explorer in June 2018 during a massive planetary dust storm and had been attempting to reconnect with it ever since. To no avail: “With a sense of deep appreciation and gratitude,” NASA officials declared on February 13 that Opportunity was dead and its mission was over.
Americans from former President Barack Obama on down bid a fond farewell to what Wired called “the hardest-working robot in the solar system.” Indeed, it had lasted almost 15 years despite being designed to have a life span of just three months. Opportunity is survived on Mars by two other American robotic explorers: fellow rover Curiosity and the recently arrived InSight lander.
Less than a week after NASA’s announcement, U.S. President Donald Trump issued Space Policy Directive-4, which formally established the United States Space Force as a new branch of the U.S. military. During the Trump administration’s yearlong public campaign supporting the creation of a Space Force, it repeatedly forged dangerous rhetorical links between NASA’s peaceful space exploration program and the exploitation of space for U.S. national security purposes. In October 2018, for instance, Vice President Mike Pence—head of the National Space Council—claimed that a Space Force was necessary to ensure “that we have the security in space to advance human space exploration.”
His bombast didn’t just blur conceptual lines that ought to remain as sharp as they have been since the start of the space age in 1957. It revealed that the administration doesn’t grasp the nature of American leadership on the final frontier. Space exploration has certainly been driven by geopolitical concerns, but not by the narrow and reactive security calculations propelling the Trump administration’s Space Force proposal.
As the public reaction to Opportunity’s demise shows, the real geopolitics of space exploration remain bound up with national pride and prestige—and not just for the United States. Just a week before Opportunity fell silent, Japan’s Hayabusa 2 probe landed on the asteroid Ryugu and began taking samples to return to Earth. A few days into the new year, China’s Chang’e 4 spacecraft successfully alighted on the far side of the Moon. India and the European Space Agency both maintain Mars orbiters that circle the planet alongside their American counterparts. Most recently, the launch of a lunar lander built by a private Israeli nonprofit has become a focus of national pride for Israel.
More robotic explorers from even more nations are on the way: The United Arab Emirates plans to send its own probe to Mars in 2020, while Japan, China, and the European Space Agency all aim to launch complex robotic missions on the red planet and its moons over the next several years. India hopes to launch another Mars mission in the same time frame, and it appears set to send a lander and rover to the lunar surface sometime this year. For its part, South Korea intends to put a robotic explorer into lunar orbit in 2020.
This new multinational flotilla of robotic explorers sailing through the solar system shouldn’t be surprising. Since the dawn of the space age, nations large and small have sought to demonstrate their technological skill and economic strength through daring feats of human and robotic spaceflight. More importantly, however, great powers have always seen space exploration as a matter of national prestige and international standing. A nation cannot be considered truly influential or powerful, it seems, unless it explores the heavens. And with relations between countries on the ground becoming more competitive, it is not surprising that the space race has picked back up too.
To be sure, today’s quest for international status looks to be more friendly and productive than the Cold War competition between the Soviet Union and the United States. But it nevertheless marks a shift away from the collaborative climate that characterized the post-Cold War era—and represents an opportunity for the United States to show that it is still the standard-bearer of the future.
U.S. President John F. Kennedy made it clear that the quest for national prestige defined his space program in his famous 1962 address on America’s nascent effort to put a man on the moon: “No nation which expects to be the leader of other nations can expect to stay behind in the race for space.” The Apollo program would demonstrate America’s superior ambition and skill to the world in spectacular fashion. Similar motives drove U.S. President Richard Nixon to approve the space shuttle program in the 1970s and U.S. President Ronald Reagan to push for a permanently inhabited space station in the 1980s.
The end of the Cold War marked an end to the competitive epoch of space exploration. By the late 1980s, traditional allies like Canada, Japan, and the European Space Agency had all signed on to help NASA build President Reagan’s proposed space station. Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton brought Russia into the project after the fall of the Soviet Union, and the construction and continued operation of the International Space Station over 20 years remains an impressive feat of global collaboration.
Today, however, the United States finds itself on the precipice of a new and uncertain era. American astronauts continue to live and work aboard the International Space Station, but no American has rocketed into orbit from U.S. territory since the last flight of the space shuttle in 2011. And back on Earth, the United States and its democratic allies in Europe and Asia have settled into a worldwide competition for power and influence with Russia and China.
Now Russia remains the only nation that regularly launches humans into space. Meanwhile, reflecting their growing power, new players like India and China have embarked on their own ambitious robotic exploration missions to Mars and the far side of the moon. National prestige and international standing are once more at the forefront of space exploration, as is competition between nations—especially between democracies and autocracies—to make impressive achievements on the final frontier.
To navigate the new space competition, the United States must first recognize that national prestige and global standing are critical national interests worth pursuing and not pointless—and possibly dangerous—chest-thumping exercises. And peaceful space exploration provides the United States a huge opportunity to restore pride at home and burnish its prestige overseas. It certainly beats other—perhaps less productive—ways of seeking international status, such as stockpiling nuclear weapons.
America starts with an advantage on this front despite not having launched astronauts from its own soil in almost eight years. Even after five decades, the Apollo moon landings continue to stir pride at home and admiration abroad. The space shuttle remains iconic nearly a decade after retirement, while the cosmic images beamed back from the Hubble Space Telescope continue to provoke awe and wonder. Astronauts aboard the International Space Station have turned their own camera lenses back toward Earth and given the world stunning images of our home planet. Robotic explorers from Voyager to the Mars rovers and New Horizons have kept the country on the cutting edge of discovery in our solar system.
But this advantage won’t last forever. Without consistent and increased funding for NASA, ambitious programs of both human and robotic exploration will literally fail to leave the ground. Progress doesn’t entail an Apollo-level commitment of national resources, but instead funding comparable to the early 1990s. An additional $5 billion a year should get the job done, with $3 billion for human exploration and $2 billion for robotic missions.
But funding isn’t everything, and in the new geopolitical context, democracy must be seen to work effectively. When it comes to space exploration, that means ratcheting back U.S. space cooperation with Russia as well as forgoing any equally intimate cooperation with China and its secretive space agency. The fact that the head of Russia’s space agency remains under U.S. sanctions for his role in Moscow’s military intervention in Ukraine illustrates the hazards involved in working with autocracies in space. Deep cooperation with autocratic powers in space gives autocracies a major point of diplomatic leverage over the United States, and more generally allows them to poach unearned international prestige by working on goals set and largely carried out by the United States. In today’s world, there’s no reason for the United States to give Russia or China this sort of standing by association.
Cooperation between the United States and Russia won’t grind to an immediate halt, though. With the International Space Station in orbit until at least 2024—if not longer—it will take time to disentangle the web of functional ties that have bound NASA and its Russian counterpart over the last quarter century. Significant cooperation with China should be avoided altogether, especially given its notoriously opaque and military-run space program. The space programs and agencies of other nations—NASA, the European Space Agency and its member-nation agencies, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, and even Russia’s Roscosmos—remain led and run by civilians.
In the meantime, the United States should buttress its already strong cooperative ties with fellow democracies like Japan, Canada, and the nations of the European Space Agency. Here, the main diplomatic challenge with partners like the ESA will be to convince them to curb their enthusiasm for cooperation with Russia and China on space exploration. The United States should also forge stronger space ties with interested democratic allies like South Korea, as well as newcomers like India and Israel.
Above all, the United States should foster an atmosphere of productive competition when it comes to space exploration. It should serve as a spur to achievement rather than animosity, as nations strive to outdo one another on the final frontier. In other words, rather than embarking on a futile security competition in space through the creation of a new military service, the United States should favor peaceful exploration that brings benefits to all nations. As it has since the space age began, the United States can play a pivotal leadership role in this new age of exploration.
In practical terms, all this will entail a more ambitious program of human and robotic exploration than is currently under consideration. When it comes to human spaceflight, the country should continue to focus on a voyage to Mars rather than return trips to the lunar surface. For robotic missions, NASA should opt for technically demanding projects that concentrate on the outer solar system—the moons of Jupiter or an ice giant planet like Neptune, for instance—in addition to enduring priorities like Martian exploration.
The resources NASA devotes to research and development will pull the American technology sector in new, unexpected, and innovative directions. NASA’s engagement with the United States’ leading tech and aerospace companies, moreover, gives the country a critical advantage that doesn’t exist in the world of autocracies.
Concerns about national prestige and international status will always be an essential part of global politics. But not all prestige projects are created equal, and few offer as wide a suite of benefits as space exploration: investment in cutting-edge domestic industries, technological innovation, the creation of communities of engineering expertise, and, of course, scientific discovery. More than that, though, space exploration points the way to a more hopeful future—both for the nations that participate and for humanity.
At a time of increased geopolitical competition between democracies and autocracies, the United States should do its utmost to maintain its standing as the world’s leading spacefaring nation. America possesses a space exploration advantage too valuable to throw away through lack of investment or the pursuit of a militarized approach to space. This high ground gives the United States the ability to set the terms of the next geopolitical era of space exploration—and it should seize the opportunity to foster a spirit of friendly and productive competition.
The United States can win this competition—and in today’s geopolitical world, it’s one the country cannot afford to lose.