A moonshot is on the rise on the Trump administration’s foreign policy agenda. At last month’s meeting of the National Space Council in Huntsville, Alabama, Vice President Mike Pence laid out an ambitious goal: “Return American astronauts to the moon in the next five years”—a date which would be well ahead of the 2028 target envisioned in previous NASA plans. The United States and China are locked in a new space race, he warned, and the stakes have only increased since the US-Soviet space race of the 1960s; the United States must be first to send astronauts to the moon in the twenty-first century.
Pence framed putting American boots on the lunar ground as a national imperative. Invoking China’s successful landing of a probe on the far side of the moon earlier this year, he suggested that Beijing has “revealed their ambition to seize the lunar strategic high ground.”
“The lunar South Pole holds great scientific, economic, and strategic value,” according to Pence, and failure to put “American astronauts, launched by American rockets, from American soil” there is “not an option.”
The vice president’s antagonistic rhetoric fails to cohere with the realities of contemporary space exploration and the dictates of sound policy making. The alleged space race between the United States and China is under-substantiated and overblown, and the moon’s strategic value—Pence’s insistence to the contrary—is dubious at best. Any moonshot, expedited or otherwise, will achieve little-to-nothing in the way of furthering US foreign policy aims.
For starters, the oft-repeated notion of the United States being in a new space race rests on shaky premises. As much as China has augmented its spacefaring capabilities in recent years, including through the development of launch vehicles, space stations, antisatellite weapons, and its own global navigation satellite system as a rival to the US Global Positioning System (GPS), Beijing has taken a tangential rather than head-to-head approach to competition with the United States in space. As space historian Dwayne A. Day of the National Research Council details in the on-line publication The Space Review, Chinese civil space exploration has progressed at a slow and steady clip for decades, in decidedly un-race-like fashion. Journalists and analysts, meanwhile, have played up the sensationalist trope of a US-China space race on the basis of unreliable reports, mistranslated documents, flawed inferences, and off-the-cuff statements from Chinese officials and observers. Space, in this sense, appears to have been subject to the same sort of threat inflation that has plagued various other domains linked to national security.
China’s recent Chang’e 4 lunar exploration mission offers a case in point. Pundits lined up to pronounce the January landing on the moon of a probe carrying plant seeds and fruit fly eggs a harbinger of national security challenges to come. Namrata Goswami, a Pentagon-funded researcher, penned an op-ed in the Washington Post arguing that China had “established an important foothold toward resource exploitation” with the lander’s touchdown. Goswami exhorted that Beijing had secured access to the lunar South Pole, which she likened to the coaling stations that facilitated naval power projection in the 19th century, and laid the groundwork for future industrialization. All this, from a scientific probe delivering flowers to the far side of the moon.
Overwrought notions of this sort—a constant theme in a national space discourse often rooted more in science fiction than science fact—would be relegated to the political fringes were top US officials not among their apparent subscribers. In his Huntsville address, Pence echoed Goswami and likeminded others on the economic and strategic importance of the moon, citing oxygen-mining operations and nuclear-powered water-extraction as justifications for a lunar expedition. These resources, in their view, are useful in refueling spacecraft and sustaining a human presence in space and therefore of strategic concern.
Such ideas are not entirely without merit. Modern rockets depend on chemical reactions that use oxygen, and water is a source for the element, as well as an essential ingredient for life.
Imputations of strategic value to lunar resources on the basis of their usefulness alone, however, gloss over pesky scientific and economic details. Missions such as NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, the Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite, as well as India’s Chandrayaan-1, have contributed to scientific knowledge about the lunar poles and confirmed the long-hypothesized existence of water-ice deposits in at least some of the craters. But the abundance and composition of known deposits are far from ideal. As author David Leonard writes in Scientific American, “Ice is only exposed in around 3.5 percent of the craters’ shadowed area, and is intermixed with large volumes of lunar dust,” making resource extraction and utilization a challenging proposition.
The economic feasibility and sustainability of such ventures, especially at scale, are anyone’s guess. Harvesting lunar resources would need to be cheaper than transporting analogous materials from Earth or elsewhere in the solar system to be worthwhile. The strategic value of mining operations would hinge on the development of an interplanetary economy that has yet to materialize. Pronouncements of strategic value also assume the relative stagnancy of propulsive technologies: Coaling stations receded from the strategic limelight over time, and future innovations could similarly render rockets less useful on a relative basis for travel within the solar system. Permanent extraction operations would no doubt raise legal questions as well, not least in relation to Article II of the Outer Space Treaty, which prohibits national appropriation of space and the celestial bodies. And if lunar water-ice does turn out to be a pivotal resource, excluding other actors from harvesting it would be a financially and diplomatically costly endeavor.
In these and numerous other senses, assertions of a moonshot having strategic value are implausible and premature. Even national prestige, the animating force of the original space race, is a poor justification to return astronauts to the moon. Beating China to an objective that the United States achieved 50 years ago would win few hearts or minds, an aim that is itself of dubious worth in an international landscape defined more by geo-economic than ideological competition. Returning astronauts to the moon would in all likelihood elicit a collective shrug in terms of demonstrating American technological superiority. Critics of human exploration, meanwhile, would observe that remote-controlled and autonomous probes offer cheaper and less risky alternatives to boots on the ground.
To be sure, humans do have a role to play in space exploration. Scientific inquiry offers many compelling reasons to send astronauts beyond Earth orbit, including to the moon. Misleading canards about lunar strategic imperatives, on the other hand, detract from informed policymaking. They also contribute to inflated threat perceptions in the outer space domain, a driver of militarization and distrust. For these reasons, aspirations to return to the moon should be rooted in science, not foreign policy.