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Space-based solar power is an idea whose time may have come, at least in the views of some in China, requiring the US to respond appropriately. (credit: NASA)

Why the next Space Policy Directive needs to be to the Secretary of Energy


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For the first time in decades, the United States faces a serious challenge. A new space race is upon us to secure the benefits of a vast and expanding space economy. Whether it was grain for horses and soldiers; wind and waterwheels for factories; coal for railroads; coal or oil for steamships; petroleum for cars, tanks, and airplanes; or atomic energy for cities and submarines, energy has been central to both commerce and military power.

To secure America’s continuing advantage in the space domain, the President must tap the Secretary of Energy to develop an immediate and sustained response to secure space energy dominance.

At the center of China’s plans to surpass the United States as the leading spacepower by 2045 are vast ambitions for space energy dominance. China’s military has already begun a peacetime strategic offensive to secure a position of energy dominance. Within this grand plan are four separate initiatives that demand a response:

  1. Energy maneuverability dominance using space sourced propellant
  2. Global energy dominance with space solar power and space power beaming
  3. Deep space maneuver advantage with nuclear propulsion
  4. Fusion energy advantage with helium-3

While there is significant capability within both NASA and the DoD, the majority of our nation’s expertise that can be brought to bear to respond to the People’s Republic of China’s peacetime military offensive lies within our Department of Energy. To secure America’s continuing advantage in the space domain, the President must tap the Secretary of Energy to develop (in concert with NASA and the US Space Force) an immediate and sustained response to secure space energy dominance. To ensure continued focus, the DoE must reorganize internally and sit on the National Space Council.

Energy maneuverability dominance using space sourced propellant

US Air Force fighter pilot John Boyd was the first to introduce the concept of Energy Maneuverability Theory as an explanation of maneuver advantage. Reducing energy costs are key to reducing cost and time to market for in-space transport of materials for in-space construction. Energy maneuverability advantage is also key to both combat advantage and military logistical advantage. There are certain positions within the Earth-Moon system that provide significant maneuver advantage. The ability to source rocket fuel from the Moon or asteroids is a significant force multiplier. The lunar poles are equivalent to forward coaling stations during our nation’s naval expansion, and propellant depots offer force extension analogous to aerial refueling. The PRC’s strategically wise push to secure access to the “great lakes”of frozen water ice (600 million metric tons) must be met in kind with our own national resolve to access lunar propellant to build on-orbit propellant depots and refuelers.

The newly formed US Space Command is already behind the PRC in lacking its own peacetime strategic military offensive, and will be derelict in its duty if it does not immediately specify the requirements to the Pentagon’s Joint Requirements Oversight Council and National Space Council for space-sourced propellant, in-space refueling, and in-space transport to meet the PRC challenge.

As a remedy for this situation, the Administration should task the Secretary of Energy to coordinate with the NASA Administrator, Commandant of the US Space Force, and Secretary of Commerce, to build a plan to retire all technical risk for a cryogenic hydrogen/oxygen propellant depot with reversible fuel cells for electrolysis, and a parallel plan for a Lunar Industrial Facility (LIF) to produce and launch the required water-ice to replenish it. The plan should establish goals and standards for refueling of reusable lunar landers.

Global energy dominance with space solar power and space power beaming

Central to the PRC’s plans is to develop the technology to build extremely large on-orbit power stations capable of capturing gigawatts of power and beaming it to Earth and anywhere in the Earth-Moon system. Even at the megawatt class planned for their 2030 prototype, this is a game-changing dual-use technology. The United States at present has, at most, 100 kilowatts of power on the International Space Station.

The DOE program should seek, via public-private partnerships, to retire the technical risk toward commercially viable utility-scale space solar power.

The tactical threat, though, pales in significance to the strategic threat. The PRC’s strategic plan to usurp US hegemonic power is to create—through sustained national effort—the technology to build solar power satellites, and then to use the material from the Moon to build them cheaply to become the major supplier of Earth-based energy. Power that is city-baseload appropriate, that can scale to the entirety of global demand, that can be sent anywhere on Earth as needed, and that is 100 percent green and non-carbon producing will be attractive to most nations. Today the Persian Gulf and the few chokepoints for oil are the strategic center, with the key energy producers—the US, Russia, OPEC—having substantial coercive power. If the PRC succeeds in its plans, it will be the major energy supplier to planet Earth, and with that, enormous economic power to force others to submit to their geopolitical designs.

To meet this strategic challenge, the administration should task the Secretary of Energy, at a minimum, to maintain parity and seek strategic advantage with respect to commercial space solar power and beamed energy production. This program should not look like the DOE’s fusion science program, which has no timeline or goal for commercial energy production. Rather, the DOE program should seek, via public-private partnerships, to retire the technical risk toward commercially viable utility-scale space solar power.

Central to this goal should be a companion and parallel strategy to develop multiple public-private partnerships at a Lunar Industrial Facility (LIF) with the goal of mining, benefacting, and launching 90 percent of the structural mass required to build a prototype megawatt-class solar power satellite prototype in geostationary orbit ahead of the PRC plans for 2035—the aim should be a 100-megawatt facility in GEO by 2034.

Deep space maneuver advantage with nuclear propulsion

America has long known that true spacefaring will require nuclear power propulsion. For a decade it led the field with project NERVA, and again later with project TIMBERWIND and Space Nuclear Test Program (SNTP). But a lack of political nerve let this leadership languish. Now the PRC is open with its design to have nuclear shuttles enabling it access for asteroid mining, exploitation, and colonization by 2040. Nuclear thermal rockets have more than twice the performance of traditional rockets, enabling much larger payloads and much shorter travel times in the solar system. It would be like asking a merchant fleet equipped with only sails to keep up with a merchant fleet equipped with oil. Or, it would be like asking an air force equipped with propellers to contend with an air force with all jet fighters. To compete successfully as a space power, the US must have a matching peacetime strategic offensive in space nuclear power and propulsion.

Therefore, the Administration should task the Secretary of Energy to build a portfolio of public-private partnerships to ensure sustained US advantage in advanced space propulsion, including fission, fusion, antimatter and high-energy beamed propulsion. At a minimum, it should ensure parity such that the US is never behind on any significant test or deployment timeline for nuclear propulsion. In every case, the DOE should have a transition strategy to a private US commercial provider similar to the NASA commercial cargo and crew programs.

Fusion energy advantage with helium-3

The PRC’s focus to prospect for lunar helium-3 is evidence of the broader strategic intent to lead in fusion power and fusion space propulsion. The reality that today’s technology cannot achieve sustained “over-unity” fusion is immaterial—we know that physics makes this possible, and it is merely a matter of sustained investment and ingenuity until this is achieved. Already there are numerous companies in the US and other nations developing fusion technologies using compact devices, and even fusion-powered rockets. These are all starved for funding because of a lack of national purpose and an unwillingness to face the reality of a serious competitor for space hegemony. Helium-3 is prized because as a fusion fuel, it produces virtually no neutron radiation, allowing for sustained fusion that neither degrades the reactor structure nor produces harmful radiation to humans. Importantly, there is not only thousands of years of helium-3 on the lunar surface, but significant concentrations of helium-3 in the outer solar system.

Therefore, the Administration should task the Secretary of Energy to develop a long-term strategy to develop a portfolio of public-private partnerships to lead commercial fusion development for space power and space propulsion, with a parallel strategy to develop an ability to mine lunar helium-3.

The value of lunar industrialization and a lunar industrial facility

At the nexus of each of these strategic initiatives is the Moon. This administration’s focus on returning to the Moon quickly is laudable. It is likewise meaningful to hear actual discussion of sustainability, of reusability and of making use of the resources of the Moon. However, without a specific plan to set up a lunar industrial facility—without articulated milestones for material production—it is meaningless and ephemeral.

It will take at least a generation to undo the captive “close space support” mentality of the current generation and, through education, build a succeeding generation of space professionals focused on the strategic dimensions of spacepower.

A push to the lunar surface without a clear plan for industrial development is a strategic mistake of the first order. What matters the to future of American power is not who gets to the Moon or Mars first, but who can make use of the energy and material resources of the Moon to convert to economic power and to the military-logistical power needed to secure that space commerce from coercion.

Therefore, the most important policy decision is to decide on the construction of a Lunar Industrial Facility (LIF) that will build the necessary industrial and logistical components of the new space economy. That must be done with the private sector, and with the intention of production at scale. That is not exploration. NASA’s multi-decade tone-deafness to exploitation and industrialization at scale, versus one-of-a-kind exploration, likely means the United States cannot entrust the long-term safety of its interests to NASA, which remains exploration and destination focused.

The Department of Defense has also demonstrated a similar tone-deafness to even military logistical development, believing that peacetime military offensives and development of dual-use industries must be “somebody else’s job.” The fact that military logistical development of cislunar space has not been a part of the posture statements of US Strategic Command, of the Secretary of the Air Force, Chief of Staff of the Air Force, or Air Force Space Command demonstrate the extant lack of vision of space as an independent instrument of national power; it is the most compelling reason for the push by Congress and the Administration for a dedicated Space Command and Space Force. However, since the leadership will be the same actors, neither the Administration nor Congress can be confident that our military space professionals will secure American interests. It will take at least a generation to undo the captive “close space support” mentality of the current generation and, through education, build a succeeding generation of space professionals focused on the strategic dimensions of spacepower. Unfortunately, we cannot wait that long to respond to the extant and growing subversion of our national security.

America, a nation of pioneers, settlers, and entrepreneurs, seeks a vision meaningful enough to mobilize them. Developing the vast energy and material resources of the inner solar system for free peoples is that vision; a new American Dream.

The Department of Commerce certainly appreciates the strategic realities and is willing to lead, but it lacks the vast publicly-owned facilities of our national labs or their substantial technical budget and expertise. Therefore, because energy in the form of fuel, propellant, power, and propulsion are absolutely central to continued US economic and military advantage, the Administration should mobilize the Department of Energy to secure America’s future advantage in space.

Given the substantial lead that the PRC has in their own peacetime military advantage, the Administration should not delay in issuing a Space Policy Directive that puts the Secretary of Energy on the National Space Council, and tasks them to develop, lead, and execute a strategy to ensure American space energy dominance.

That Space Policy Directive should task explicitly the DOE to:

  1. Develop (in concert with NASA, Dept of Commerce, and DoD) plans for a scalable Lunar Industrial Facility with maximum use of public-private partnerships to develop mining, benefaction, in-situ manufacture and launch at-scale to be presented to the National Space Council before January 1, 2020.
  2. Develop a plan to ensure parity and pursue advantage in advanced space nuclear power and propulsion, ensuring a road to commercial transition with a flight demonstration of a nuclear thermal rocket no later than 2024.
  3. Develop technologies and commercial providers for cryogenic propellant depots and extraction of lunar propellant for commercial and government use with initial operations beginning no later than 2028.
  4. Develop prospecting surveys and technology to access lunar nuclear material (uranium, thorium, and helium-3) with initial operations beginning in 2028.
  5. Develop a plan for a Lunar Industrial Facility to produce 90 percent of the structural mass of components for a 100-megawatt prototype solar power satellite in GEO by 2034.

A vision of space exploration is too small for America. America, a nation of pioneers, settlers, and entrepreneurs, seeks a vision meaningful enough to mobilize them. Developing the vast energy and material resources of the inner solar system for free peoples is that vision; a new American Dream. This is the American dream with economic and military consequences large enough to win or lose the next American century. America has what it takes to come from behind and win this vast frontier of opportunity but it must not delay.

The mission of the Energy Department is to ensure America’s security and prosperity by addressing its energy, environmental, and nuclear challenges through transformative science and technology solutions.

The Secretary of Energy bears a special responsibility because only those in the Department of Energy are in a position to appreciate the almost inestimable advantage that space energy dominance will provide to the nation that secures it. Its vast resources and talent should not be left un-mobilized in this new space race, but to mobilize them a Space Policy Directive is required.


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