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space guard rescue
A futuristic Space Guard rescue scenario. (credit: James Vaughan, used with permission)

Strategic implications of China winning the space rescue race (part 1)

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Several times in its history, the United States has proven unprepared for personnel recovery due to outdated policy that failed to anticipate novel personnel recovery challenges. Trend studies demonstrate the United States adjusts its personnel recovery policies after a major crisis or event occurs. The US government must break this reactive personnel recovery policy and investment cycle or America is at risk of losing its leadership role to China in cislunar space. Only a proactive national approach will ensure the United States remains the leader in space.

Failing to be in a position to rescue one’s own astronauts or potentially being forced to rely on an adversarial nation to rescue US astronauts is not without geopolitical consequence.

To mitigate risk for astronauts and enable commercial development to exploit resources beyond our atmosphere, the US must begin investing now. China is setting an impressive pace to meet its vision of the future in space, is unwilling to accept risk in its human spaceflight program, and has begun investment in its own in-space rescue program. The Chinese regime is also making concerted efforts to lead international in-space rescue efforts. China’s initiative challenges the historical leadership role of the United States. It also leaves American astronauts vulnerable to a potential Chinese recovery or detention.

This article demonstrates how reactive trends in personnel recovery policy have negatively affected government preparedness for past national contingencies, and examines the strategic consequences of such ill-preparedness in the context of future space-related crisis scenarios where inadequate policy results in an incapacity to act. The study concludes by making recommendations for policy and investment which posture the US to have the capacity to respond to future space isolation events and enable a US-led space rescue capability that supports the safety of all spacefaring nations.


The launch of the Artemis 1 mission demonstrates that the United States once again has the capability to send humans to lunar orbit and beyond, making the potential for cislunar rescue a clear and present issue. NASA is leading the Artemis campaign, preparing for the first crewed surface mission since Apollo 17 in 1972. The expected proliferation of crewed missions across cislunar space introduces the first practical case for an in-space rescue capability. The People’s Republic of China keenly recognizes this global gap and is preparing to lead the space rescue race for all humankind. China has demonstrated the ability to meet ambitious space goals, lending credibility to its crewed aspirations on the Moon, Mars, and beyond.

While the US, its Artemis partners, China, and Russia are all signatories to the Outer Space Treaty (OST) and Astronaut Rescue Agreements, failing to be in a position to rescue one’s own astronauts or potentially being forced to rely on an adversarial nation to rescue US astronauts is not without geopolitical consequence.[1] This is particularly true given geostrategic context, where the Artemis program began with former Vice President and Chair of the National Space Council Mike Pence’s announcement in March of 2019 that the United States is in a new space race with even higher stakes. The administration tasked NASA to return American astronauts to the Moon, establish a permanent base, and develop the technologies to take American astronauts to Mars and beyond. Thus, there is an urgent need to reassess our national policy in light of the geopolitical environment. Although high-level national policy documents strongly imply a Department of Defense tasking, there is an urgent need to update various documents, and in particular Presidential Policy Directive 30, to ensure the nation is forward-postured and not found flat-footed and late-to-need in a potential situation of national consequence.

Much has changed since the lunar race with the Soviet Union. China’s space program moves fast; its aggressive national strategy aspires to space supremacy.[2] Being a Communist country, the government may exert significant outward influence with minimal internal regulatory or administrative friction. China and America are each encouraged by like-minded nations, anxious to invest national resources, to usher in a new age of space exploration and commercial development. Rapid attempts at expansion can leave nations vulnerable to mission failures and present significant risk to emerging operational capabilities.

Mission failures can lead to national crisis events, often shifting United States policy to prevent future incidents. This reactive pattern is especially true in Personnel Recovery (PR) events such as hostage crises and government detentions that have resulted in tragic accidents and losses where the military was unprepared due to policy gaps. If America fails to break the reactive PR policy and investment cycle, the government is at risk of losing its leadership role to China in cislunar space.[3]

A proactive national approach is critical to ensure the United States remains a leader in space, mitigating risk for astronauts and enabling commercial development to exploit resources beyond our atmosphere. This article defines relevant terminology, examines the current state of US policy and guidance, identifies important gaps, and surveys competitor actions. The article then proceeds to demonstrate how the reactive trend in PR policy has negatively affected government preparedness for national contingencies and applies this concept to future space-related crisis scenarios, as examined in an AFIT-led interagency working group on lunar search and rescue. The study briefly evaluates the strategic consequences of failing to act, allowing China to recover United States astronauts in space, and concludes with actionable policy recommendations.

personnel recovery system
The DoD Personnel Recovery System (credit: JP 3-50)

National policy affecting space rescue

Just what is “Personnel Recovery”

The Department of Defense (DoD) defines Personnel Recovery (PR) as the sum of military, diplomatic, and civil efforts to prepare for and execute the recovery and reintegration of isolated personnel. The DoD PR system is depicted in the figure above, which recognizes the importance of policy, doctrine, equipment, situational awareness, preparation, planning, and interagency engagement. The PR model depicted in Figure 1 is not service, command, or domain specific, and is broad enough to apply to space. Nevertheless, the future operating environment will require integration of in-space PR into the broader PR system, since at present, policy, education and training, equipment, situational awareness, preparation and planning, and joint interagency roles have yet to be developed for space PR.

Isolated Personnel (IP) are “those U.S. military, Department of Defense (DoD) civilians, and DoD contracted personnel and others designated by the President or Secretary of Defense, who are separated from their unit or agency, as an individual or group, while participating in a US-sponsored military activity or mission and who are, or may be, in a situation where they must survive, evade, resist, or escape (SERE)."[4]

Search and Rescue (SAR) is a non-combat subset of PR that depicts isolation scenarios where no enemy threat exists.

How does the DoD support human spaceflight today?

Historical human spaceflight operations lacked frequency and volume to justify an in-space rescue capability, but there was a significant risk of injury or death upon re-entry and landing. The government mitigated this risk by tasking DoD subordinate commands under Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff Instruction 3440.01E. This document directs the Human Spaceflight Support (HSFS), under the direction of the United States Space Command (USSPACECOM), working jointly with NASA to conduct PR operations for astronauts.[5] The HSFS mission remains strictly terrestrial, despite being the most capable government entity to develop an in-space rescue program. The specific support requirements are directed to USSPACEOM units within each independent space mission via an execution order or “EXORD.” The HSFS office and the NASA National Search and Rescue Office coordinate efforts with First Air Force, Detachment 3 (Det. 3), to execute nominal and contingency rescue, recovery, and retrieval for current and future human space flight programs.

What about Personnel Recovery in space?

Space isolation is a relatively new concept, yet the elements of PR still apply to the space domain. The United States Space Force (USSF) has a direct supporting relationship with NASA to perform PR support to U.S. astronauts. The DoD coordinates rescue efforts through USSPACECOM, which serves as the Geographic Combatant Command for the space domain. The warfighting command focuses on national space competitors and threats to national space-based capabilities.

We are confronted with an opportunity to demonstrate foresight and develop pro-active policies which will enable safe operations for ourselves and our partners in a hazardous environment, and demonstrate the trust our partners place in us.

USSPACECOM’s responsibilities may extend to allies and partners as well, as it has responsibility to “protect and defend…as directed, allied, partner, and critical commercial space operational capabilities.”[6] Already, 36 countries have signed the United States-led Artemis Accords.[7] The Artemis Accords reaffirms Commitment to the 1967 Outer Space Treaty and the Agreement on the Rescue of Astronauts, which extends our national rescue obligations to all spacefaring states. While no enforcement mechanism exists to bind states, they establish the international obligation to render aid to an astronaut in distress before the environment brings about a fatal end.

Would we be ready for such a contingency? We are confronted with an opportunity to demonstrate foresight and develop pro-active policies which will enable safe operations for ourselves and our partners in a hazardous environment, and demonstrate the trust our partners place in us.

Does US policy enable this capability? Do our apex strategy documents specify a military need upon which to build a space rescue program, and if so, are they adequately translated?

Does national policy obligate the DoD to conduct “Personnel Recovery” in Space?

Some argue that because personnel recovery in space is not a specified mission, that the Department of Defense is not obligated to prepare and plan for space isolation. Others argue that PR is a strongly implied mission because several White House documents strongly imply the DoD has such a tasking. Below we examine the National Security Strategy (NSS), Interim National Security Strategic Guidance (INSG), National Space Priorities Framework (SPF), and National Space Policy (NSP).

High-level strategy documents clearly anticipate a significant amount of in-space activity involving commercial and international partners; they also see such activity as part of our overall national security strategy. The existing 2017 National Security Strategy (NSS), yet to be superseded, states that the US will “enable human exploration across the solar system” and maintain its lead in space exploration through “increased public-private partnerships and promote ventures beyond low Earth orbit with allies and friends” and makes commitments to “advance space as a priority domain” and “promote space commerce” including “extending national security protections to our private sector partners.”[8]

The Administration’s Interim National Security Strategic Guidance reflects similar sentiments: “We will explore and use outer space to the benefit of humanity, and ensure the safety, stability, and security of outer space activities. We will shape emerging technology standards to boost our security, economic competitiveness, and values. And, across these initiatives, we will partner with democratic friends and allies to amplify our collective competitive advantages.”[9] Clearly our national space policy documents anticipate a long-term societal investment in space, specify the importance of safety and international leadership.

The NSS and INSSG provide the necessary intent to enable subordinate “how-to” documents to provide guidance to subordinate organizations to execute its vision.

The Biden Administration’s National Space Priorities Framework (SPF) provides still greater clarity on the national intention to enable a robust human presence in space and lead in safety. The SPF states, “The United States will remain a global leader in science and engineering by pioneering space research and technology that propels exploration of the Moon, Mars, and beyond. U.S. human and robotic space exploration missions will land the first woman and person of color on the Moon, advance a robust cislunar ecosystem, continue to leverage human presence in low-Earth orbit to enable people to live and work safely in space, and prepare for future missions to Mars and beyond.” [emphasis added] [10] To this end, the SPF articulates that the United States will “promote the implementation of existing measures and lead in the development of new measures that contribute to the safety, stability, security, and long-term sustainability of space activities” and “continue to share space situational awareness information and provide basic spaceflight safety services to all space operators.” [emphasis added] [11] Given the repeated focus on “safety services” and “long-term sustainability,” PR is foundational to ensure the safe return of all astronauts and space travelers.

The National Space Policy,[12] which outlines similar macro and safety goals, also contains a direct tasking to the DoD: “The Secretary of Defense shall… Protect freedom of navigation and preserve lines of communication that are open, safe, and secure in the space domain… Provide to the Department of Commerce and other agencies, as necessary, Space Situational Awareness (SSA) information that supports national security, civil, and human space flight activities, planetary defense from hazardous near-Earth objects, and commercial and allied space operations.” [emphasis added] [13]

These directives obligate the DoD to safeguard human spaceflight routes, to include maintaining SSA over the individual missions. These are critical components to achieve PR mission success. The PR mission is clearly implied, but is nowhere specified. Specifying such responsibilities would be most helpful in a revised National Space Policy.

Since White House level documents do not specify responsibilities for in-space PR or rescue, what about internal DoD documents? Let us first examine several general DoD documents that provide direction across the force, and include PR for terrestrial isolation scenarios: the UCP, the JSCP, and DODI 5100.0. The Unified Command Plan (UCP) assigns specific duties to combatant commands. The UCP does not specifically assign in-space PR, but it does assign USSPACECOM responsibility “protect and defend U.S. and as directed, allied, partner, and critical commercial space operational capabilities.”[14] The Guidance for the Employment of the Force (GEF) enumerates important end-states to be achieved by region, and is not public, but does not appear to specify end-states that specify in-space PR or rescue. The Joint Strategic Capabilities Plan (JSCP) specifies which contingencies to plan for, but at present does not direct USSPACECOM to plan for in-space rescue.

DoD Instruction 5100.01, Functions of the Department of Defense and Its Major Components, summarizes law and policy for departments, services, and combatant commands.[15] It provides the following guidance on PR: “The Army, the Navy, the Air Force, the Marine Corps, and the Space Force… shall provide conventional, strategic, and SOF to conduct the range of operations as defined by the President and the Secretary of Defense. Further, they shall perform the following common functions… (4) Personnel recovery operations in coordination with USSOCOM and other Combatant Commands, the Military Services, and other DoD Components.”[16]

While all services are tasked to perform PR, DoD 5100.01 additionally specifies that the Air Force must “Conduct global personnel recovery operations including theater-wide combat and civil search and rescue, in coordination with the other Military Services, USJFCOM, USSOCOM, and DoD Components.”[17] The Coast Guard is also tasked to provide “maritime search and rescue.”[18] DoDI 5100.01 appears to limit USAF to global operations and USCG to maritime, and does not specify responsibility for space search and rescue.

If apex-level DoD guidance to services and combatant commands do not specify in-space PR responsibilities, what about DoD space-specific guidance such as the Defense Space Strategy, DoDI 3100.10 Space Policy, or DoDI 5100 Functions of the Department of Defense and Its Major Components or JP3-14 Space Operations?

The 2020 Defense Space Strategy is of course significantly out of date, having been superseded by multiple higher-level documents. Nowhere does it mention PR, rescue, or even safety, though it does outline four lines of effort (LOEs) which include: 1) building comprehensive military advantage in space, 2) integrating military spacepower into national, joint, and combined operations, 3) shaping the strategic environment, and 4) cooperating with allies, partners, industry, and other US government agencies. A US initiative to develop space PR would advance every one of these objectives.[19]

The recently released DoD Directive 3100.10 Space Policy specifies that the DoD will “promote a thriving domestic civil and commercial space industry” and “Strengthen the safety, security, stability, sustainability, and accessibility of the space domain,” but it nowhere mentions rescue or PR. Future revisions should incorporate PR as a core competency.[20]

Joint Publication 3-14, Space Operations, has multiple mentions of both rescue and personnel recovery, but it is entirely in the context of terrestrial operations.[21] Likewise, future revisions should not neglect discussion of in-space PR.

Sadly, official DoD guidance has yet to anticipate or even mention space rescue as a possible future contingency. However, this has not stopped forward-leaning military space professionals from looking into space rescue as a service responsibility.

For example, it appears that USSPACECOM, the combatant command responsible for the space area of responsibility anticipates it may have to execute in-space PR. General James H. Dickinson, former commander of United States Space Command, testified to Congress that the Unified Command Plan (UCP) assigned him “the responsibility to protect and defend U.S. and as directed, allied, partner, and critical commercial space operational capabilities.”[22] More specifically, General Dickinson stated that, “USSPACECOM continues to support NASA’s Commercial Crew Program for contingency rescue operations for crewed flights to and from the International Space Station as part of our Human Space Flight Support role. USSPACECOM is committed to assuring the safe exploration of space and is supporting NASA's planned Lunar missions by providing crew and spacecraft recovery for the upcoming Artemis program and associated training events.” [emphasis added] [23]

Sadly, official DoD guidance has yet to anticipate or even mention space rescue as a possible future contingency. However, this has not stopped forward-leaning military space professionals from looking into space rescue as a service responsibility.

Some might interpret that as applying only to terrestrial support and flight tracking. However, remarks of his deputy at the time, Lieutenant General John E. Shaw, in an article contradict such an interpretation, stating unambiguously, “As civil organizations from the international community expand human presence further into the AOR in the name of peaceful exploration, the need to recover astronauts in distress will become more complex and far-reaching. Currently, U.S. Space Command is charged with human spaceflight support and actively supports launch and recovery operations of US-based crewed spaceflight. As humankind continues to travel further out from the most special place in the cosmos, the command will be ready to execute its responsibility for the human spaceflight support mission.” [24]

But combatant commands can only employ the forces they are given. Those forces and capabilities are organized, trained, equipped, and presented by military services. The preponderance of forces supplied to USSPACECOM come from the United States Space Force, a service-level organization which organizes, trains, and equips space forces in support of combatant commands, and is legislatively assigned duties that include “protect the interests of the United States in space.”[25] We have already seen that the USSF is clearly tasked to perform PR per 5100.01, but some might argue this concerns PR operations on Earth. Nevertheless, there is clear evidence that the USSF anticipates they will need to perform in-space PR.

For example, the USSF Capstone Publication, SpacePower: Doctrine for Space Forces, [26] articulates Space Security as its primary core competency: “Space Security establishes and promotes stable conditions for the safe and secure access to space activities for civil, commercial, intelligence community, and multinational partners, a task that includes “sharing information and domain awareness, developing self-protection capabilities, coordinating anomaly resolution support, maneuver de-confliction, EMS monitoring, protecting lines of communication and national space commerce.”[27] It is difficult to see how Space Security and “protecting lines of communication and national space commerce” could be accomplished without the inclusion of PR.

In fact, the USSF is already partnering with other organizations to anticipate and explore potential PR requirements in the Space Domain, including DIU, AFRL, AFIT, and NASA.

For example, a report by the Space Force, Defense Innovation Unit (DIU), and Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL), The State of the Space Industrial Base 2021 Report, summarizes insights from a USSF Space Futures Workshop, anticipating, “by 2040, USSF missions may include… transport across the Cislunar domain to ensure freedom of civil, commercial, military operations; environmental monitoring, stewardship and debris clean-up; protection of critical space national infrastructure; enforcing space law and norms of behavior; Search and Rescue / Personnel Recovery (PR) / Non-Combatant Evacuation (NEO); and planetary defense.” [emphasis added] [28]

space lines of commerce
Protect and Defend Space Lines of Commerce[29] (credit: DIU)

The same report outlines an operational view (see figure above) demonstrating a broad cislunar economy, lines of commerce, and specifically calls out “protect and defend” missions including rescue and non-combatant evacuation.

The USSF also established a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with NASA that specified cooperative areas as search, rescue, and recovery operations for human spaceflight and “capabilities and practices enabling safe, sustained, near-Earth and cislunar operations.”[30] Moreover, the MOU recognized expanded USSF responsibilities, which encompass astronaut survival, and the need to develop commensurate capabilities: “When established in December 2019, USSF was tasked with defending and protecting U.S. interests in space. Until now, the limits of that mission have been in near Earth, out to approximately geostationary range (22,236 miles). With new U.S. public and private sector operations extending into cislunar space — more than a tenfold increase in range and 1,000-fold expansion in service volume. USSF now has an even greater surveillance task for space domain awareness (SDA) in that region, but its current capabilities and architectures are limited by technologies and architecture designed for a legacy mission.” [31]

It is highly significant that the USSF, which is tasked with organizing, training, equipping, and presenting space forces has displayed such interest, as it would be the principal arm to develop and field future space rescue forces. Of course, the USSF cannot assist NASA, and cannot support USSPACECOM without capability, and cannot develop capability in the absence of a specified mission and requirement. And it is not the service but the combatant command that establishes the requirements for capabilities. Thus, although interested, it is unlikely that Space Force would prioritize efforts without a demand signal from their combatant command who owns geographic responsibility for space, USSPACECOM.

In summary, apex-level policy strongly suggests there is already at least an implied DoD task to conduct PR in the space domain, and that both the relevant service, the USSF, and the relevant combatant command USSPACECOM are already anticipating in-space PR operations.

Why then is this activity limited to rhetorical documents that “admire the problem” and not formal taskings that directly address it? Why then, don’t we have formal assignment of tasks, concepts of operations (CONOPS), formal requirements, conceptual plans (CONPLANS), science and technology requirements, and capabilities already in development? There is clearly a policy gap that needs to be addressed in multiple documents. The Air Force Institute of Technology is acting as the integrator for these key focus areas, with the intent of providing a thorough analysis for senior leaders to make data-driven decisions on resource prioritization and policy adaptation.

AFIT gap analysis

To develop capabilities, the DoD follows a typical waterfall development model, where policy drives missions and outcomes, missions drive concepts and plans, concepts and plans drive requirements. All of this is specified in formal documents, and a break anywhere in this chain can result in no capability. Seen from the bottom, services ask, “what skills and systems they should develop?” They look to validated JCIDS requirements. When they ask, “what are their requirements?” they point to COCOM concepts and plans. When COCOMs ask, “what should we plan for?” they look to the JSCP and UCP. When the Joint Staff asks, “what plans should we task?” they look to the GEF. When DoD asks, “what guidance should we give to the force [in the GEF]?” they look to apex policy such as the NSS. Where then are the gaps that undermine America’s readiness to perform in-space PR and rescue on timelines commensurate with our broader national strategy of developing a safe and secure in-space economy?

In-space PR or rescue is nowhere a specified mission in law. In-space PR or rescue is it specified as a mission for DoD in apex policy documents such as the NSS, or NSP. This leads to ambiguity as to whether the DoD has such a responsibility.

In-space PR and rescue are not discussed in apex documents that specify roles and missions, specify end states, and specify plans. DoDI 5100.01 does not assign in-space responsibilities for PR to organizations such as USSPACECOM or USSF. The GEF does not specify the ability to rescue US, allied, and partner astronauts as an end state for the Space AOR to meet critical timelines alongside Artemis mission execution. The UCP does not specify in-space PR and rescue as a task to USSPACECOM. DoD space-specific policy documents such as the DSS, DoDI 3100.10, and JP3-14 also do not address in-space PR and rescue.

Perhaps most critically, the Joint Strategic Capabilities Plan (JSCP) has not directed USSPACECOM or USSF to produce a Concept Plan (CONPLAN) and Concept of Operations (CONOPS) that would drive USSPACECOM to develop formal requirements. The lack of COCOM (USSPACECOM) articulated requirements means no formal Joint Capabilities Integration and Development System (JCIDS) proposals have been submitted for validation by the Joint Requirement Oversight Council (JROC). The absence of JROC validated requirements provides no authorized basis to drive service research and development, acquisition, and training by services (such as the USSF).

This has resulted in a common high-level perception is that DoD is obligated but not tasked. Implied tasks must transition to directed tasks as the reality of human spaceflight becomes clear.

Civilian policymakers could address the gap. Congress could establish PR and rescue as a specified mission in law. A presidential administration could establish PR or rescue as a specified mission in any of its apex documents such as the NSS or NSP, national strategy, policy directive, or executive order. Because the President signs the UCP, they could specify responsibility for in-space PR and rescue to USSPACECOM in a future revision.

However, the DoD is not without agency. It is standard practice and doctrine in the context of joint planning to conduct mission analysis to decompose higher level guidance to derive implied tasks. The DoD has authority to alter its internal documents to provide subordinate guidance. It need not, and should not, wait.

USSPACECOM is in a unique position to suggest language for legislation and policy (such as the GEF, UCP, JSCP). USSPACEOM can request direct PR related tasking; it can nominate a requirement to the JROC; it could provide direction to the USSF to develop such CONOPS. USSPACECOM validates requirements for the services to support the demand of their geographic region, based on intelligence, threats and the national security strategy. In lieu of said requirement, the USSF is unlikely to prioritize resources or seek budgetary leeway for unfunded tasks like in-space rescue. These problems require intense analysis to give SPACECOM and USSF leaders some decision space before this mission approaches their doorstep. Historical events suggest they will be expected to execute the mission with precision, with little notice, in a volatile and austere environment, despite their lack of mission readiness in this area. Either scenario requires knowing the exact policies to update, and must have a starting point to develop plans and capabilities.

Toward that end, the Air Force Institute of Technology is conducting intensive research to propel human spaceflight recovery policy and guidance beyond 2030 and to prepare senior government leaders for inevitable space contingencies. The project, titled “Lunar Search and Rescue: The Next Step for Human Spaceflight Recovery,” consolidates inputs from public and private experts working in the fields of personnel recovery, space operations, positioning, navigation, and timing. The AFIT study seeks to inform DoD leaders to make data-driven decisions so they may leverage technological developments and synergize joint interagency efforts while minimizing duplicative efforts. AFIT researchers have concluded that a top-down review is necessary to align the executive branch of government to support national objectives. National level objectives must be translated through DoD policy assigning clear duties and responsibilities, to Joint Staff directed plans, to JROC-approved requirements, into technology development, acquisition and force development. The above outlines a proactive approach to develop such a capability. But why take such action since no problem has yet arisen? All actions involve costs. From here we develop a sense of the costs of inaction.

China’s space rescue program

National strategy and rescue capability

China’s national strategy and approach to space isolation is aggressive and historically dependable. The US China Economic and Security Review Commission (USCC) assesses that “Central to China’s economic and strategic goals in space is establishing a commanding position in cislunar space—the space within the moon’s orbit of Earth—to reap the benefits of what Beijing views as its strategic value and the vast potential of the future space-based economy.” The report continues: “Beijing has specific plans not merely to explore space, but to industrially dominate the space within the Moon’s orbit of Earth. China has invested significant resources in exploring the national security and economic value of this area, including its potential for space-based manufacturing, resource extraction, and power generation.”[32] Toward that end, “China has devoted considerable resources to developing technology, especially through its human spaceflight program, to reap the long-term benefits of a sustained presence in cislunar space.”[33] Already, China has put in place a repeater satellite in a halo orbit around the Earth-Moon Lagrange Point 2, enabling communications with the farside of the Moon and likely into the shadowed regions of the poles where resource activity for water extraction is likely. China has announced plans with Russia for a joint International Lunar Research Station (ILRS), published a partnership guide, and invited all nations to participate.[34] China is expected to begin crewed operations in the 2030s[35] but appears to be accelerating its efforts toward an early human landing.[36]

China rescue of US astronauts

China has demonstrated a willingness to manipulate legal arguments to advance their national agenda through tactical actions that carry strategic impacts. While the space treaty established the obligation to aid an astronaut in distress, China’s terrestrial actions indicate they don’t hesitate to exploit any advantage, in spite of negative worldview perceptions. The environment is potentially more hazardous to the astronaut than any adversary in space. “Render aid” may seem altruistic, but it fails to address the vulnerability of neighboring nations rescuing US astronauts without coordination. There is an inherent risk when adversaries share space; it is not uncommon for nations to conduct non-attributable, nefarious activities that create a survival situation for their adversaries and competitors. These conditions provide an opportunity to “render aid” and rescue astronauts in distress, which ironically shares the same logistic properties as foreign governmental detention. While this may seem outlandish, it has occurred on Earth.

China could accelerate its prophetic space agenda if they were to rescue a United States astronaut in space.

The Navy EP-3 incident on April 1, 2001 provides arguably the most salient vignette for Chinese national exploitation of US government officials in detention. A United States Navy EP-3 surveillance plane flew 70 nautical miles (130 kilometers) southeast of China’s Hainan Island. Two F-8 fighter jets intercepted the crew. One fighter jet made contact with the EP-3 resulting in the loss of the F-8 and an emergency landing for the EP-3. The crew made between 25 and 30 mayday calls over the radio without response, leading to an emergency landing in China. China detained the crew and dissected the aircraft to collect intelligence.

The United States offered a formal apology letter and paid $34,567 in reparations after eleven days of interrogation to secure the safe return of the aircrew.[37] China was willing to cause an isolating event to keep America away from what China perceived as its sovereign domain. There are similar concerns in space, especially when competing over finite Lunar resources and congested orbital highways. Already, the space agencies from America and China have announced overlapping points of interest to exploit in the Moon’s southern polar region, opening the door for inevitable friction.

China could accelerate its prophetic space agenda if they were to rescue a United States astronaut in space. Russia and China are investing resources toward their joint lunar base, set for completion in the 2030s. The former chief of Russia’s space agency promoted a state-sponsored video that simulated cosmonauts separating their portion of the station and leaving the American astronaut in space to fend for himself. Global speculation suggested that Russia would abandon the live astronaut waiting for a Russian spacecraft to return him to Earth due to political disagreements and US sanctions over the war in Ukraine.[38] State policies, rhetoric, and lunar agreements indicate that the alliance between China and Russia competes with the Artemis signatories.

Both groups are eager to explore the Moon and Mars to find resources, specifically ice, necessary for rocket fuel and permanent habitation. The Moon is legally very similar to Antarctica. Suppose territorial disputes over the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea are not isolated incidents. In that case, it is reasonable to predict conflict over strategic base placement, including routes to and from resources. If this becomes a source of friction, it is reasonable to predict the behaviors of each state using game theory. The recent disagreements with China over the Spratly Islands and Taiwan tell indicate how both nations will approach future conflict. China has partnered with Russia, despite their unilateral globally condemned actions in Georgia, Crimea, and Ukraine. Our terrestrial international relations leave much to ponder for the destiny of the Moon.

The United States has shared operational space with both China and Russia to include deconfliction efforts to fight ISIS terrorists in the same battle space. What have been the results? Russia deliberately jammed US military communications and navigation signals in Syria, consequently threatening the lives of coalition forces, despite expressing non-intent and making claims of non-attribution.[39] China maintains a hostile posture towards aircraft and naval vessels traveling in international spaces near the manufactured dredged islands in the Spratly Island region of the South China Sea. Russia and China have demonstrated the will to escalate tensions in all shared spaces with American government interests. It is unclear if terrestrial conflict trends manifest in Cislunar space, but international policy experts regularly opine on this topic.

China as a world leader in space rescue

China has the will, the motivation, and the capability to lead in-space rescue efforts. China maintains a search and rescue spacecraft and team, poised to respond for all crewed space missions. Jia Shijin, chief designer of the crewed spacecraft system under the China Academy of Space Technology (CAST), explained, “If the spaceship in space is out of order and can’t return, then we’ll quickly launch this rescue spaceship, which can enter orbit in a very short time and bring the astronauts back to Earth.”[40] China appears to have built its program after observing the Columbia disaster in 2003, where the shuttle received damage on launch, which led to a fatal reentry. An in-space rescue effort may have prevented this catastrophe. The US government failed to authorize, fund, or contract an in-space rescue capability despite the lessons learned from the Columbia disaster and growing demands due to the proliferation of human space exploration.

While the United States presently has a significant number of partners in its Artemis Accords,[41] the PRC appears to be offering many incentives to join its efforts in space development. Incentives range from low-end capacity building of satellites, inducements to the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) Space Information Corridor[42] and its new Space Station,[43] and its International Lunar Research Station (ILRS).

Proposed Chinese-Russian International Lunar Research Station (credit: CNSA)

The PRC can set long-term timelines and shows a remarkable ability to meet its announced deadlines. In sharp contrast, the United States suffers from frequent delays and missed deadlines for slow-to-act programs and multiple reversals. Already, the PRC appears to be making a bid to be the world leader in lunar search and rescue, including hosting the first lunar search and rescue conference. “The Party leaders, for their part, see the rivalry with the United States primarily on an ideological level. The competition with Washington is therefore not only about material dominance but also about imposing values, norms and institutions on the adversary.”[44] The conference design sets conditions for China to establish international norms, tactics, techniques, and procedures for a permanent and sustainable lunar search and rescue organization, with the PRC at the head of the coalition.


  1. The National Defense Strategy lists the People’s Republic of China (PRC) as “our most consequential strategic competitor and the pacing challenge for the Department as the pacing challenge,” specifies the need for “Mutually-beneficial Alliances and partnerships are an enduring strength for the United States,” and identifies the need to align Department activities with other instruments of national power, to undermine acute forms of competitor coercion, campaigning to “strengthen deterrence and enable us to gain advantages against the full range of competitors’ coercive actions” and “Building enduring advantages for the future Joint Force involves undertaking reforms to accelerate force development, getting the technology we need more quickly.”; Department of Defense, “Fact Sheet: 2022 National Defense Strategy,” Defense Media, March 28, 2022.
  2. U.S.-China Economic and Security Commission, “2019 Report to Congress,” USCC, November 2019.
  3. J. Olson, S. Butow, E. Felt, & T. Cooley, “State Of The Space Industrial Base 2022: Winning the New Space Race for Sustainability, Prosperity and the Planet,” Defense Media, August 2022,
  4. Joint Staff. “JP 3-50 Personnel Recovery,” Washington Headquarters Services, October 2, 2015.
  5. Department of Defense, “CJCSI 3440.01E,” Joint Chiefs of Staff Portal, March 30, 2015.
  6. James H. Dickinson, “United States Space Command Presentation To The Senate Armed Services Committee U.S. Senate,” U.S. Senate, March 1, 2022.
  7. NASA, “The Artemis Accords: Principles for a Safe, Peaceful, and Prosperous Future,” NASA, July 9, 2022.
  8. White House, “National Security Strategy of the United States of America,” Trump White House Archives, December 18, 2017.
  9. White House, “Interim National Security Strategic Guidance,” White House, March, 2021.
  10. White House, ”Space Priorities Framework,” White House, December 1, 2021.
  11. Ibid.
  12. White House, “National Space Policy United States Of America,” Trump White House Archives, December 9, 2020.
  13. Ibid.
  14. James H. Dickinson, “United States Space Command Presentation To The Senate Armed Services Committee U.S. Senate,” U.S. Senate, March 1, 2022.
  15. DoD, DoD Directive (DoDD) 5100.1 Functions of the Department of Defense and Its Major Components, Washington Headquarters Services, September 17, 2020.
  16. Ibid.
  17. Ibid.
  18. Ibid.
  19. DOD, Defense Space Strategy Summary, Defense Media, June 17, 2020.
  20. DoD, “DOD Directive 3100.10 Space Policy,” Washington Headquarters Services, August 30, 2022.
  21. Joint Staff, “JP 3-14, Space Operations,” Joint Staff, October 26, 2020.
  22. James H. Dickinson, “United States Space Command Presentation To The Senate Armed Services Committee U.S. Senate,” U.S. Senate, March 1, 2022.
  23. James H. Dickinson, “Fiscal Year 2023 Priorities and Posture of United States Space Command,” U.S. Senate, March 1, 2022.
  24. Shaw, J., Purgason, J., Soileau, A. (2022). “Sailing the New Wine-Dark Sea,” Aether, Spring 2022, P. 43.
  25. Congress, “PUBLIC LAW 116–92,” Gov Info, December. 20, 2019, page 366 [Section 9081c].
  26. U.S. Space Force, “Spacepower: Doctrine for Space Forces,” Space Force, August 10, 2020/
  27. U.S. Space Force, “Spacepower: Doctrine for Space Forces,” August 10, 2020, Pages xiv, 34-35
  28. J. Olson, S. Butow, E. Felt, & T. Cooley, “State Of The Space Industrial Base 2022: Winning the New Space Race for Sustainability, Prosperity and the Planet,” Defense Media, August 2022, page 41.
  29. Ibid.
  30. NASA & USSF, “Memorandum of Understanding Between the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the United States Space Force”, NASA, Sept 21, 2020.
  31. Ibid.
  32. U.S.-China Ecnomic and Security Commission, “2019 Report to Congress,” USCC, November 2019, Pages 362 & 16.
  33. Xinhua, “Relay satellite Queqiao plays key role in exploring moon's far side,” China Daily, January 6, 2019.
  34. China National Space Administration (CNSA), International Lunar Research Station (ILRS) Guide for Partnership, July 9, 2022.
  35. DIA (2022). “Challenges to Security in Space.” Page 13.
  36. Eric Berger, “China may use an existing rocket to speed up plans for a human Moon mission,” Ars Technica, September 2, 2021.
  37. Eric Donnelly, “The United States-China EP-3 Incident: Legality and ‘Realpolitik,’” Journal of Conflict & Security Law (Vol. 9, Issue 1), Spring 2004.
  38. Morgan McFall-Johnsen, “Russia and NASA have been on edge for years. Threats to leave the International Space Station are no surprise,” Business Insider, July 2022/
  39. Lara Seligman, “Russian Jamming Poses a Growing Threat to U.S. Troops in Syria,” Foreign Policy, July 30, 2018.
  40. Andrew Jones, “China's next crewed spacecraft is ready for potential space station rescue mission,”, June 07, 2022.
  41. NASA, “The Artemis Accords: Principles for a Safe, Peaceful, and Prosperous Future,” NASA, July 9, 2022.
  42. Hui Jiang (2019). “Programme and Development of the ‘Belt and Road’ Space Information Corridor. UNOOSA,” UNOOSA, April, 2019.
  43. William Zheng and Mia Castagnone, “China opens space station door to working with foreign astronauts,” South China Morning Post, April 18, 2022.
  44. Paul Charon, “Strategic Foresight in China.” European Union, Institute for Security Studies, March 2021.

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