Strategic Rationale for Deep Space Operations

By Christopher Jefferson, Brain Hans, and Joshua Wehrle 

Editor’s Note: This is a brief introduction to the rationale for why the United State should develop technologies which enable deep space operations. If interested in additional arguments for deep space operations and ways to pursue advanced propulsion systems, please see here (must access from a .mil domain).

“[T]he mind of man is aroused by the thought of exploring the mysteries of outer space, and through such exploration man hopes to broaden his horizons, add to his knowledge, and improve his way of living.” – President Dwight Eisenhower

Deep space exploration is one of the most important endeavors civilization can undertake. For the purpose of this discussion, deep space is the portion of outer space that is beyond geosynchronous orbit (i.e., greater than 22,236 miles above Earth). Humankind must extend its reach into the solar system for at least two reasons. First, history demonstrates that exploring new frontiers is necessary to generate new waves of technological advancements for the betterment of human civilization. Second, deep space capabilities help protect and advance national security interests by providing assured access to space.

Historical Examples of Driving Technological Advancements

The American western expansion is the first example that illustrates the importance of exploring new frontiers. Theodore Roosevelt described the effort as “the great leap westward.” From 1800 to 1900, the United States tripled in size and the geographic distribution of the population shifted from about seven percent living in the west to roughly sixty percent.

Similar to the manner in which the American west was unchartered territory, the deep space frontier is largely untapped today – the importance of transportation is an applicable lesson. The decrease in transportation costs aided the American expansion west. More specifically, the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869 facilitated the westward expansion. In fact, before the transcontinental railroad, the journey across mountains, plains, rivers, and deserts was extremely risky. This example shows that while transportation was initially the main hurdle, it ultimately became the key enabler for reaching the new territories. Similarly, deep space is uncharted territory, and transportation is currently the main hurdle but will ultimately be the key enabler. Exploring a new frontier forces civilization to reach new heights and develop new technologies that will improve human existence.

The birth of the space age also illustrates the importance of exploring new frontiers. On October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, placing the first man-made object into space. The Soviet’s technological achievement surprised the United States, so the U.S. doubled its efforts to catch up with the Soviets – marking the beginning of the space race. In early 1958, Explorer became the first U.S. satellite to orbit the Earth. The Soviets went on to achieve a series of other firsts in the 1950s and 1960s, including the “first man in space, first woman, first three men, first space-walk, first spacecraft to impact the moon, first to orbit the moon, first to impact Venus, and first craft to soft-land on the moon.” The U.S. then took a leap ahead in the 1960s with the Apollo lunar-landing program. Historical context frames the importance of deep space exploration by explaining the key parallels and important lessons for today.

Just as there was no way to reach space in the early 1950s, there is no efficient (i.e., fast, efficient, and sustainable) way to reach the deep space frontier today. Transportation was the key enabler for settling the West and jump-starting the space age; today’s parallel is a similar need to create an efficient means of reaching deep space. Transportation is the key element for deep space travel and needs to be a focused priority for the U.S. military and aerospace industry.

Another major lesson is the importance of innovation. The ability to reach space ultimately had a profound impact because it drove innovation and technology. The following are some of the noteworthy inventions and capabilities that came out of the space age: intercontinental ballistic missile technology, advancements in robotics, worldwide communication, smoke detectors, cordless tools, enriched baby food, protective paint, and scratch resistant glasses. An unexplored frontier is the deepest driver of innovation that exists, which means exploring the deep space frontier would likely lead to countless new technologies for the betterment of society.

National Security

Space is a contested domain, meaning the development of systems to maneuver quickly and efficiently through deep space can also help maintain assured access to space. Assured access to space is having sufficient “robust, responsive, and resilient space transportation capabilities available to enable and advance civil and national security missions.” John Hyten, Commander, USSTRATCOM, says that with today’s national reliance on space capabilities, assured access has gone from important to imperative. The Chinese demonstrated the vulnerability of U.S. space assets when they deliberately destroyed a defunct satellite using a ground-based, medium range ballistic missile, proving their weapon capability. Former Secretary of the Air Force, Deborah James, further characterized the risk when she said, “military commanders have fully realized how fundamental space-based effects have become to every military operation in the world – the problem is that U.S. adversaries recognize it as well.” U.S. forces must be able to address these growing threats. Progression of deep space capabilities will help provide assured access to space.

Developing more efficient deep space travel capabilities supports assured access to space. Deep space operations will require a more sustainable, renewable, and efficient fuel source. Once developed, these new technologies can be used on next generation Air Force satellites. Satellite operators will then have the ability to move through space with less concern over fuel consumption, a significant consideration for the lifespan today’s spacecraft. A space asset with better fuel consumption becomes harder to target because it has more maneuverability options and greater reach throughout the space domain.

For future deep space development to be successful, speed is critical. A trip to Mars takes 128-333 days using current means of propulsion. Due in large part to physiological issues, mastery of deep space travel requires significantly shorter travel timelines, which means that deep space assets would, by definition, be faster and likely more maneuverable. Once again, this speed and maneuverability translated to military space assets makes those assets harder to target. Using an example from the air domain, it is easier to attack a C-5 aircraft than an F-35, because the F-35 is faster and more maneuverable. Deep space operations require faster, more efficient modes of travel and that capability makes space assets harder to target. Moreover, deep space operations support assured access to space because these capabilities ensure a more robust national transportation capability. The U.S. should focus on developing new motor and fuel options for deep space travel.

Collaborating with academia and private industry to advance space commerce while ensuring the security and viability of space lines of communication “will create a strategic situation in which the United States is likely to gain and hold the upper hand.” Technology is a fundamental requirement for creating or improving access, maneuver, or effects within or from the space domain. To maintain position an advantage in space, the USAF should invest in further development of new and emerging in-space propulsion technologies while leading a whole-of-government effort to establish requirements and policy guidance to support deep space operations.

Christopher Jefferson has a background in space operations, acquisitions / program management, and engineering. He holds degrees from Wright State University (MBA), University of Wisconsin (Engineering), National Intelligence University (Intelligence Studies), and Air University / Air Command and Staff College (Military Operational Art and Science). Christopher has worked in a variety of jobs including Operations Officer for the NRO – Cape Canaveral AFS, FL, where he led NRO satellite vehicle processing, integration, launch operations, and launch base infrastructure readiness. He is currently an Air University Fellow at Maxwell AFB, AL.

Brian Hans has over 13 years of acquisition and operational experience as a developmental engineer, program manager, and staff officer. He holds degrees in Astronautical and Systems Engineering. Brian has worked in a variety of jobs including satellite development and test, operations, special programs, and staff of U.S. Air Forces Central Command. He is currently a Program Element Monitor assigned to the Assistant Secretary of the Air Force (Acquisition), Directorate of Special Programs.

Josh Wehrle has over 13 years of acquisition and operational experience as an acquisition officer, program manager, and staff officer. He holds degrees in Marketing, Business, and Operational Sciences. Josh has worked in a variety of jobs including satellite development and test, launch operations, aircraft avionics, and staff of various deployed commands. He is currently the EELV Program Element Monitor assigned to the Assistant Secretary of the Air Force (Acquisition), Directorate of Space Programs.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Air Force or the U.S. Government.

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