The US should secure strategic positions between the Earth and the Moon before China

Recently, the House Select Committee on the Strategic Competition Between the United States and the Chinese Communist Party issued the report: “Reset, Prevent, Build: A Strategy to Win America’s Competition with the Chinese Communist Party.” 

One of its recommendations concerns how the United States military could secure the Earth-moon Lagrange Points — areas where the gravities of the Earth and moon cancel out — against the Chinese.

“Fund NASA’s and the Department of Defense’s programs that are critical to countering the CCP’s malign ambitions in space, including by ensuring the United States is the first country to permanently station assets at all Lagrange Points.”

What those assets might be and how they might secure the Lagrange Points the committee leaves for NASA and DOD to figure out. 

An article in Ars Technica suggests putting up satellites at the L1 and L2 points, which are near the moon, and at the L4 and L5 points, which are 60 degrees ahead and behind the moon’s 360-degree orbit around the Earth. These satellites can be used for communications relay, navigation, observation and so on. 

The Chinese have already deployed the Queqiao satellite at L2, over the far side of the moon, to relay communications between probes on the lunar surface there and the Earth.

Going forward, the goal of securing the Earth-moon Lagrange Points will not be accomplished by mere satellites. Satellites can malfunction. They may even come to grief through enemy action, either covertly or openly.

That is where the SpaceX Starship comes in.

Starship, the massive rocket being developed by SpaceX at its Starbase facility in southern Texas, will be able to loft as much as 150 tons to low Earth orbit and, with refueling, to the moon and Mars. It is the center of NASA’s plan to land astronauts on the lunar surface and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk’s dream of building a Mars settlement. 

With some tweaking, the Starship could become the perfect instrument for Congress’s mandate to secure the Earth-Moon Lagrange points.

With NASA planning to phase out the International Space Station, discussions are already ongoing to replace it with one or more commercially run space stations. One such concept involves outfitting a Starship as a space station that can be launched all at once instead of being assembled by several launches of modules.

One way to secure the Earth-moon Lagrange Points with Starships is to not so much use Starship-derived space stations but instead to use Starships in the same way that the United States Navy stations warships at strategic points on the ocean to protect trade routes and to show the flag off the coasts on enemy countries.

The Starships would be equipped with all of the communication relay, navigation and observation instruments that the initial satellites would come with. They would also be armed for self-defense since an enemy (read China) would likely object to their presence at what amounts to strategic points in cis-lunar space.

Two problems must be solved before Starships can be employed as space-going warships stationed long-term at the Lagrange Points.

The first problem is that of propellant boiloff, caused by heating cryogenic fuels such as the liquid oxygen and liquid methane used by Starships. The problem can be addressed either by passive insulation, active chilling of the propellants or a combination of both.

The other problem concerns what kind of defensive weapons these Space Force Starships should be armed with. Missiles or other projectile weapons would create space debris out of their targets, which is why the White House has banned the testing of such weapons. Direct energy lasers, cyberweapons or jamming that disable rather than destroy threatening spacecraft would be preferred. Vehicles that latch on to enemy space assets, especially after they have been rendered inert, and move them safely away would also work.

The Starships could be crewed or uncrewed. Crews on a Starship could spend their time performing experiments and developing technology geared toward defense needs, Also, periodically, the entire Starship can be brought back to Earth for repair and refit, to be replaced by another Starship.

The congressional mandate to secure the Earth-moon Lagrange Points would cause accusations of weaponizing space from certain quarters. However, with China still developing anti-satellite weapons, space has already been weaponized. 

A strategy of securing the Earth-moon Lagrange Points with armed vessels would do more to maintain peace through strength in space than any treaty, which can always be broken, can do alone.

Mark R. Whittington, who writes frequently about space policy, has published a political study of space exploration entitled “Why is It So Hard to Go Back to the Moon?” as well as “The Moon, Mars and Beyond,” and, most recently, “Why is America Going Back to the Moon?” He blogs at Curmudgeons Corner.  

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