Op-ed | Russia and America must build a lunar space station

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This op-ed originally appeared in the Dec. 4, 2017 issue of SpaceNews magazine.

A new specter of Russian aggression in Eastern Europe has haunted the United States these last several years. In September, Russia and Belarus mobilized thousands of troops for a joint military exercise, Zapad-17, that put Ukraine and the neighboring Baltic states on edge. NATO, meanwhile, continues to ramp up its own defenses in these former Soviet bloc states.

In the Middle East, Vladimir Putin’s regime is closely aligned with Iran and Syria. In the Asia-Pacific, Russia is extending business and diplomatic ties with China.

Western media give the impression that hostilities between the U.S. and Russian are inevitable.Despite the news coverage, however, there is real evidence suggesting that Russo-American relations may be making a positive turn.

Russia is not the bogeyman it’s often made out to be. Russia’s economy, like Russia itself, is in decline. Considering Russia’s reliance oil prices, it is unlikely to ever fully recover. Russia is also undergoing a dire demographic crisis, the likes of which it will be unable to reverse. Russia is a great power in terminal decline, not a serious threat to the West.

At a time when tensions are at a post-Cold War high with the United States, the Kremlin is floating a joint endeavor to construct a space station in lunar orbit. NASA and Roscosmos agreed in September to “study” collaborating on a so-called Deep Space Gateway that’s also garnered interest from Europe and Japan.

This modest step toward post-ISS cooperation is a stark contrast from 2015, when Russian space officials said they intended to detach Russia’s modules from the station in 2024, and use them to form an independent orbital outpost.

This is a clear example of how space can bridge seemingly insurmountable divisions. Despite differences, Russo-American cooperation in space is a net positive for American national security, particularly considering recent Chinese space achievements.

Right now, China is ascendant. Chinese President Xi Jinping has stated that space is an integral part of realizing his “China Dream” of a “rich country, strong nation” by 2049. China’s space program is part of the Chinese military. Since 2003, the Chinese space program has made impressive strides — they’ve placed astronauts in orbit, developed an array of anti-satellite weapons, and built a small space station.

Meanwhile, China has invested heavily in developing revolutionary technology, including quantum-encrypted satellites for un-hackablecommunications, and the EmDrive, which could theoretically get a manned spacecraft from Earth to Mars in 70 days. China planned to launch its first lunar rover, Chang’e 5, by the end of the year to collect lunar soil samples to determine the viability of a permanent lunar colony. Although the mission has been delayed by July’s Long March 5 failure, China’s intentions remain clear.

For China, a robust space program serves national strategic and economic interests. Russia’s space program has similar underlying motives, but Russia cannot achieve anywhere near what China can because of Russia’s inherent economic weakness (and political instability).

The United States, like Russia, is in relative decline. The American economy is in recovery, but today’s modest growth comes on the heels of eight years of stagnation. It will take much more than a couple of quarters of 2.6 percent GDP growth and 4.3 percent unemployment for America to recover, no matter what President Trump — or the media he loves to deride — says.

Meanwhile, the United States military is overextended and in need of serious rearmament and rest. The last thing the United States should be doing is exacerbating tensions with a declining Russia that, at the end of the day, could be a major asset in defraying the costs of greater space projects (and also would be a useful ally in deterring an increasingly revanchist China).

Also, America’s political system is in disarray. Frankly, while the United States desires to increase its commitment to space, it simply lacks the economic strength or political will to accomplish this on its own. In the last month, the Trump Administration announced its intention to return Americans to the moon and to allow for a greater role of America’s nascent private space sector. For their part, both Republicans and Democrats on the Hill have banded together and called for increased funding to America’s otherwise listless space program (they’ve also insisted that the Pentagon create an independent Space Corps).

Clearly, there is a real, bipartisan commitment to intensifying America’s mostly torpid position in space. However, this support and unity on space policy could radically change in today’s toxic political environment. Yet, if American grand strategy hinged upon an expanded mission in space (which it would if we worked much closer with the Russians than we currently do), and if the costs were kept low, Congress would find it increasingly difficult to abandon the new fascination with space—especially if there was a new private industry that centered around space development, and employed thousands of American voters (and contributed to America’s tax base).

A long-term Russo-American mission in space would not only allow for the cooling of tensions between two nuclear-armed powers, thereby giving relief to an overextended American military, but it would also help to create stability in the international order, by encouraging the United States and Russia to balance against the rising great power of China. Plus, a joint mission to build and maintain a lunar space station would cut down on costs. And such a joint mission would be really cool. These factors would combine to raise the political costs on either political party for cutting America’s commitment to space, as they have in the past.

Geopolitically speaking, Russia shares a common border with a rising China. Irrespective of what Kremlin officials say publicly about their “friendship” with China, the Russians are deeply concerned about the rise of China on their borders, and are looking for ways to counteract the Chinese geostrategically. The United States finds itself increasingly at odds with China over a host of issues—from Taiwan to the South China Sea to North Korea. Any one of these could lead to conflict. China’s increased commitment to developing space as a strategic asset only further threatens America’s tenuous geopolitical position. So, like the Russians, the United States is looking for ways to balance against China’s rise. This is the making of a great new alliance. China’s ambitions. A joint-Russo-American lunar space station would ultimately create the possibility for a cheaper, permanent, manned presence on the moon for the two powers. Having a permanent space station around the moon would allow both the Americans and Russians to test the limits of their technology, and develop interesting new techniques for space exploration — together. It is from such a space station that permanent settlement and large-scale exploration of the moon could commence. And, this kind of station could also serve as the launching-off point for further manned missions deeper into the solar system.

The U.S. has ignored space for too long. It’s time to reset Russo-American relations in space. The U.S. and Russia need to build a joint space station around the moon — before China takes the moon for itself.

Brandon J. Weichert is a geopolitical analyst who manages The Weichert Report and is a contributing editor at American Greatness.