WASHINGTON — The U.S. needs to flex its space muscles in the face of China’s lunar ambitions, argues a new report from the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies released Jan. 17. 

More specifically, the U.S. military should step up collaboration with NASA and support the development of infrastructure for scientific and economic activities in cislunar space, “as well as the means to secure those activities from potential threats such as territorial claims and irresponsible or hostile behavior,” writes Charles Galbreath, senior fellow for space studies at the Mitchell Institute.

Cislunar space — the region of space between Earth and the orbit of the moon — is becoming increasingly important strategically and economically due to potential lunar exploration, space mining and other commercial efforts poised to ramp up in the coming years. 

“The DoD must establish an infrastructure for the cislunar regime extending the types of services and capabilities currently in operation closer to Earth, such as space domain awareness, high bandwidth communications and cislunar navigation technologies,” the report contends.

Galbreath suggests that DoD needs an additional $250 million in annual funding to devote to cislunar space activities. 

“Modest, early investment will simultaneously accelerate U.S. efforts and reduce the future need for larger investments to overcome a Chinese advantage,” he said. 

While doing research for the paper, Galbreath spoke with U.S. Space Force leaders, “and none of them disagreed with the importance of cislunar space or the role that the military will ultimately have to have there,” he said. But they don’t have the resources to pursue these initiatives. “They don’t have enough funds to get after the threats they’re facing today, let alone prepare for something that will happen down the road.” 

He hopes Congress in the future turns more attention to this issue and adds funding in future budgets. “Taking small steps now to establish the infrastructure that we need to support the civil and the commercial activities will honestly be the best way to avert the need for a huge expenditure later,” he said. 

NASA and DoD have a history of collaboration

At a Mitchell Institute online forum Jan. 17, former NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine endorsed the report’s recommendations. He said DoD investments in sensors, communications and navigation systems are “the right approach” because they are “non combative in nature and increase transparency.”

Bridenstine said he sees continued cooperation between NASA and DoD. “When you think about the history of NASA and the Department of Defense, going back to the Apollo era, there’s been a lot of collaboration,” he said. “Even today, a lot of our astronauts come from the United States military, from all branches. So I think the collaboration is there.”

He noted that “NASA is not a tool of military power … but NASA is a tool of diplomatic power and economic power, and all of those things are not achievable without the security in place. So I think largely NASA understands that security is critically important. And I think they welcome the idea of having domain awareness, communications architectures, and navigation capability.”

Sandra Erwin writes about military space programs, policy, technology and the industry that supports this sector. She has covered the military, the Pentagon, Congress and the defense industry for nearly two decades as editor of NDIA’s National Defense...