Fifty years after the conclusion of the Apollo program — arguably the greatest technological achievement in human history — the eyes of the entire world are once again fixed upon the moon following Artemis 1’s recent success.
Today, we are on the cusp of a new, global space race unfolding at unimaginable speed: a competition for leadership to forge a prosperous and enduring cislunar presence. To win this race, we’ll need masterful planning of myriad efforts along a common course that doesn’t end at just one finish line.
Cislunar space unlocks a world of new opportunities, anchoring the prospects for a robust future space economy and affording advantages for space science and exploration. This region of space — extending 500,000 kilometers out from Earth, encompassing the moon, and under the gravitational influence of both bodies — features stable orbits for greater positioning, navigation, observation, and communications capabilities.
Decades ago, only two nations could hope to reap such benefits. Today, the moon represents the next frontier of development for several nations and even more private companies. In the United States alone, at least 10 federal organizations and more than 70 commercial companies are already investing in cislunar capabilities, with new players and objectives emerging daily.
The U.S. National Space Policy explicitly aims to “extend human economic activity into deep space by establishing a permanent human presence on the moon.” November’s National Cislunar Science & Technology Strategy sets additional, clear expectations that the U.S. “lead the world in responsible, peaceful and sustainable exploration and utilization of Cislunar space.” To meet these expectations, the U.S. must ensure the interoperability of its own cislunar investments, as other spacefaring nations also seek to lead in cislunar space.
This immense, complex undertaking will require many novel solutions, policies, standards, and even international treaties. Fortunately, the U.S. excels at complex space missions. Building on that continued success, we must develop an integrated cislunar planning process that’s executed by a coalition of U.S. government and private-sector partners, similar to how communities or industrial parks are developed on Earth. This planning process should remain responsive to the needs, equities, dependencies, and requirements of diverse stakeholders while balancing and trading cost, schedule, capability, and risk.
This does not mean we need a static master document, printed and bound, to dictate what we build on and around the moon. That would be doomed to gather dust among other obsolete reports when it fails to evolve as needs change. An open-source, public, dynamic, and transparent planning process is needed that flexes to harmonize the emerging components and needs of a cislunar ecosystem.
Integrated master planning would prioritize safety, sustainability, interoperability, and security, and it would focus on 12 foundational layers of infrastructure. Specifically, we must quickly build the communications, navigation, and power infrastructure needed to support all the other utilities in a sustainable ecosystem.
Foundational layers of infrastructure for a sustainable cislunar ecosystem
To get going, the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) has formed a Cislunar Ecosystem Task Force for industry, government, and academic stakeholders across the space community to collaborate and integrate planning for cislunar space, starting with mission-critical communications, power, and transportation infrastructure.
The mission to build an industry-driven economy in cislunar space is ambitious and greater in scope than other similar efforts for cislunar space development. This joint, ongoing effort with AIAA will dynamically foster cislunar innovation by developing and supporting shared taxonomies, risk assessments, and technology maturation.
AIAA and The Aerospace Corporation invite national space companies to bring their expertise, join this task force, and coordinate efforts to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills in establishing U.S. leadership in cislunar space.
While our national cislunar objectives are unprecedented, they invite an approach similar to how government and private enterprise have historically cooperated to drive America’s greatest achievements in exploring and settling new frontiers. Westward expansion, the transcontinental railroad, and the advent of mainstream air travel all initially emerged from innovation-friendly environments as solutions to government needs. Today, we all reap the compounded benefits of those investments.
Just as the U.S. did then, we will come together to take on these daunting yet exciting challenges. There is no question we are on a path to building a sustainable human presence on the moon. With planning and coordination, we’ll ensure cislunar investments are working to the same ends: to explore space more profoundly than ever before, create economic opportunity for our citizens and private industry, and enhance our national security in the process.
The late, great New York Yankee Yogi Berra once quipped, “If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll end up somewhere else.” However, if we do this right, we will do far more than win a race; we will establish a safe, sustainable, and secure cislunar ecosystem, further expanding our collective knowledge of science, engineering, our universe, and ourselves. To do it right, we must plan together, but if we do not step up to the plate now, someone else will.
James Myers is the senior vice president of civil systems at The Aerospace Corporation, which operates a federally funded research and development center for the U.S. space enterprise.
This article originally appeared in the March 2023 issue of SpaceNews magazine.