Stratfor has previously highlighted the importance of commercial and military applications of space travel and space technology. Although the strategies employed change over time and between administrations, maintaining its role as a leader in such technologies is an imperative for the United States — especially as space becomes increasingly crowded.
The new U.S. presidential administration is rolling out a new, but familiar, approach to space exploration and related policy. On Oct. 5, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence led the inaugural session of the National Space Council's latest iteration. The meeting was the council's first in more than 20 years, enabled by U.S. President Donald Trump's decision to reinstate the long-dormant program in June. Although the council directs U.S. space policy, it can't set budgets or pass laws. At today's meeting, key stakeholders from the civil, commercial and military spheres presented testimony advocating their goals and interests regarding space development and exploration. Pence, for his part, outlined the administration's aims in an op-ed published in the Wall Street Journal earlier in the day that focused on, among other things, a shift in focus from conquering Mars to returning to the moon.
The shift was not a secret or a surprise. Many private space companies have already unveiled programs geared toward returning to the moon. Many of the technologies used to return to the moon will also be applicable for a mission to Mars. Travelling to the much nearer celestial body will enable the development of new technologies and the redevelopment of existing ones that will be necessary to explore targets farther away, such as a trip to Mars or even interstellar travel. Although some challenges are unique to interplanetary travel, developing lunar travel could enable fledgling private space companies to be better prepared for an eventual trip to Mars.
The list of entities with viable space programs has changed substantially since the United States made its first trips to the moon in 1969 and in the 1970s. The moon has been deemed a strategic asset by the Trump administration, but it's also become the focus of other nations such as China. The United States is just one of many nations for which a competitive space program remains an important strategic goal. International and the national regulations were among the topics discussed at the Oct. 5 council session. As more countries become involved in space exploration, international regulations and laws will need to adapt.
But it's not just national programs that can influence space exploration and development. In his op-ed, the vice president also alluded to continued reliance on private space companies to maintain U.S. dominance in space. The commercial space sector will be vital to the United States reaching its targets, whether they're focused on the moon or on Mars.