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The military is preparing for a ‘space superhighway,’ complete with pit stops

space highways (NASA/Released)
October 23, 2021

Like any family road trip, future missions to the moon and beyond may require a few pit stops.

U.S. Transportation Command and the U.S. Space Force see a future space superhighway system where the United States, commercial partners, and allies would be able to make repeat, regular trips to the moon or beyond by using multiple hubs where they could gas up, have maintenance done, and even throw out their trash.

Now they’re thinking about getting those orbiting pit stops up and running sooner rather than later. Because it’s not just about making the 238,855-mile lunar journey a little more comfortable. It’s about preventing China from building the hubs first.

“There’s a first-mover advantage here,” Space Force Brig. Gen. John Olson said Wednesday at a panel with TRANSCOM at a National Defense Transportation Association seminar on space logistics.

“We’ve seen stated policies, particularly by the Chinese,” on their space ambitions, Olson said. “I aim to help lead our nation forward in close collaboration with TRANSCOM and our other broad leadership elements to bring this into fruition first.”

“Because that way, we set the standard, we set the doctrine, the governance among the principles that we believe in,” he said. “And much like English is the language of the International Civil Aviation Organization, for space, I believe it needs to be English for space transportation and these broad logistics elements and transportation elements, not Mandarin.”

The U.S. and China are already in a not-so-subtle race to get back to the moon. The first one there will get first picks of coveted lunar real estate, where a moon base could access life-sustaining water ice.

The 1967 Treaty on Outer Space doesn’t allow a nation to “claim” any portion of the moon, nor does it allow a country to claim that a passage through space is sovereign territory. But if the U.S. and its allies are to keep open the main thoroughfare to the moon and beyond , they may have to get there before China, Olson said.

“They believe that the moon is manifest destiny for them. It is part of their economics, it is part of their security equation,” he said.

If China builds up assets on the moon or through a major cislunar hub and then makes a territorial claim to that passageway, like it did with the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, that could be problematic, Olson said.

A slide presentation shared at the conference showed how hub positions at low earth orbit, geosynchronous orbit and cislunar orbit would provide a supported route of travel to the moon.

“Within this decade, probably by the middle of the decade, we’ll start to see lunar surface operations happening,” said Sam Ximenes, chief executive officer of the Exploration Architecture Corporation, (XArc) who also spoke on the panel.

Last year, more than $7.2 billion was invested in small space companies initially focused on accessing space and low earth orbit, and now “we’re seeing that money move into the orbital domain, where they are looking at depots,” Ximenes said.

On the envisioned space superhighway, Olson said much of that hub infrastructure to supply transiting spacecraft would be developed by private companies.

That will only grow, as more companies—and countries—establish moon bases, Ximenes said. “There’s going to be resupply missions, as we get bases there, there’s going to be the need to change out crews, so this space supply chain of the future is coming.

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