Beyond ISS: America must lead in LEO, cislunar and beyond


As the International Space Station (ISS) nears the end of its service life and the United States commercial space industry continues to push past old technological boundaries, America needs new orbital destinations to remain the world’s leader in space.

Low-Earth orbit, or LEO, is of tremendous strategic significance. It is not only where a fast-growing number of satellites operate, but it is also where humans have lived and worked continuously on the ISS since 2000. And while the ISS is a testament to the ingenuity of humanity and the possibilities found within peaceful international cooperation, the station cannot be sustained indefinitely.

The cislunar space beyond traditional Earth orbits is rapidly gaining in strategic importance. This region, which includes lunar, lunar transfer and Lagrange orbits, is already an arena for international space competition. Returning to the moon comes with the potential commercial benefits of untapped mineral resources, water to facilitate human presence on the surface and fuel to support missions to Mars and beyond.

By the end of this decade, the U.S. and its allies could face a gap in American presence in LEO amidst a continued Chinese interest in strategic lunar geography — a scenario with implications not only for science and exploration but also for U.S. leadership and the global space economy. The loss of hard-won American footholds in space would not only interrupt today’s important research, but it would diminish America’s ability to shape the rules of the space frontier upon which our nation and our allies rely.

Continuous human presence in LEO space and increased cislunar presence provide the ultimate test of the policies, agreements, and operations that collectively comprise “norms” affecting everyone and everything in that environment. Without a continuous U.S. presence, we face the very real prospect of abdicating the strategic and moral high ground to nations with space ambitions hostile to American values, and the values of our closest friends and allies.

If we don’t show up, we cannot lead.

This is about far more than hardware or astronauts. Crewed without interruption since 2000, the ISS has been a unique platform where complex legal and ethical issues in space have been addressed cooperatively among disparate international partners. Human spaceflight is the ultimate venue to refine the internationally accepted norms of operation. These norms, whether developed deliberately or by precedent, have enormous consequences not only for today’s scientists and engineers, but for future generations who will rely on access to space — and especially those who may eventually live and work in space.

If the U.S. does not lead in LEO, other spacefaring nations will be forced to partner with China for access to the only other space station currently in existence, the Tiangong. Tiangong is continually touted in China’s official press as a symbol of self-reliance and “independent innovation” — statements that represent a starkly different sentiment than the plaque America’s first astronauts left on the moon announcing we “came in peace for all mankind.”

We face the daunting prospect of increased Chinese influence if the U.S. lunar focus lags behind. China continues to show determined interest in critical lunar regions including the water rich south pole and the underexplored far side. China’s interest extends above the lunar surface to the Lagrange points, which afford stable orbits for communication to enable far side exploration and resource return, interim gateway locations to facilitate deep space missions and increasingly important lunar domain awareness.

China’s strategic maneuvers in space, from the deployment of its space station to its determined focus on critical lunar geography, to the integration of new space capabilities into military operations, signal a clear intent to challenge U.S. preeminence in and through the space domain. Their actions, coupled with aggressive developments in anti-satellite capabilities, underscore the urgency for the U.S. to maintain the strong alliances and trust built through the ISS. An American retreat from LEO would be a clear signal to others that international space leadership is up for grabs.

America can and should continue to explore and develop off-planet destinations where norms and knowledge advance together. To do so, we must deliver a seamless, generational shift, from government-owned to commercially provided orbital platforms. The burgeoning commercial space sector offers innovative and cost-effective solutions for maintaining our presence in LEO and creating a new presence in cislunar space. Collaborating with allies and like-minded nations can create a multistakeholder framework that extends the spirit of the ISS and offers necessary alternatives to the Chinese and Russian led International Lunar Research Station and other similar, future endeavors.

The retirement of the ISS and a second race to the moon can mark the beginning of a new chapter in space in which the United States continues to play a leading role. An American presence in Earth and cislunar orbits is not just about maintaining a national strategic advantage, but it is also about preserving a hard-earned legacy of guiding the cooperative development of relationships, organizations, and norms of behavior that keep space a peaceful domain with benefits for all of humanity.

The path forward is clear.

The stakes are too high, and the opportunities too great. America must lead in LEO and cislunar space as a foundation for leadership on Earth and beyond, charting a course for a boundless future that reflects common values of democracy, freedom, human rights, the rule of law and the use of space for peaceful purposes.

Charles F. Bolden Jr. is a Major General (Ret.) of the U.S. Marine Corps, served as the 12th NASA Administrator and is Founder and CEO Emeritus of The Charles F. Bolden Group LLC.

Scott Pace is Director of the Space Policy Institute at the Elliott School of International Affairs of George Washington University. He served as Executive Secretary of the National Space Council and Associate Administrator for Program Analysis and Evaluation at NASA.

Bill Liquori is Lieutenant General (Ret.) of the U.S. Space Force and former Director for Space Policy at the National Security Council. He currently serves as a consultant, strategic advisor and board member for multiple aerospace and military focused organizations.

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