Thoughts on “Being First”, Dominance and Outer Space

Finding myself with a brief interlude between projects the events of the past few weeks and in particular the announcement of the effort to create a sixth branch of the military focusing on outer space and the effort to create a manual for “rules” for military operations in outer space have prompted this post. My thoughts on “being first” in outer space and the concept of dominance are particularly relevant . Now, I’m not going to get into the Space Operations Force fracas (it’s not really a debate given the hyperbole being spouted ranges from the uninformed to hysterical) but rather these two concepts that are the core of the tempest churning over the idea of a Space Operations Force.

Admittedly, my motivation to take some time to jot down a few thoughts of “being first” and “dominance” stem from this tweet:


When I saw this in my time line I was a little irked at the premise of the the meme of an U.S. astronaut planting a flag on a celestial body (presumably the Moon) that implicitly points an accusatory finger, suggests this is U.S. policy and echoes claims made by the PRC and the Russian Federation in their soft-power games in the UN, including the pretense occurring presently in the GGE. (Note: I know I’m going to catch a lot of flak about this comment, including I’m making a political statement, but I’m calling it like I see it.)

Now it is possible this was not the intention and may just be a tweet made without forethought (heavens knows I have made my share). However, the optics of couching the idea of “being first” with the illustration of a U.S. astronaut planting a flag is misleading about U.S. policy. Now, I have my opinions about the practicality or feasibility of creating formal “rules” for outer space, which goes beyond the scope of this post, but I am keeping an open mind. Yet, that tweet concerns me because it suggests a misunderstanding among the participants of the concept of “being first” and “dominance” that has been part of U.S. space policy for many years to include the concept of “being first” and “dominance” being interconnected. Let me explain:

Back in 1959, the U.S, Army issued a two-volume report on the feasibility of establishing a lunar outpost called “Project Horizon Report, A U.S. Army Study for the Establishment of a Lunar Outpost.Volume I of the report is entitled “Summary and Supporting Considerations and Volume II entitled “Technical Considerations and Plans.” It is in Volume I where the Army examined among other things the proposal’s legal and policy concerns. In particular, the report examined the political reasons for establishing the outpost and interestingly focused on the concept of being first (before the Soviet Union) to establish  a presence on the Moon. The report notes on pp. 3-4:

“From the viewpoint of national security, the primary implications of the feasibility of establishing a lunar outpost is the importance of being first.

Clearly the U.S. would not be in a position to exercise an option between peaceful and military applications unless we are first. In short, the establishment of the initial lunar outpost is the first definitive step in exercising our options.”

This is an intriguing statement made by a branch of the military less than a year after Sputnik-1, which effectively derailed Soviet claims about sovereignty in outer space made prior to its launch, and almost a decade before the Outer Space Treaty went into effect. Significantly, this statement prefacing the report establishes one of the goals of Project Horizon was not to cede territory in outer space and in particular on a celestial body for the exclusive use of the United States, but rather “being first” was (and arguably still is) about establishing a political foothold to facilitate options on how outer space and a celestial body would be used.

Conspiracy theories aside, Project Horizon never got beyond the planning stage, but the concept of “being first” was tested when two members of the U.S. military operating under the auspices of a non-military government agency landed on the Moon on July 11, 1969 and planted a U.S. flag. This gets back to the meme of “finders keepers” in the above-mentioned tweet and its premise. Planting a flag was a recognized act to make a claim of sovereign territory on behalf of a country or monarch (which was the same as making it on behalf of a country) in the age of exploration and colonization. This was likely on the mind of Congress when the crew of Apollo 11 returned to Earth, especially in light of the newly ratified Outer Space Treaty and its non-sovereignty principles.

As an aside and to give deference to the Woomera Manual group, Buzz Aldrin posed for a photo in a t-shirt with the same meme, which can be seen in this tweet and bugs me just as much as seeing it in the Woomera tweet.


Whatever your opinion of Buzz and his views, Congress apparently disagreed with this sentiment as after Apollo 11 and before the launch of Apollo 12 it took took steps using its power of the purse in the 1970 NASA Authorization Act to ensure the placing  of the stars and stripes on the surface of the Moon (and being first) would not be viewed as a claim of territory. Public Law 91-119, 18 November 1969, Section 8 (83 Stat., 202), in National Aeronautics and Space Administration Authorization Act, 1970, addressed the implantation of the U.S. flag on the Moon and states:

“The flag of the United States, and no other flag, shall be implanted or otherwise placed on the surface of the moon, or on the surface of any planet, by the members of the crew of any spacecraft making a lunar or planetary landing as a part of a mission under the Apollo program or as a part of a mission under any subsequent program, the funds for which are provided entirely by the Government of the United States. This act is intended as a symbolic gesture of national pride in achievement and is not to be construed as a declaration of national appropriation by claim of sovereignty.”

Section 8 disclaims sovereignty from the act of planting the U.S. flag and harmonizes with the Outer Space Treaty. It is noteworthy the wording of Section 8 makes it a legally-binding position as it is not couched as a “sense of Congress”, which would imply a non-binding policy statement. In other words, Congress ensured “being first” would not include ceding territory for the United States whether expressly or implicitly. That Congress took this step circles back to the position in the Project Horizon report the importance of being first is about exercising options for peaceful and military use with Congress ensuring the former was paramount as opposed to the latter.

That said, without digressing on the fevered topic of whether the military can legally operate in outer space (it can but I discuss this in detail in a chapter I wrote for this book) it is accurate to note without the contributions of the military the U.S. would not have been first on the Moon. If you take into account the personnel who were military, the facilities (Cape Canaveral) and some of the hardware (the F-1 engine was already under development by the Air Force for an ICBM before NASA took it over), the contributions of the military cannot be ignored or understated.

Back on topic, the idea of “being first” can be summarized as ensuring the ability to exercise options for the use of outer space whether for scientific, commercial or matters of national security and defense. So how does this tie into the concept of “dominance” as expressed in current U.S. national policy? Suffice it to say the intricacies of the policy of “dominance” are complicated and beyond the scope of this post. However, I see “dominance” to encompass the same rationale for being first: to ensure the ability to exercise options for the use of outer space.

The idea of dominance has been around for a long time and not something conjured by the current Administration, although if you watch social media and the craziness that abounds on the topic of the Space Operations Force, it would certainly seem that is so. As it turns out, this idea has been articulated in one form or another in declassified national space policies dating back to the Carter Administration and up and to the present Administration . Admittedly, U.S. policy has looked at “dominance” as active denial. This is illustrated during the Ford Administration in NSDM-345, which recognized the strategic use of space by the Soviet Union and directed a means to eliminate it, i.e. an ASAT program. It is also prevalent in the unclassified version of the Bush 43 National Space Policy, which suggests the use of preemption to deny an adversary the use of space.

How dominance achieved is a matter for another discussion and really is none of my business because policy details like that tend to remain outside the public domain, although there are ideas like”resilience” (another topic I have strong opinions on, but I’ll leave for perhaps another time.) Unlike the hype of surrounding the Space Operations Force, in all likelihood it does not involve battle stars, storm troopers or even ASATs (yes, there is a cadre who assert Operation Burnt Frost was a disguised ASAT test. That contention is wrong for so many reasons, which I won’t go into here.)

I started this post poking at the tweet by the Woomera Group’s Twitter account and will end by noting despite my doubts about the practicality of its work, I am intrigued and will be following it as I can (I was not invited to participate, which is okay because I can’t be at all the parties.) I do look forward to see how it plays out. That said, this is only a gloss of this topic but it addresses a pet peeve and passes an otherwise rainy Sunday. I hope this post clarifies and takes some of the villainy out of “being first” and “dominance” as it relates to outer space and U.S. policy.




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