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Spencer Kaplan | 2020 Summer Fellow

Spencer KaplanWeek 9: Finishing up!

July 6, 2020

Hello everyone! I hope you all had a good holiday weekend! This past week was the last of my internship so this will be my last blog for the summer. Before I write my summary of the week, I just wanted to say how appreciative I am for AGS and its benefactors. Duke students get unprecedented opportunities through AGS so I would like to thank its donors for their generous support. 

This past week I focused on finishing up my big capstone independent project. After nearly five rounds of editing by a total of four people, it’s basically ready to go! At this point, we are just waiting on some of our custom graphics to arrive and then it will likely be published. Since the graphics are likely to arrive later this week, I’ll update this post whenever the piece comes out. I also worked on and finished up a second piece on national security space organizations. You’d be surprised to know how many various parts of the government touch space matters. From the Office of Management and Budget to the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency to the Space Force, there are a wide variety of organizations that handle various space responsibilities. You might also be surprised by how quickly a lot of it is changing and evolving. During the course of the internship, I’ve had to change certain sections because they changed their structure as I was writing (hello Space Force!). I’ll update this post with that article when it is published as well.

A quick reflection on the internship; before I came to CSIS, I had been really intrigued by think tanks, but I wasn’t sure if I was going to like the environment. Having completed my internship. I can thoroughly say that I really loved it. There’s something very neat about writing, having a question about a specific topic (in my case, astrophysics), and being able to consult with some of the world’s foremost experts in those fields. Beyond that, I’m very grateful that my team was extremely open and welcoming and everyone at CSIS made me feel comfortable on day one.

Anyways, thanks so much for reading! Have a great rest of the summer!


Week 7/8: Researching the Moon!

June 28, 2020

Hey everyone! I decided that I would lump the past two weeks together because I’ve essentially been working on the same thing the whole time. Since the upcoming week is going to be the last week of my internship, I’ve been focusing a lot on my capstone project. As I mentioned before, I’m writing a piece on cislunar space (the space between the Earth and the Moon) and the Moon. Specifically, why are countries increasingly concerned about deep space and the Moon from a national security perspective? There’s a lot of different reasons but I’ll highlight a few of them here:

Some analysts have pointed out the possibility of countries delivering antisatellite weapons (ASATs) from “above” the common orbits as opposed to “below” common orbits. Right now, when we conceive of ASATs, most people/analysts think about the weapons either originating from the surface of the earth (direct-ascent rockets, laser blinding, downlink jamming) or from similar orbits in space (co-orbital weapons). Now, analysts are increasingly worried about countries attacking satellites from “above” because countries could launch a satellite on a trans-lunar injection trajectory (launching to the Moon), accelerate around the Moon using it as a gravitational assist, and return to Earth orbit on a collision course with a target satellite. Since most tracking systems are space-assets “pointed” downwards, the country of the target satellite would have difficulty identifying and tracking the hostile satellite. Currently, the risk of ASAT attacks from “above” is relatively minimal because launches to the Moon are uncommon and each one is newsworthy, but as launches to the Moon proliferate, so too will the risk of creative new ways to target satellites. Accordingly, countries need to invest in outwards-looking intelligence platforms, not just those pointed at Earth.

Another strategic concern that countries have is preserving the ability to do commerce on the Moon in the future. The Moon has immense resource potential in the form of ice (which can be converted to water or chemical fuels, radically expanding the boundaries of exploration) and Helium-3 (an isotope that could enable efficient nuclear fusion energy production on Earth). Many of these resources are scarce and concentrated in particular locations (ice at the poles and Helium-3 at the Equator). Accessing these locations first will ensure that countries cannot be denied access in the future. 

Anyways, the piece should be coming out soon and it’s very exciting! Right now, we’re focused on making graphics for it but it’s in the final stages of editing. Stay tuned for more information!


Week 6: Coding and learning about energy

June 14, 2020

Hey everyone! This week, I focused mostly on powering through my independent project, but I also learned how to code some neat graphics. To begin the week, my supervisor asked me to take some data I prepared last week and use Javascript to turn the data into functional interactive graphics. Since I don’t know how to code in Javascript, my supervisor connected me with some of the technical staff at CSIS who kindly walked me through all the steps necessary to create the interactives. After a couple of technical assistance calls to my software engineer brother, I managed to make one of the interactives! The second interactive proved very complicated, so some technical interns are working on it. Both interactives will be integrated into a future piece on space launch vehicles.

For my independent project, I focused my efforts this week on distilling why cis-lunar space and the Moon are important for strategic reasons. More to come on that, but the project is progressing nicely!

One of the really neat things about CSIS is that they have programming specific for interns. This week, there was a seminar on innovation in the energy industry. Having taken an energy course, I was able to understand a lot of the concepts the speaker mentioned. I found one of the proposals he discussed–using cranes as batteries–to be absolutely fascinating. One of the main issues with energy management today is storage. We are capable of producing a tremendous amount of energy, but a great deal of it is often wasted. To solve the problem, there is a startup working on creating a “battery” by using cranes and large concrete blocks. Here’s how it works:

When there is excess energy on the grid, the crane picks up large concrete blocks and stacks them around its base, forming a large tower over time. When the stack of blocks is complete, the “battery” is full. When there is a demand for energy on the grid, the crane lowers the blocks, using gravity to turn a motor in the opposite direction, generating electricity. Similar technology already exists for hydroelectric energy. Using two reservoirs, one elevated above the other, engineers can pump water from the lower reservoir to the higher reservoir when energy is available. When energy is unavailable, the engineers allow the water to flow through energy-generating turbines from the higher to the lower reservoir. Very neat!


Week 5: More reflection, and learning about the moon

June 7, 2020

Hey everyone. As the nation continues to grapple with the fallout of the killing of George Floyd (and centuries of racial discrimination), I spent a significant portion of my week trying to make my spaces and communities better and more welcome for everyone. My CSIS supervisors encouraged us to take some time to process this moment, so I spent a long time this week working with a number of stakeholders to identify much-needed reforms for AGS Council. More to come on that later, but I will share some words I sent out to our council members:

As far as my internship is concerned, I had two main projects this week. Early in the week, I focused on creating a new data repository on space launch vehicles. Suspecting that the SpaceX Falcon 9 may have surpassed the United Launch Alliance Atlas V as the most launched vehicle in America, I inputted all of the data (with a little help from my software engineer brother) into a spreadsheet and generated some charts. Sure enough, the Falcon 9 is the most launched vehicle, and SpaceX confirmed my worn a few days later when they made a tweet about it. It was pretty neat to see SpaceX validate my data.

I also began writing my capstone independent project. The exact topic is not set in stone yet, but I will be writing something regarding strategy and the moon. I was inspired by a few things/events, but one particular discovery spurred my interest in lunar strategy. During the Cold War, a general was tasked with analyzing and predicting how a future great power war would play out in space. General Korenevskiy identified several key technologies that would be vital to winning such a war including a massive space-based missile defense satellite constellation and a lunar base in the moon. The former is actually a really bad idea that continues to be proposed, but it would be ineffective because the number of satellites necessary to enable the system would be prohibitive. The latter is more interesting. Why would we want to put a military base on the moon? At first, I was puzzled, but General Korenevskiy had a key insight. On Earth, the Soviet Union and the United States were somewhat protected by the idea of mutually assured destruction (MAD). That is, if America were to use nuclear weapons on the Soviet Union, the Soviet Union would use them on the United States as well, and everyone would perish. Mutually assured destruction is stable so long as each country cannot verify that they 1. know exactly where ALL nuclear weapons in the opposing country and 2. Have the means to eliminate the nuclear weapons in the other country. If both parties cannot fulfill both criteria, mutually assured destruction falls apart. Thus, if you wanted to defeat an adversary with nuclear weapons, you’d have to have extreme confidence that you can locate all of the adversary’s nuclear weapons and that you could destroy all of them at once.

So why the moon? It seems as if the American military was not 100% confident that MAD would hold (perhaps they weren’t sure that both America or the Soviet Union satisfies both conditions for the stability of MAD) because they proposed putting strategic weapons (nuclear weapons) on the lunar surface. Why? Because even if the Soviet Union knew where all of America’s nuclear weapons were and they launched strikes to destroy each weapon, they would not be able to reach the moon with a weapon for, at the bare minimum, several days because of the Moons distance from the Earth. That time would allow the United States to fire a nuclear weapon back at the Soviet Union. In essence, the United States would make it impossible for the Soviet Union to take out all of America’s nuclear weapons at once, guaranteeing MAD would hold.

Although America never built a base on the moon or put nuclear weapons in its surface (we have other, often space-based, ways to guarantee MAD now), it’s a poignant example of how the moon is important for strategic (in addition to scientific, commercial, and philosophical) reasons. Having been inspired by America’s Cold War military planners, I’m now working on isolating some strategic considerations for lunar basing proposals.

Anyways, have a good weekend, and I encourage you to take some time to reflect on what we can do better. We have to improve the status quo.


Week 4: A week of reflection

May 31, 2020

I hope everyone is doing alright. This past week has obviously been very trying for all. One thing I have taken away from the last week is a profound sense of privilege; as a white man, I never have to worry about issues like police brutality or systemic inequality. Moreover, while I was scouring academic literature from the comfort of my basement, many of my black and brown friends were busy protecting themselves while exercising their civil liberties. As I said, this is a privilege–while I am fortunate enough to have an internship and work for eight hours a day while tuning out the news, there are many people who cannot shut off the news, focus, or stay home right now. It’s important that we recognize this. 

This week was also an important moment of self-reflection; when you study space, it can often feel distant or abstract, especially when you are forecasting developments 20, 30, or 40 years down the line. I’ve thought a lot about that recently and I’ve decided that while it is vital to analyze and predict the future, I should dedicate more of my time to more immediate, tangible issues. That being said, we have to prepare the world now for a better world tomorrow. For me, the events of this week were also a reminder that when we begin to settle other planets or moons in the future, we have an incredible opportunity both to do better and start over. A friend of mine recently challenged me and said that we don’t have to copy our way of life when we colonize another planet. I increasingly agree–we can and should start over and breathe justice, equality, and peace into a new society.

I know I will try my best to do better, and I encourage you to do the same. 

One of the good things that happened last week was NASA and SpaceX launching astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) in a commercial spacecraft for the first time. In talking with my friends, I think that people don’t quite get appreciate the importance of the launch. When the Space Shuttle was retired, policymakers and NASA believed that the commercial crew capsules, the SpaceX Dragon and the Boeing Starliner, would be ready for launch in just a few years. Ten years later, we finally launched astronauts. In the interim, an entire generation of kids grew up without watching crewed space launches from America for the first time since the 1970s. Thousands of would-be astronauts and engineers chose other professions and interest in space declined. I’m hopeful that there will be astronauts who set foot on Mars one day that cite the Crew Dragon launch as their inspiration for becoming space explorers.

Strategically, the Crew Dragon will provide America with a much-needed native launch capability. Since the retirement of the space shuttle, America has relied on Russia to bring astronauts to the International Space Station (and paid them a ton to do it). Now, we are “launch-independent” and have a new way to bring people into space, potentially ushering in a new era of space commerce. These are interesting and exciting times to work in the space field! 

My week ended with a lesson on orbital mechanics (and why they are different on the moon!), followed by a group screening of Space Force with my department at CSIS. The show is quite funny, though I suspect that folks outside the defense or space world wouldn’t enjoy it as much.


Week 3: More learning about rockets!

May 24, 2020

Hey everyone! On this memorial day, I just want to remind everyone that this year marks the 75th anniversary of Iwo Jima, Okinawa, and VE and VJ days. This year, I’ll be thinking extra hard about the young soldiers–like those who summitted Mt. Suribachi on Iwo Jima–who fought for our freedom. As we fight a new global war against Coronavirus, I’m reminded of the courage of frontline health professionals. We must remember to show our appreciation for those who protect our country, whether its storming pacific islands or taking care of the sick. 

I think I can confidently say that I learned more this week than any other week of my internship so far. I started out the week by touching up my latest publication which was an explainer piece on every country’s space launch vehicles. Two quick thoughts on international launch vehicles:

  1. There are some unexpected (in the sense that they aren’t “space powers” but still have powerful rockets) countries that have launch capabilities. Notably, South Korea, North Korea, and Israel have rockets that can launch satellites to orbit, but Britain does not currently have a native space launch vehicle. A big reason, of course, is need–if you can procure launch services from other countries, there’s no reason to make your own (expensive) rocket–but it is still interesting that some tiny countries have more capabilities than large, regional powers. 
  2. China has so many kinds of launch vehicles that it was pretty overwhelming to research. While the United States and Russia have vehicles that are flexible and can launch many different kinds of missions, Chinese rockets tend to be assigned to specific projects (at least anecdotally). For example, the Long March 3A tends to launch only position, navigation, and time (PNT) satellites but not much else. I’m not saying one approach is better than another, but it’s definitely interesting.

Towards the end of the week, I started working on my next explainer piece which will outline all of the different organizations that are involved in the national security space enterprise. Having completed most of the research, there are many more military, intelligence, and civil organizations that deal with space security than you would think. Keep an eye out for that next week. 

At the encouragement of my supervisors, I also came up with independent project ideas for my capstone project. After presenting them, we settled on a topic, but I’m going to keep it quiet for now. Stay tuned!

This week is going to be a HUGE week for us at CSIS ASP. For the first time since the retirement of the space shuttle, American astronauts are set to launch from American soil on an American rocket! Astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley will be launching on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and should arrive at the ISS later this week! Then to top off an already exciting week, Netflix will be releasing “Space Force,” Steve Carell’s new comedy about the creation of the new branch of the military. We’re very excited! 


Week 2: Learning about rockets!

May 17, 2020

Hey everyone! This week, I focused on learning how to navigate the backend of the CSIS Aerospace website and how to configure articles to be posted. The first article I worked on was “The Myth of ITAR-Free,” by fellow intern John Hoffner. His piece focuses on the effects of export regulations on the satellite industry. I highly recommend that you check it out because the space market (launch services and satellites) is only going to get larger and exports will become more and more of an issue. 

I was surprised by how long it actually took to get a piece ready to post. To configure the post, I had to learn some HTML coding and how to manipulate the resolution of photos. I definitely have a lot more respect for web administrators who manage the backend of websites! Learning how to manage the backend of the site was very helpful later in the week when I designed and updated CSIS’ U.S. Launch Vehicle “Aerospace 101” page! For the last couple of weeks, I’ve been researching all of the various rockets that the American government and private companies use or are developing. I updated the page both to eliminate rockets that have been retired and to add rockets that are currently under development. You can find the page here. My biggest takeaway from the assignment this week was that not only is the United States developing many rockets, but many different types of rockets. There are spaceplanes like Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo, conventional heavy-lift vehicles like the Space Launch System (SLS), and air-launched rockets like LauncherOne and Pegasus. The diversity of launch vehicles is unprecedented around the world.

My team finished off the week with a fun happy hour on Zoom. I got to show my team my family’s garden and share some of the baking creations I made this week. Right before the week ended, NASA sneaked in a massive announcement that will probably be a big focus of my team going forward. Since NASA intends to return to the moon by 2024 through its Artemis program, it announced that it will be releasing the “Artemis Accords,” a legal framework to govern international space exploration. When it was released, the head of Roscosmos, the Russian Space Agency, said: “the principle of invasion is the same, whether it be the Moon or Iraq.” I’m sure I’ll be writing a lot more about it soon!


Week 1: Getting started at CSIS!

May 10, 2020

Hello! For those of you who don’t know me, I’m currently studying public policy, political science, and earth and ocean sciences at Duke. I’m studying earth science because it’s the closest thing to space science that you can actually study! I’m really interested in the intersection of defense, foreign policy, and outer space because it is often overlooked as a topic of national security concern even though the complex physical, legal, and historical aspects of space policy make it one of the most difficult challenges America faces. This summer, I’m interning for the CSIS Aerospace Security Project, where I’ll have the opportunity to study space issues in-depth and learn about how America can best prepare for the future.

On Monday, I woke up early to make sure I was prepared for my initial Zoom call with my supervisors. Some early technological problems kept me busy during the morning, but I eventually met with them and got my initial assignments. First up was updating their repository of American Space Launch Vehicles (SLVs). Many rockets have been retired or launched for the first time since the post database was initially created, so I had to go through and make sure all of the information was current.

During my research, I learned a lot about various orbital regimes (Low-Earth Orbit, Geosynchronous Equatorial Orbit, etc.) and why certain satellites can only launch on specific rockets. The most interesting thing I took away from the week was the concept of a Molniya orbit. Most communications satellites use Geostationary orbits (meaning they stay fixed over a certain place on Earth), but getting into a Geostationary orbit requires a lot of energy since they are relatively far away from the Earth. In the 1960s, Soviet Union Scientists realized that they could send their satellites into an elliptical orbit (like an oval) where the satellites would spend most of their time above Russia and the Northern Hemisphere and then quickly zip around the other side of the Earth. It’s as if the orbit was the outline of an egg standing vertically, and the earth was resting at the bottom of the egg. For the vast majority of the orbit, the satellite would be above the Earth. Since Molniya orbits required less energy than geostationary orbits, the Soviet Union utilized them on many of their early satellites. It can be difficult to ascertain the purpose of classified satellites, but knowing their orbit can give lots of clues about their activities. Knowing a satellite is in a Molniya orbit, for example, could be a clue that it has a regional focus.

See you next week!