Atlantis Space Shuttle
Flight engineer Mike Fossum works outside the International Space Station Reuters

The future of NASA is all about deep space exploration now.

For decades, the Space Shuttle Program and low earth orbit (defined as within 2,000 km of the earth’s surface) were a big part of its focus. However, NASA officially ended this program with the landing of Space Shuttle Atlantis and ceded its low earth orbit influence to the private sector and foreigners.

President Barack Obama and other supporters of deep space exploration have a “been there, done that” attitude toward the moon and low earth orbit.

They argue that deep space exploration is the next big frontier and that America wants to lead in this field.

One argument is that deep space exploration “will continue to serve our society in ways that we can scarcely imagine,” in Obama’s words. Other practical benefits include possible resource mining and gaining knowledge relevant to the earth’s atmosphere and geology.

Deep space exploration will undoubtedly add a wealth of knowledge on whatever celestial bodies NASA decides to visit. Furthermore, building spacecrafts for these missions will advance technologies in propulsion, navigation, and other fields.

However, from a practical point of view, deep space exploration offers far fewer benefits to the U.S. than low earth orbit and the moon.

For example, weapons deployed from space – either missiles or “solar death rays” – will likely be launched from low earth orbit.

Moreover, future warring nations will likely target each other’s communication satellites. Having a robust defense in low earth orbit, therefore, will be crucial.

Large solar panels deployed in low earth orbit can also absorb energy, which can be transported back to the earth via microwave radiation (as predicted in STRATFOR CEO George Friedman’s book “The Next 100 Years”) or some kind of physical storage solution.

If NASA were to establish an earth-relevant outpost on a celestial body, the moon is by far the most practical.

By comparison, deep space exploration simply isn’t as relevant to the earth because it’s too far away. Even if NASA manages to extract some practical use from it, whatever travel NASA conducts to deep space will have to go through low earth orbit, the earth’s portal to space.

The control of low earth orbit, therefore, will be crucial.

It’s highly likely – almost inevitable – that low earth orbit will become militarized at some point in the future. If the U.S. cedes dominance in this space to a foreign country, it may very well cede its military superiority and access to an importance source of energy along with it.