Defense official: We’re failing at space innovation

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SN Military.Space Sandra Erwin

The Pentagon has to figure out how it will respond to China’s rapid advances in space technology, warned Chris Shank, director of the Pentagon’s Strategic Capabilities Office. The United States is innovating, too, but the Chinese are doing it at a faster pace. They will eventually catch up unless the U.S. can speed things up. “Think about that,” Shank said last week during a panel discussion at the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics’ space tech conference in San Diego.

SPACE RACE IS ON China carried out 39 launches last year, the U.S. 31, Russia 20 and Europe 8. “We have not lost leadership in space. We are losing ground, though,” he said. “That is different.”

CULTURE CHANGE  DoD is recognizing the problem, Shank said. “That is the culture change that I think is part of the Space Force discussion, and the Space Development Agency discussion.” The idea of “responsive space” — having the capability to launch small satellites on short notice if U.S. systems came under attack during a conflict — has been talked about for decades. But DoD is not positioned to buy modern satellites and launch vehicles from the private sector quickly enough to keep pace with industry innovation.

NEW SPACE AGENCY “I think you’re going to see a lot of change in 2019,” said Shank. “DoD is committed to creating a Space Development Agency, a joint organization like the Strategic Capabilities Office (SCO) to rapidly develop and field the next generation of space capabilities.” Shank predicts the new agency will “represent a real investment in experimenting, prototyping and rapid fielding of capabilities.”

DO SHANK’S WORDS MATTER? Yes. Shank is an influential voice on defense technology and space matters. His resume suggests he would be on the short list to run the Space Development Agency. He served in the Air Force and NASA, and was hand-picked by Undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering Mike Griffin to take over the SCO, an office created to inject innovation into DoD programs. Shank also served on President Trump’s NASA transition team.

Griffin has been a major proponent of the Space Development Agency. Last month directed Fred Kennedy, the director of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s Tactical Technology Office, to set up a study team to map out a concept for how to organize the SDA.

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