WASHINGTON — Sen. Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.) said Feb. 9 the United States is being challenged in space by rival powers and the commercial space industry has a key role to play in ensuring the U.S. can compete successfully. 

In a keynote speech at the Federal Aviation Administration Commercial Space Transportation Conference, Kelly highlighted the accomplishments of the U.S. commercial space industry but also cautioned that it should not rest on its laurels. 

Kelly, a former NASA astronaut, chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee’s subcommittee on emerging threats and capabilities, which focuses on the competitive threats posed by adversaries like China and Russia.

“As we look at the challenges that we’re going to face in the years ahead, your success is critical to the success of our country,” he told a large audience of space executives. “But this success is no by no means guaranteed.”

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, he said, “has had devastating consequences around the world and poses an acute threat to the future of our international partnerships.  Since the end of the Cold War, space exploration has been defined by a collaboration between the U.S. and Russia and other countries. But Putin’s unchecked aggression has made this collaboration much more difficult.”

Things the U.S. space industry for decades took for granted, like supply chains for rocket engines and access to launch infrastructure, are at risk, he added. “And at the same time, we’re seeing adversaries like China make historic progress in space due to unprecedented government intervention.”

To compete with China, the United States needs more launch providers and capabilities. The federal government, for its part, should support the development of new launch vehicles, new launch sites and “find ways to streamline the permitting and approval process for these large facilities … and we can continue to explore new contracting tools to help newer entrants bring launch vehicles to market faster.”

“But we also need commercial launch providers to step up to the plate, to increase the pace of launch vehicle production, bring new launch vehicles to market faster and embrace renewed competition, not stifle it,” Kelly said.

The nation also needs the private sector to help tackle supply chain security, he said. “Our commercial launch capabilities are too critical for our national and economic security to rely on supply chains that go across an ocean.”

The CHIPS and Science Act that Congress passed last year will help bring back to the U.S. the production of microelectronics and also included provisions that support next generation space research and exploration. 

But onshoring critical capabilities is a responsibility that the private industry should take up as well, Kelly said. “It’s essential that everyone in this industry proactively identifies vulnerabilities along their supply chains and make targeted investments that protect your company.”

Both the government and the industry also have a “collective responsibility” to ensure safe space operations, “especially given the ongoing geopolitical challenges that we face and the rising threats.”

Rival countries are using cyber tools, artificial intelligence and other technologies to target U.S. space infrastructure both on the ground and in orbit, he said. “Don’t underestimate this. It is going to get a lot harder … Everyone operating in this industry has to build these risks into your standard business practices.”

Sandra Erwin writes about military space programs, policy, technology and the industry that supports this sector. She has covered the military, the Pentagon, Congress and the defense industry for nearly two decades as editor of NDIA’s National Defense...