As we head into 2024 and look around, the space industry is fundamentally different from what it was decades ago, thanks to first- and second-order effects from embracing commercial innovation. SpaceX set a record-breaking cadence of nearly 100 launches last year, heralding a new revolution in access to space. The Space Development Agency (SDA) operationalized several tranches of its layered hybrid architecture and paved the way for the Defense Department’s orbital blueprint, the Proliferated Warfighter Space Architecture. And all branches of the United States military, not just the Space Force, set into motion how they plan to leverage space in mesh networks supporting joint all-domain command and control systems.

But while the launch and satellite segments have come into their moment as government and industry become more and more integrated, the true unsung heroes of the space business are on the ground. Although vital to the overall space mission, ground systems rarely get the credit, and are shorthanded and under-resourced amidst the fanfare of kicking off new space missions.  

In a highly-hybridized space future, it’s the ground segment — Command & Control (C2), mission management and processing and ground infrastructure — that leaves much to be desired. In almost every space system deployed since satellites were first launched for military missions, the ground systems that enabled them were woefully late, fragile, and generally inadequate. GPS OCX is only the most recent space ground acquisition disaster in a history stretching back decades.

Perhaps that is why Frank Calvelli, the current Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Space Acquisition and Integration (and a leader in ground systems engineering and operations since his early National Reconnaissance Office days), has put ensuring sufficient ground support on his own to-do list for 2024. One of his key space tenets aims to “ensure ground systems and modifications are completed and ready for operations before launch of a new capability.” Some might think Calvelli is overly ambitious on this, but he’s not just shouting into the void.

In certain use cases, like offensive operations in space, satellites need to maneuver much more dynamically, which forces the need for advanced real-time command and control. Over the last few years, developers have improved satellites’ capability and efficiency to carry out more complex autonomous operations, but these maneuvers still need operators to be on top of the mission throughout. State of the art satellites without sufficient ground control is akin to equipping the world with iPhone 16s, but with cell towers from the 90s. They might be nice to look at, but they’d be rendered completely useless — exactly where much of the Pentagon’s LEO ambitions are headed with its current ground game.

There is nothing more critical to mission success than the ground segment, yet for all practical purposes, the Pentagon is still in the dark ages. The Air Force Satellite Control Network, the network of ground systems largely responsible for communicating with the Space Force’s satellites, remains the insufficient backbone that was completely designed, owned and operated by the government — and first conceived at a time when the number of satellites on-orbit numbered in the tens. Those few fat, juicy targets controlled by the Satellite Control Network are our Achilles heel when targeted by our adversaries, and C2 hasn’t changed much to keep pace with other advancements, either. These vulnerabilities highlight the growing and urgent need for resilient and rapid infrastructure upgrade, both in terms of numbers of sites that conduct C2 and in the ability to provide more real-time command and control.

If we don’t pivot now to improve our ground segment, the billions of dollars we pumped into the space economy are at risk of being severely deteriorated with just a handful of attacks. Chief of Space Operations, Gen. Chance Saltzman, like Calvelli, has positioned the Space Force’s Space Rapid Capabilities Office (Space RCO) to also modernize its ground control software as a key part of his vision for a more agile satellite architecture, and build resilience against attacks. By phasing out its predecessor, Enterprise Ground Services, Space RCO is heralding a new program known as the Rapid Resilient Command and Control program to develop modern tools to operate more dynamic satellites in mesh networks.

Improving ground systems for a modern space industry

Ironically, ground stations are the simplest of all the space segments to leverage in a hybridized way. The new generation of ground systems, much like their on-orbit siblings, can employ any number of commercial off-the-shelf hardware and software. The ground mission segment is tailor-made for coalition and civil space collaboration as we build out a more resilient Space Force, and commercial solutions are ready to provide this resilience for infrastructure with rapid to near-real-time command and control. It is also the one space segment that doesn’t require operating in a harsh, zero gravity environment to achieve flight heritage. All that’s needed is to require that all PLEO constellations, in addition to their government-designed stations, allow their commercial cousins to augment.

To keep pace with the launch and satellite segments, and to meet our space leadership’s ground system mandate, the best solution is to require that all new LEO and MEO constellations be deployed with a hybrid ground station segment of variable trust to provide C2 for even highly classified systems. Ensuring seamless augmentation between DoD, civil, commercial and Allied infrastructures will enable highly integrated C2 and contribute to the overall operational mission. Moreover, in the broader context of the warfighting effort, resilient downlink into the theater is critical to getting information to U.S. forces on the ground as well as to partners and allies. We’d be well-advised to augment our ground systems with commercial solutions for assured data integrity and information assurance so that these functions are secure and operate at mission-speed.

It is the only way to ensure Space Force relevance and future support to warfighting operations.

Restricting the government-owned satellites to only using their own antiquated systems ties the hands of the next generation of Space Force leaders, who are eager to embrace a proliferated and resilient future.

We don’t have the time to wait, either. SpaceX broke the seal on commercializing space launch through sheer audacity, competence and defiance. SDA, and now the Space Force through Space RCO and others, led the way on commercializing satellite missions with cunning acquisition strategies, savvy legislative maneuvering and bold proclamations. It’s time for the Space Force to complete the trifecta, to lead on advancing a ground game worthy of its hard-won hybrid strategy and seamless commercial augmentation. It’s the easiest of the three to do — and anything less will slow the progress of tomorrow’s guardians in their plans to, in Saltzman’s words, “secure, protect, and lead all who choose to explore and exploit our greatest frontier.”

Charles Beames has an extensive background in space, government and finance and currently serves as Chairman for both York Space Systems and SpiderOak, as well as the SmallSat Alliance. Chuck is a Forbes contributor and prolific writer on the topic.

Charles Beames has an extensive background in space, government and finance and currently serves as Chairman for both York Space Systems and SpiderOak, as well as the SmallSat Alliance. Chuck is a Forbes contributor and prolific writer on the topic.