New report calls for U.S. strategy to boost space economy

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NASA's Bill Nelson and Space Force chief Gen. Raymond: 'We believe strong engagement from across government, industry and academia is essential to meet this moment'

WASHINGTON — U.S. national security space organizations released a report Nov. 18 proposing ways to boost the nation’s space economy and technology base.

The 92-page “State of the Space Industrial Base 2021”report was written by senior officials from the U.S. Space Force, the Air Force Research Laboratory and the Defense Innovation Unit. It summarizes discussions held with more than 250 government, industry and academic experts.  

“While the pace of innovation and investment in the U.S. is at an all-time high, this will not be sustained without strategic direction, robust adoption of commercial space capabilities expressed in meaningful contract opportunities, strategic workforce development, attention to fragile domestic supply lines, and addressing the anemic funding to prototype, validate and accelerate innovative and disruptive space capabilities for national security,” the report stated.

The theme of the report is that the United States has a “tactically strong” space sector but “we are missing the long term vision, the roadmaps, the deliberate long term investment,” said Col. Eric Felt, director of the Air Force Research Laboratory Space Vehicles Directorate. 

“We’re in a great place today, but we have a lot of strategic concerns, and how do we make sure that we’re also in a great place tomorrow?” he said Nov. 18 at an Atlantic Council virtual event on the report.

“You look at the number of inventions and new things that are being done in space, the innovation ecosystem, where you have lots of new companies coming into space and private investments where you have a record amount of venture capital going into space startups,” said Felt. 

“That’s all very positive and very strong. And that’s what we mean by tactically strong but those are all very near term things,” he added. 

“There’s lots of concern that it may not continue, and if we want that to continue, we need to be taking some very proactive and deliberate steps today,” Felt said. “We have a very aggressive and patient competitor in space in China with a 50 year plan.”

NASA endorses report

In a joint statement, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson and Chief of Space Operations Gen. John “Jay” Raymond endorsed the report.

“Both NASA and the Space Force believe strong engagement from across government, industry and academia is essential to meet this moment,” they said in their statement. “This is truly a new era of strategic collaboration that will benefit commercial, civil and national security in space.”

This is the third iteration of the State of the Space Industrial Base report, which was published in 2020 and 2019. 

The report argues that the government, particularly the Defense Department and intelligence community, should better support the space industry by procuring commercially provided services rather than develop systems in-house. 

The space industry sees “shaky support by the U.S. government as a consumer of commercial products and services,” the report said. “The notable exception here is NASA, which continues to strengthen both its direct investment in, and procurement of commercial space offerings.”

For example, U.S. military and intelligence agencies are lagging in their procurement of commercial satellite imagery, the report said. “A broad spectrum of space-based Earth observation satellite companies have emerged” that can provide a wide range of data products. “However, token investments are not sufficient, and the slow pace of commercial acquisition by the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency and the National Reconnaissance Office is creating incentives for U.S. companies to withdraw from the national security track.”

Another proposal is to develop plans for a “space superhighway” that takes advantage of commercial innovations for in-space logistics to build infrastructure. “This effort should be done in close collaboration with NASA,” the report said. 

“In terrestrial modes of logistics, the ability to make use of civilian ports, civilian fuel, and civilian interfaces is a significant force multiplier, and the same is true in space.”

The report noted that there is too much emphasis and investment in launch but too little capital going into other sectors of the industry such as in-space logistics and manufacturing that will be essential to build a space economy.