Billionaire-funded human spaceflight missions have been disparaged by critics as “joy rides to space” and a waste of money at a time when there are more pressing needs here on Earth.
The flip argument is that the money and notoriety that entrepreneurs are bringing to the space business have beneficial ripple effects for the larger ecosystem, including national security space.
Private space pursuits are captivating the public’s attention, creating excitement and fueling investments and innovation across the entire industry, said Bill Gattle, president of space systems at L3Harris Technologies, a defense and intelligence contractor that develops classified spacecraft and payloads.
“We’re in the midst of the biggest transformation in the space industry I’ve seen in my 34-year career,” he said last month at the Air Force Association’s Air, Space & Cyber Conference at National Harbor, Maryland.
It’s only been during the last five years that “we’re learning that space is intertwined in our world, that we learned that space is critical infrastructure,” Gattle commented.
A point made by Gattle and other executives is that innovation fueled by private money is helping to accelerate long-overdue change in military space systems.
He recalled a time when space sensors were a hard sell in the Pentagon. Defense contractors for years pitched the idea of using more satellites for surveillance, reconnaissance and other applications. The response Gattle and others often got from military leaders was that “we don’t need any of this.”
The world has since changed. Satellites are increasingly sophisticated and cheaper to deploy. At the same time, traditional systems that the military has relied upon for decades for battlefield surveillance — like airborne platforms — are a less desirable option because they are vulnerable to enemy air defenses.
That drove the Air Force’s decision in 2018 to not seek a replacement for its JSTARS radar aircraft used to track ground targets. The service instead turned to the secretive Rapid Capabilities Office to figure out concepts for space-based radar surveillance. The Space Force is now leading that project.
Bhavya Lal, senior adviser for budget and finance at NASA, said the influx of private money is a welcome boost to the space community.
“I actually think it’s awesome that we have billionaires going into space,” she said at the recent Space Sector Market Conference in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “They’re bringing attention, they’re bringing resources, they are bringing young people into the system.”
Steve Isakowitz, CEO of the Aerospace Corp. and former president of Virgin Galactic, said the strong interest in space from private players and public markets is an extraordinary development.
“These are not the things we saw 20 years ago,” Isakowitz said during a TechCrunch forum last month. “Today we have a groundswell of interest in the potential of the space industry. We’re seeing a lot of new companies get off the ground.”
For the national security sector, there is a momentous opportunity to ride the private innovation wave, Isakowitz said. “I don’t think we’ve ever seen a time where we have all three sectors of our space economy reinventing themselves, literally, from national security space to civil space to commercial space.”
As the military and civilian economy have grown more dependent on satellites, space is now viewed as a battleground, along with the ground, sea and air, said Gattle. Dealing with threats to space assets, he noted, is going to require a closer partnership with the private sector and greater reliance on commercial systems.
Further proof that times are changing can be seen at conferences like Air, Space & Cyber.
It wasn’t long ago, Gattle said, that “I couldn’t get anybody to talk to me at conferences like this one because nobody cared about space. Now we’re popular kids.”
Sandra Erwin covers military space for SpaceNews. She is a veteran national security journalist and former editor of National Defense magazine.
“On National Security” appears in every issue of SpaceNews magazine. This column ran in the October 2021 issue.