A lot of rhetoric has been thrown around over the last several years about how the United States is “falling behind” in space and ceding its leadership role. This rather pessimistic assessment is largely based on the status of U.S. government space programs. NASA’s current human space exploration program is perceived as a shadow of its glory days of the 1960s, and U.S. national security space capabilities no longer have the same relative advantage over near-peers as in the late 1990s and early 2000s after the fall of the Soviet Union.
However, taking a broader perspective of space activities leads to a much different conclusion: The United States is doing more in space than ever before, and in ways that no other country can match.
The main driver for this new leadership is the commercial space sector, not the U.S. government. Instead of attempting to recapture “Space 1.0” leadership by focusing purely on stronger U.S. government space programs, another possible strategy is to develop a “Space 2.0” approach and focus on encouraging, shaping and leveraging the commercial space sector to help propel it into the future.
This new leadership approach is possible because we are currently in the beginnings of a revolution in commercial space activities. The revolution is based on a potent combination of Moore’s Law, spin-in technologies from the information technology (IT) sector, and cloud computing that has enabled small-satellite technology to change the price/performance ratio, fueled by a significant infusion of private venture capital. These drivers have spurred the creation of dozens of new American space companies and a rekindling of competitive spirit in many legacy companies. The end result has been an infusion of fresh ideas, new approaches, increased innovation and new excitement in the space world.
Although it’s uncertain which commercial space companies will emerge from the competition and actually make it to space, we know for certain that humanity as a whole will benefit. The commercial revolution in space is radically reducing the costs of accessing data and services from satellites while simultaneously increasing the amount, frequency and quality of information gathered. At the same time, improved analytics are being developed to turn the raw data into useful information and increasing accessibility to a wider number of users. That in turn leads to more “eyeballs” examining and investigating data, which leads to more new insights and applications that no one else thought of. The end result is going to be vastly more knowledge about the world we live in and socioeconomic benefits we cannot even dream of today.
Unfortunately, almost all of the focus by U.S. policymakers is on more government space programs as the answer to dealing with an increasingly globally competitive space domain.
Two of the biggest debates at the moment involve NASA and national security space. Congress continues to lament NASA’s inability to recapture its former glory, while simultaneously bickering with itself and the White House over which parochial interests should be included in NASA’s $18 billion annual budget. The U.S. national security space community is grappling with the revelation that many of its space capabilities are extremely vulnerable amid an evolving threat environment. As a result, Congress has reprogrammed $8 billion of the roughly $110 billion it plans to spend on military and intelligence space activities over the next five years towards increasing space protection and space control.
The potential for the commercial space sector to be a significant part of the answer to these challenges seems to be undervalued, and in some cases may actually be seen as unwanted competition.
The main driver, to put it bluntly, is fear. Fear that the United States won’t be able to control the technology. Fear that the national security community will no longer be able to keep its activities in space as secret as they once were. Fear that jobs will be reduced or relocated from traditional geographic centers. Fear that some government organizations and agencies may no longer need to do the same missions, maintain the same budgets, or even exist.
As a result, the U.S. government has established policies that severely restrict, and in some cases even prohibit, certain types of commercial space activities.
It should be obvious that stopping, or even controlling, the commercial space revolution is not a useful public policy option. Most of the technology driving the revolution comes from smartphones, cloud computing and the broader IT sector. That technology is already globalized, and Cold War technology transfer restrictions are increasingly ineffective in controlling space technology. Putting in place stricter policy restrictions or prohibitions on what commercial companies can do in space will only create greater incentives for the companies to relocate to other countries that might have more attractive policies. The end result would be the same global access to the capabilities, even less U.S. government ability to control them, and the loss of the economic benefits from a robust domestic industry.
Of all the countries in the world, the United States is best placed to be able to fully leverage the benefits from a robust commercial space sector. It was the birthplace of the computer revolution, and is the global leader in information technology. It has a strong legal system for protecting intellectual property rights while simultaneously encouraging robust competition. It is the U.S. commercial space industry, not government space programs, that will truly play to America’s strengths in a more competitive environment.
There are agencies within the U.S. government that have already embraced this approach. One standout is the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA). Under the leadership of Robert Cardillo, NGA is implementing a new strategy to find and exploit the innovations of the private sector, and increase the data and products it releases publicly. NGA understands that the only way it can succeed in a more complex and dynamic world is by staying ahead of technology trends, which in turn means embracing private-sector innovation.
The rest of the U.S. government should follow NGA’s lead and continue to implement the elements of the Obama administration’s 2010 National Space Policy that encourage, foster and leverage the commercial space revolution. The focus should be on putting in place policies that will enable the U.S. commercial sector to innovate even faster, ensuring that it will continue to outpace foreign competition and foreign government programs. Where necessary, the U.S. government should be funding basic research and development, incentivizing industrial R&D, and helping new technologies move through the “valley of death” from basic research toward commercialization. It should be looking at how commercial products and services can complement, or even replace, government-only programs. And at the same time it should be watching out for the public good and putting in place minimal oversight functions to ensure a sustainable, reliable and predictable space environment that allows private investment to flourish.
The commercial space train is leaving the station. The U.S. government needs to run faster to get on board or risk getting left behind.
Brian Weeden is technical adviser for the Secure World Foundation. His email is email@example.com.