Fears of a global economic recession, which Bloomberg Economics’ chief U.S. economist recently predicted would be “tough to avoid” by 2023, have bigger implications for the space industry than just stalled constellation launches. Could a worsening economy also reverse the momentum and efforts to manage orbital debris crucial to making space sustainable and safe?
The space sector generated $370 billion in 2021, reports Euroconsult, with some estimates putting the space economy at $1.25 trillion by 2030.
In a recent report, Citi has called space debris “a rapidly growing threat to satellites in orbit, future launches and the expansion of opportunities across the space ecosystem.” Boston Consulting Group, citing data from space insurance firm AXA XL, predicts the chance of a collision in LEO will grow sevenfold by 2030.
Human beings tend to be reactionary rather than proactive. But procrastinating on space debris increases the chances of ‘Kessler Syndrome’— where accumulated space junk could create a debris field so cluttered to doom future launches— becoming a frightening reality.
If we’re launching 40,000 satellites in the next decade without ensuring a safe roadway for all, the space environment will become constant chaos. Once multiple collisions occur, it will quickly escalate out of control and could derail the entire planet’s space programs.
We must ensure that whatever short-term downturn the space sector experiences in the next year doesn’t result in a 10-year gap in innovation in space traffic management capabilities. We can’t afford the kind of delay we experienced in U.S. human spaceflight after the U.S. Space Shuttle program ended in 2011. It took NASA over nine years to certify the Dragon spaceship, which marked the return of U.S.-led human spaceflight.
We as an industry must think more long-term – planning five years into the future, not 12 months ahead.
Carolyn Belle, director of Advanced Systems at Astroscale U.S., agrees. “We can’t stay with the same sort of mindset, the same sort of thinking that we had 20 years ago when we had fewer satellites, fewer operators, and launched them one at a time.”
Until now, the industry has looked at things “very much from a one-off satellite,” she continues.
Those days are gone. Fortunately, there are tools at our disposal that provide the ability to build, deploy and operate satellites in different ways.
And while a change of mindset toward the space environment doesn’t depend on funding, the innovation driving space sustainability efforts depends on ongoing investment. Unfortunately, funding for some of the most promising innovation is at risk.
Space industry investors I’ve spoken with overseeing smaller funds with more exposure to the public markets are already hunkering down for the economic downturn. This could mean tough times ahead for innovation companies forging new capabilities to better manage space assets.
Leveraging the Defense Sector
But one bright spot is the defense sector, which came to the rescue during COVID-19 and may well help space companies weather the latest economic headwinds. The U.S. defense spending bill for fiscal year 2023 provides $761.6 billion for the Defense Department, an increase of $32 billion above 2022 funding. In June, a House appropriations subcommittee added nearly $200 million for national security space launch, which already includes $3.7 billion for procuring satellites and launch services and $15.4 billion for researching, developing and testing space technologies. The government also has already begun distributing orbital prime contracts.
“Despite the challenges with the economy, we see defense spending remaining robust and space spending increasing,“ says Stuart Pettis, a retired colonel and Pentagon strategy veteran who was part of the planning team that built the U.S. Space Force.
Pettis emphasizes that space systems directly enable U.S. military operations, from satellite communications linking forces around the globe to real-time intelligence and navigation. “Unfortunately, potential adversaries have watched this for the past two decades and now openly talk about challenging the U.S. and our allies in the space domain,” he says. “As a result, the need to maintain awareness on what is happening in the space domain is more critical now than at any time.”
In the last four years alone, traditional adversaries like Russia and China, as well as non-adversarial countries like India, have created huge debris fields by launching missiles to destroy their own satellites. Russia, which controls critical aspects of the International Space Station’s propulsion control systems, has threatened to stop helping the space station navigate space debris in response to U.S. sanctions against it for its invasion of Ukraine. Clearly, the specter of international space warfare is all too real. The orbital commons must be protected.
Solving the Big Problems
If we want to expand, grow and survive as an industry, we cannot be shortsighted or insulated. Markets are cyclical, so planning around 12 months of volatility isn’t the way forward. We must evaluate our fundamental capabilities and solve the big problems that affect the entire industry. Space debris mitigation and traffic management must be front and center in that conversation.
Having universal knowledge of everything in orbit could prevent wars as well as ensure a robust space economy for generations. But, to get there, we first must work collaboratively and bring space sustainability into the mainstream of public awareness.
It’s also encouraging that agencies like the U.S. Space Force are keen to collaborate with the commercial sector. According to Pettis, who has worked closely with several U.S. Space Force senior leaders, “they’re genuine in their desire to partner and go fast. Having a service now focused on space will help ensure that there is a long-term focus here.”
Public awareness and commercial/government collaboration will be key to ensuring a sustainable space future.
Eric Ingram is co-founder and CEO of Scout, Inc., a startup offering in-space observation data and services. Ingram sits on the board of NOAA’s Advisory Committee on Commercial Remote Sensing and previously served in the FAA Office of Commercial Spaceflight, evaluating launch technologies for public safety and determining regulatory compliance for issuing commercial launch licenses. He began his space career as an engineer for asteroid-mining pioneer, Deep Space Industries, now part of Bradford Space.
This article originally appeared in the July 2022 issue of SpaceNews magazine.