Op-ed | Space commerce accelerating
Space has forever captured the imagination of people around the world. Starting in the late 1950s, the United States and the Soviet Union recognized the national security importance of space, fueling the initial space race that culminated in the Apollo moon landings.
China’s successful lunar landings and Japan’s impressive return of a sample from the asteroid Ryugu are part of the new race to leverage the economic potential of space, with even higher stakes. Private companies, investors, and over 70 nations are placing huge bets on space technology in order to reap both economic and security benefits. Competition is increasing, especially between Western nations and China.
Our advantage in this new space race is the U.S. commercial space industry. It is critical that we continue to enable American entrepreneurs and innovators, lest we miss the opportunity and potentially lose the race.
The space economy is accelerating. Over 80% of the rapidly growing $423 billion global space economy is commercial. In 2020, the commercial space industry shattered records by launching over 1,000 spacecraft to orbit. Space activities that only existed on paper a few years ago are now being demonstrated and entering operation. Reusable launch vehicles, 3D printing in space, and in-space refueling are just a few of the developments that have emerged from a diverse community of U.S. entrepreneurs.
The federal government’s role is still important but changing rapidly. President Donald Trump’s decision to reestablish the National Space Council in 2017 signaled this Administration’s renewed emphasis and support for space activities. Space remains a vitally important strategic domain for the United States, but we also fully recognize it as an important commercial domain as well. Space will have over $5 trillion in annual economic impact in the U.S. alone across areas like weather, navigation, finance, communication, entertainment, and others. The aerospace industry is also a key driver of high-tech talent and enables millions of high-paying jobs across the country.
The National Space Council, led by Vice President Mike Pence, spearheaded U.S. government efforts on a wide range of complex space issues: exploration, regulatory reform, space debris, cybersecurity for space systems, and others. This “whole of government” approach allowed for rapid progress to advance our national space goals.
Now, the Trump administration’s newly released National Space Policy provides a forward-looking foundation for the future. The policy provides lasting guidance to federal agencies on how to encourage continued progress in space exploration and space commerce. It sets the stage for American businesses to thrive domestically and compete internationally as the global space economy grows into a trillion-dollar market.
As secretary of commerce, I am pleased with the emphasis placed on commercial activities with the National Space Policy. While the Department of Commerce has the lead role for advocating on behalf of the U.S. commercial space industry, many other federal agencies explicitly recognized the importance of a strong commercial space industry to our national and economic security while developing this policy.
More importantly, the federal government is already taking bold actions. Perhaps the finest example of this has been NASA’s partnership with SpaceX that resulted in the first launch in nearly a decade of American astronauts in American rockets from American soil. NASA has been a longtime proponent of commercial space and is partnering with commercial firms for key elements of future deep space exploration, such as the landers that will map and collect water ice samples from the Moon. This past October, NASA’s incredible landing and sample collection on the asteroid Bennu has provided new inspiration for companies striving to utilize space resources, including, ultimately, mining asteroids. Mars is next: NASA’s Perseverance Rover is expected to land there in mid-February 2021 to continue America’s exploration and understanding of the Red Planet.
Commercialization is fueling our advance in space activities. The application of sensible business practices and efficiencies — like reusable rocket boosters — has lowered the cost and increased the availability of launch for new space missions. The revolution in small satellite technology allows for much greater innovation and flexibility in the development of new space architectures. Developments in related technology areas are dramatically increasing throughput for communications satellites and enabling an explosion in the volume and diversity of remote sensing information and other space-based data. Advances in artificial intelligence and data management are able to use space-based data to help us make better decisions here on Earth. We continue to leverage the unique contributions of past space investments as we navigate the COVID-19 pandemic, through virtual webinars, telemedicine, and distance learning.
Novel missions like space tugs, commercial space stations, and on orbit servicing manufacturing and debris removal are just around the corner. Scientists and entrepreneurs are experimenting with how to grow food in space and how to mitigate the harsh effects of the space environment on the human body. Right now, we are developing the infrastructure needed to support the next wave of space exploration, from deep space communications to housing and training the first generation of pioneers who will live sustainably on the moon. We expect to see space tourism flights take off in the latter half of 2021.
Additionally, the advent of satellite servicing revolutionizes the economics of space. The first of Northrop Grumman’s Mission Extension Vehicles has already breathed an additional five years of life into an aging Intelsat satellite, and the second is on its way to serve as a fuel source and engine for another. Companies are pursuing additional capabilities from satellite inspection to on-orbit assembly and manufacturing. OrbitFab’s first satellite refueling tanker is scheduled for launch early next year, signaling the maturation of a key technology for interplanetary travel. Beyond the obvious technical benefits, these developments will help sharpen the business cases that encourage private investment and enable a truly sustainable human presence in space.
The strategic importance of these commercial developments is immense. A hallmark achievement of the Trump administration has been the establishment of the U.S. Space Force to address the complex security environment in space. From my perspective, the Space Force will provide a secure and stable environment that will encourage continuing investment in space and the expansion of the space economy. Our national security community depends increasingly on leveraging the speed and agility of commercial innovations. The “pitch days” held by the Space Force and other national security space organizations demonstrate a new flexibility in government acquisition and allow for targeted investment in early-stage innovative space capabilities.
Even as the Space Force deals with challenges from our adversaries in space, we will have to remain vigilant and be ready to take action to ensure fair competition in space markets on the ground. The Trump administration has taken bold action to modernize regulations that have been holding back private sector growth and discouraging investment in the U.S. commercial space industry. U.S. economic development and export financing agencies are pushing back on China’s aggressive “belt and road initiative,” which seems designed to hold developing space partners hostage and prevent market access for U.S. commercial space firms. The U.S. must not only remain the “flag of choice” for commercial space activities, but must also work harder to boost our partners and allies’ space capacity, economic growth, and sustainable development.
Partnerships have been another key pillar of our approach to space. From the Artemis Accords to my department’s ongoing efforts to engage like-minded nations on ways to mitigate space debris, the United States is committed to mutually beneficial partnerships that advance safe and responsible exploration of the moon and the advancement of space commerce. This includes strategic allies, such as Japan, who see the security and economic threats posed by China. Other partner countries, such as the United Arab Emirates, are inspired as much by the potential for workforce development and economic growth as they are for the exploration of the heavens.
While we are proud of our successes during the Trump administration, there’s still plenty of work to be done. Government initiatives and investment will remain important, especially for the most ambitious scientific and exploration missions, and they must be done in partnership with the private sector. Regulations must be continuously reevaluated to keep up with the blistering pace of technology innovation and commercialization. The government must also consider whether new commercial space missions exceed the scope of current licensing authorities and take swift action to address any gaps. And we need to deal with the problem of space debris — now! Despite any challenges, the future is bright, and the space economy and the benefits of commercialization are central to achieving our nation’s goal of a safer, more prosperous, and multi-planetary future for humanity.
Wilbur Ross is the U.S. secretary of commerce under the Trump administration.