Op-ed | U.S. should think about the space economy as a single entity

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Government and industry leaders have to bridge the gap between government and commercial space.

The pandemic is already having a significant impact on the space industry. Workforce reductions, launch and production delays, legislative process postponement and slowing lines of credit are just the most immediate and visible effects.

As the nation moves forward and recovers from the crisis, government and industry leaders have to think about how to bridge the gap between government and commercial space. Part of that involves getting the government to understand commercial space better and to change the way it looks at space as a whole, and educating the commercial sector as to how the government works.

Here are some ways the U.S. government, particularly the U.S. Space Force, can work to bridge the gap between the government and the private sector while creating a foundation for a lasting partnership that will ensure America’s continued leadership in orbit.

Consider the space enterprise as a whole

Operating in space today and well into the future is not an either-or proposition. It isn’t heavy launch or small launch. It’s not large constellations or gold plated school buses. The most effective solution in any operational domain is a blended, robust, and dynamic portfolio. We need to have small, dedicated launch that flies alongside heavy-lift flight proven rockets.

Why? If we only invest in heavy-lift, small experimental payloads will sit at the end of the queue. At the same time, small dedicated rocket platforms are limited by physics and can’t put aloft the heavy exquisite satellites that some government customers need. Across the board, flight-proven hardware also dramatically reduces costs and increases flight tempo. If integrated properly, it could well increase the resiliency of the architecture by allowing rapid replenishment of degraded architectures.

Equally, we need to look at how various constellations talk to one another and integrate with critical ground components. The days of looking at space as launch or as satellites in a vacuum are long gone. We need to start talking about and thinking about the system as a whole and integration across and through the architecture, not just single points or nodes of the network.

Match words with actions

Right now, there is a groundswell of interest in reforming the national security space enterprise. Indeed, there is probably no greater time in history than today to put into place the pieces necessary to ensure America’s space enterprise is prepared for the future.

Nearly all the Space Force leaders and senior military and civilian leaders within the Pentagon are saying the right things: We must go fast, we must innovate, we must change the way we buy space capabilities. But, and it’s a big but, if these words are not met with demonstrable action in procurement and acquisitions, a huge opportunity will be lost.

If the government’s new missile warning solution just looks like the existing solution with a different coat of paint, the commercial space industry will become increasingly jaded, and understandably so. Words must be met with action and (most importantly) funding, and sustained competition and innovation is that necessary action.

Be willing to think outside the box

Commercial space has and continues to outpace government development cycles. That is a simple fact. The government and its ecosystem — including the Federally Funded Research and Development Centers (FFRDCs) — need to be willing to embrace new and novel solutions to the space problems of today and tomorrow.

Just because it isn’t a “gold-plated school bus,” or does something that seems out of The Expanse, doesn’t mean it’s wrong. The government needs to be willing to take more risks on experimental capabilities. Fail is only a failure if lessons are not learned and future performance is not improved.

The government needs to look at investing in an ecosystem, not a sole solution, which feeds into the need for capabilities, not requirements. The government shouldn’t be in the business of picking winners and losers, it should however enable the market, define parameters, facilitate its structure, and let the market find the best solution to the government’s unique challenge, or buy commercially if that solution already exists.

There are, of course, some things that are purely governmental and for which a commercial business case will never exist — exquisite imaging capabilities, nuclear hardened communications, command, and control, among others. But, by focusing on commercial capabilities for the low-hanging fruit, more resources could be available for those truly unique missions.

COVID-19 is demonstrating the need, in a crisis, to cut through red tape and rules and regulations to get things done quickly. While the senior leadership of the government and military is keen to move faster in space, it is hoped that it will not take an equivalent COVID-crisis in space to truly accelerate the changes which are now in an embryonic stage.

Look at capabilities-based acquisition

With commercial capabilities and a truly dynamic adversary, we need to start thinking about the capability we want. That is a sea change in mentality. We need persistent overhead infrared imagery, but is SBIRS the best way to get that? What is it we truly need? Task commercial space with that request and see what capabilities they can develop.

Here we see some progress—the work of the Space Enterprise Consortium, Defense Innovation Unit, and others are working to bring in novel capabilities through non-traditional mechanisms. At the Space Pitch Day last fall, the Air Force awarded $9 million on-the-spot in San Francisco on its first day. These are great starts, but it must be integrated into the larger and broader programs of record.

Understand commercial approach to risk

Too often the government seems to look at commercial space as the wild wild west, taking risks with reckless abandon. Part of that is on commercial space. With mavericks like Elon Musk of SpaceX, Jeff Bezos of Blue Origin, and Richard Branson of Virgin Orbit, this cult of risk seems to be the norm in the eyes of the government. That’s simply not true.

By comparison, they are greater risk takers than the government, but these individuals and these companies are highly risk averse. SpaceX was, at one point, one launch failure away from closing up shop. These launch companies can’t afford a major failure as the commercial market will dry up.

Space is, and will remain, capital intensive, and capital-intensive activities involve increased risk. Just because a Silicon Valley billionaire is backing a project, or because a venture capital fund is investing considerable sums into a company doesn’t mean they are playing fast and loose. Failure is still failure, and failures in the aerospace industry are expensive.

The pandemic certainly impacts “new space” startups the most. The government could therefore play a beneficial role and further seed the ecosystem with assistance, grants, and small contracts. The government doesn’t need to pick the winners, but rather ensure that enough of a competitive and innovative environment exists, with defined left and right boundaries, to enable the best solution to rise to the top.

Think broadly about the space economy

We are on the cusp of accessing and operating in space to a degree never before seen in history. In-orbit manufacturing, space tourism, remote sensing, sustained human habitation in space, cis-lunar activity, lunar resource exploitation and more are all just over the horizon. To be sure, they have been over the horizon for some time, but it’s a lot closer than ever before.

If anything, the COVID crisis illustrates the necessity of having a healthy and robust space economy today. Relying on the status quo — flowing venture capital, stable markets and business as usual — is no longer sufficient. This is to say nothing of the impact that China’s saturation of the space market will have, something that is all but certain and just a matter of time.

Thinking broadly about the space economy means also looking at the totality of U.S. national space assets to include NASA, NOAA, the Departments of Commerce, State, and Transportation. We must look at the space enterprise as a whole just as we must look at the national security space enterprise as the sum of its parts. We can’t afford to look at space in silos alone.

With that in mind, we need to talk about the space economy as a whole. What do we want to do in space? Once we define that future, we need to build from the right and start making policy decisions today. Space is an open frontier right now, and we need to start defining what the environment looks like and how we want to ensure America’s leadership in orbit and beyond.

Joshua Huminski is the director of the national security space program at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress. He is also the director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs. He is on Twitter @joshuachuminski