Credit: SpaceNews/Midjourney illustration

Nick Reese is the cofounder and managing partner of Frontier Foundry, a data and artificial intelligence company based in Washington. He was the director of emerging technology policy at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security from 2019 to 2023.

Many in the United States are just beginning to fully understand the role services from space-based assets play in their everyday lives. These services do not simply impact individuals but businesses, militaries, critical infrastructure, and more. As more satellites are placed in orbit, and the cost per kilogram for space launches falls, experts and novices alike are increasingly engaging in calls to designate space as critical infrastructure. The commercial space industry is growing rapidly, and its convergence with emerging technology development is enabling novel space activities like permanent habitations on the Moon or Mars and mining celestial bodies. As the orbital space around our planet continues to fill with new satellites and those satellites provide us with more terrestrial services, the space domain is viewed as increasingly critical. From there, the conversations quickly shift to critical infrastructure designation. Those calls have grown louder in the past two years. 

A critical infrastructure designation means the potential for emergency federal funding in the event of a major disruption of critical services and more consistent access to federal government decision-making processes like the Sector Councils run by the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA). Discussing policy matters like critical infrastructure designations may be a good way to get a fussy toddler to sleep or to get yourself uninvited from trendy parties, but as we discuss the space domain, there are real impacts to this question. A rush to designate space as critical infrastructure under our current and terrestrially based model risks missing operations and functions that occur in space that are critical to the survival of space assets or humans operating in space. The conditions in space demand a model that conforms to the realities of the space domain and provides policymakers with a third option outside of to designate or not to designate.

In the U.S., critical infrastructure is defined by Presidential Policy Directive 21 as: 

“… sectors whose assets, systems, and networks, whether physical or virtual, are considered so vital to the United States that their incapacitation or destruction would have a debilitating effect on security, national economic security, national public health or safety, or any combination thereof.” 

Within this definition is a set of assumptions so core to our understanding of critical infrastructure as to often go overlooked. When we make statements in policy like “…considered so vital…” we are basing that statement on things like how important electricity is to our society or our need for clean water. In turn, those needs are based on the realities of our environment. Clean water is not abundantly available to everyone in society, so we need to take steps to ensure that access. Humans need food, and not every person in our society grows their own vegetables and raises their own cattle, so food and agriculture are critical. The list goes on, but the point is that these sectors are so designated because the environmental conditions make them vital to the existence of our society. 

On the other side of that coin, there are things that we have not and do not plan to designate as critical infrastructure but are equally vital such as air. There’s no critical infrastructure sector for air provision because air is abundantly available, albeit sometimes at varying qualities. Humans also require shelter, but protection from the outside environment is not considered critical infrastructure because I can open a window in my house at any time and the outdoor environment is not going to instantly cause me harm (with respect given to harmful ultraviolet rays that could cause cancer over time). These environmental factors drive what we do and do not consider critical and what we designate as critical infrastructure on Earth.

The environment in space is entirely different. Realities that we take for granted on Earth are potentially fatal in space if not managed correctly. In contrast to being on Earth, air is not abundantly available in space, and for humans to survive, it must be constantly provided. Exposure to the external environment would be instantly fatal, so protection in the form of a spacecraft, habitation, or spacesuit is critical. So are things like protection from radiation, propulsion systems, and other essential services. There are some that overlap with terrestrial critical infrastructure, such as communications, food, medical care, and energy generation. As before, the processes by which those services are achieved are wholly different from how they are done on Earth. Even building something like a transmitter that will be in space requires complex engineering and physical hardening to protect the same transmitter from the harsh environment. 

There are space systems in orbit today that absolutely meet the PPD-21 definition, but many of them are already covered under existing critical infrastructure sectors such as communications or information technology. Designating all of space as critical infrastructure under the terrestrial model is short-sighted and risks creating a framework for space activities that does not reflect the direction of the industry. 

First, the discussion about critical infrastructure designation today is built around the state of the space industry today and does not look forward to novel space activities that are in the near to medium term future. This debate is all about the services provided to Earth by on-orbit assets. The services provided to Earth from these satellites are certainly essential, but the space domain is quickly expanding beyond low Earth orbit, which is currently where the most activity is taking place. 

Second, this approach risks creating redundancies and confusion within current sectors. Specifically, questions like, “Do communications satellites belong to the space sector or the communications sector?” or “Are there now multiple sector-specific agencies for a single function?” become difficult to answer. Are we prepared to bifurcate certain sectors because they include space capabilities? 

Third, the sheer size of the domain and variety of functions make creating a sector-specific agency a serious challenge and getting that wrong could create barriers to innovation and expansion. Finally, and most importantly, trying to fit space into the terrestrial model of critical infrastructure ignores the baseline environmental factors that determine what is and is not critical at a fundamental level. Critical infrastructure should apply to the entire domain and not reflect one piece of the domain as a snapshot in time. The binary debate over whether to designate or not under the terrestrial model creates an artificial box around the direction of space policy that can have implications for future space operations, cooperation, norms of behavior, and an updated Outer Space Treaty. 

On April 14, 2023, Auburn University’s McCrary Institute published a report titled “Time to Designate Space Systems as Critical Infrastructure.” The report proposes designating space as the 17th U.S. critical infrastructure sector, with NASA serving as the sector-specific agency. This is just one of dozens of articles and reports that are a quick internet search away that all say the same thing; space as critical infrastructure. The McCrary report certainly makes the case for how critical space systems are to our society and the impacts that disruption may have. It even acknowledges that many space systems are covered under the current terrestrial model. However, the report addresses the binary debate, with both options applying only to critical infrastructure as we understand it on Earth. As emerging technologies and economic demand create innovations and opportunities in space, we need to stop thinking about space within our terrestrial model of critical infrastructure and start thinking about what aspects of space activities are critical in space. Today, space-based technology enables everyday services like position, navigation, and timing (GPS) and worldwide communications. For national security applications, space-based intelligence satellites provide timely and relevant intelligence information informing policymakers about critical decisions. Novel space activities, such as celestial habitation and mining, will continue to expand, as will our dependence on everyday services. Those activities will require the establishment of norms of behavior in space that are currently the subject of a separate debate. Instead, a space-critical infrastructure model that is separate from our terrestrial understanding of critical infrastructure will protect those functions and resources most critical to space activities and provide a framework for the establishment of norms. This piece proposes an initial set of space-critical infrastructure sectors to help break the binary debate and see space activities in a new way.

The question for space is not whether space itself is vital, but what functions in space are “so vital…that their incapacitation or destruction would have a debilitating effect on” the ability to operate and survive in space. 

A new model

Creating a new model of critical infrastructure that is specific to the space domain protects what is truly critical to space activities today and in the future while maintaining the coverage and protection related to space systems providing services to Earth. Some sectors in this initial model mirror those in the terrestrial model, such as communications, emergency services, transportation, or health care. However, it is important to note that even if sectors overlap between terrestrial and space models, they will be adapted and, thus, not entirely the same. For example, latency issues in communication and the potential for different time references at different locations in space create unique challenges for the communications sector that do not exist on Earth. Further work is necessary to make this proposal a reality, such as examining what a sector-specific agency approach would look like for space and how to address law enforcement challenges in space. The implementation of this model is achieved through the adoption of a policy, which is an ideal issue for the National Space Council (NSpC) to champion. First, a broad recognition of the need to create a new model of critical infrastructure across government and industry must be reached. Groups such as the Space Information Sharing and Analysis Center, CISA’s Space Sector Critical Infrastructure Working Group, and the European Union Agency for the Space Program would be excellent places to begin the conversation, and the NSpC is ideally positioned to lead this initial effort. Next, consensus must be reached on what sectors the space model would include. This can be done through a combination of government, industry, academic, and international working groups under the direction of NSpC. Then, a model analogous to the terrestrial sector-specific agency structure needs to be agreed upon for each sector. Finally, a study into the legal implications of space-critical infrastructure should be undertaken to determine the implications of attacking or otherwise violating critical infrastructure in space. 

The opening of a new domain has only occurred two previous times in human history: the air domain post World War I and the cyber domain in the 1990s. In each case, the structure around norms of behavior had to be built into what we know today. The U.S. military created the Air Force in recognition of the value of the air domain following World War II. The initial effort was bureaucratically chaotic, and there were those who opposed the initiative, but it was ultimately successful. Space has reached the same inflection point, where it is recognized that current frameworks do not fit the sector (as shown by the creation of the Space Force and reinvigorating the NSpC). As we collectively work to define norms of behavior in space, breaking the binary debate and creating a model that fits the domain will pave the way to long-term success for space operations, exploration and enabling a functioning space economy. 

Space Infrastructure Sectors

  • Life Support Sector: covers consumable oxygen and water and the systems in a spacecraft, spacesuit, or habitation that produce them. 
  • Communications Sector: includes communications from a spacecraft, spacesuit, or habitation to Earth, with satellites, between humans, and between spacecraft. Covered under this sector would be systems, transmissions, encryption, and other tools that enable communication to include cybersecurity.
  • Energy Generation Sector: Systems and processes that generate energy, such as solar technology, nuclear, or future energy-generation methods, will be a standalone sector to ensure their protection, resilience, and redundancy. 
  • Habitation Sector: covers the physical barriers between humans and the space environment in orbit, in transit, or on a celestial body. Included are systems that maintain the structure of the habitat and those that create a habitable temperature inside a spacecraft, habitation, or spacesuit.
  • Medical Care Sector: Covers the medicine, physical fitness, mental health, vitamins, supplements, etc., that support the physical and mental well-being of astronauts in space. 
  • Food Sector: Covers food, food sources, and systems that enable food storage, generation, and preservation while in space.
  • Guidance, Navigation and Control Sector: Covers all systems that provide guidance for spacecraft in orbit or in transit or rovers on a celestial body and would include position, navigation, and timing (PNT) services.
  • Emergency Services Sector: Covers emergency responses to an unexpected event, including medical, search & rescue, fire, law enforcement, and other emergency situations.
  • Transportation Sector: Includes infrastructure that moves humans in space, in orbit, in transit or on a celestial body. This includes propulsion systems.
  • Mining Sector: This sector considers all mining-related equipment and infrastructures, as well as space resources. Mining will be crucial to sustained presence as the means to obtain life support and fuel through in-situ resource utilization (Examples include metals, water (as a resource, for example, water ice in permanently shadowed regions, Rare Earth Elements, etc.)
  • Traffic Coordination Infrastructure Sector: this sector covers all spacecraft and infrastructure tasked with traffic coordination in order to avoid collisions that could create dangerous (if not deadly) debris in space or on a celestial body.
  • ISAM/OSAM Sector (in-space and on-orbit servicing, assembly and manufacturing): This sector covers any systems and services related to ISAM/OSAM, whether on board a low Earth orbit space station (e.g., Orbital Reef), in lunar orbit, or at the surface of the Moon (e.g., laboratory inside a habitat).
  • Information Technology Sector: any space mission relies on IT for survival, and this sector covers all vulnerability and cyber threats from the above sectors.

Nick Reese is the cofounder and managing partner of Frontier Foundry, a data and artificial intelligence company based in Washington. He was the director of emerging technology policy at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security from 2019 to 2023.