Artist impression of the Chinese Space Station – an 80-metric-ton modular Mir-class outpost in low Earth orbit. Credit: China Manned Space Agency

WASHINGTON — For four consecutive years, the “State of the Space Industrial Base” report has called out what it sees as outdated thinking in the U.S. government on the use of commercial technologies in space programs. 

The 2022 edition of the report, subtitled “Winning the New Space Race for Sustainability, Prosperity and the Planet,” was written by military and civilian officials from the U.S. Space Force, the Defense Innovation Unit, the Department of the Air Force and the Air Force Research Laboratory.

The content of the 110-page report was developed over two workshops held earlier this year with more than 250 participants. It echoes the themes of previous editions, arguing that the United States should lay out a strategy to remain a space superpower that embraces the private sector as a key partner to the government. 

“China could surpass the U.S. in space superiority if we don’t increase our investment,” Michael Brown, director of the Defense Innovation Unit, said Aug. 24 at an Atlantic Council event to discuss the report.  

Brown said the United States needs a “national vision” for space investment and innovation to stay ahead of China. The report, for example, says the government has to increase spending in space infrastructure like in-space mining, manufacturing and solar energy, which would stimulate private investment. 

The space economy is being “profoundly impacted” by private investment, said Brown, which means the government doesn’t have to bear all the cost. 

“Therefore, what’s required to win the space race is the strengthening of private-public partnerships that emphasize commercial technology over bespoke systems,” he added. “We need to provide government contract revenue to these companies building the future of space.”

Steven “Bucky” Butow, space portfolio director at the Defense Innovation Unit, cited the National Reconnaissance Office’s 10-year deals with three commercial imaging satellite operators as an example of how the government should work with the space industry.

“These are meaningful contracts by the NRO,” said Butow. “Now these companies can plan for the future as they are part of the government enterprise.”

Col. Eric Felt, director of space architecture at the office of the assistant secretary of the Air Force for space acquisition and integration, said the report lays out ambitious goals and bringing them to fruition will require significant cooperation and coordination among government agencies. 

Felt, one of the authors of the report, said it was important to keep repeating recommendations made in previous years because “we still have a long way to go in these areas.” Strategic plans and long-term visions are “hard things to do and we have not made enough progress.”

According to the report, “China is making steady progress toward their goal of surpassing the U.S. as the dominant space power by 2045.” Meanwhile, in the United States, “the agile engineering ecosystem that has become the hallmark of the new space era is at risk due to U.S. policy and procurement practices intended for a different era that embrace static requirements.”

Sandra Erwin writes about military space programs, policy, technology and the industry that supports this sector. She has covered the military, the Pentagon, Congress and the defense industry for nearly two decades as editor of NDIA’s National Defense...