Opinion: The Innovation That Will Ensure U.S. Security In Space

king chess pieces
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During the Cold War, it was not the U.S.’ superior weapons or soldiers that ultimately led to the Soviet Union’s capitulation. Historians record that the relative economic might of the U.S. ultimately brought the Cold War to a peaceful and conclusive end. Three decades later, the U.S. again finds itself at the dawn of what many have dubbed the “Second Space Race,” for which the U.S. ought to remain mindful of this lesson, lest it be used against us.

The West is once again threatened by a hegemonic national security rival. This time, America’s archnemesis is characterized by planning for a long contest that will feature fast-forward economics, global diplomacy, military muscle and information manipulation: China, it appears, is preparing to use its economic power to win. While maintaining its deep belief in Marx’s communist vision, the Chinese one-party government has fashioned a national economy that learned from the Soviet Union’s mistakes. Through friendly engagement with Western economies, China strengthens its own economy and weakens the West’s, nudging the world toward the worldview of the Chinese Communist Party. 

What then, are the best avenues for the U.S. to win this new near-peer space competition? They are the same ones that delivered victory in the last century: free markets, real economic growth and the productivity that often follows. This time, however, we must keep in mind that our rival is a keen student that has learned from our earlier successes—and Soviet failures.

The American response must not repeat the Cold War strategy of outspending our rival in government programs. Instead, the U.S. long game must put the commercial industry first: deliberately buy goods and services from our commercial domestic market, only providing government solutions when the commercial market cannot meet requirements. Unlike other military services, there are no real “weapons” in space. Much of what the government is developing for civil and national security space needs also exists as products or services in the commercial market. By encouraging the commercial industry to grow and not competing against it, the U.S. will secure a long-term strategy leading to unrivaled space leadership.

The U.S. economy has generated growth and prosperity unmatched in human history, with billions of dollars being invested every year into profitable commercial space companies. To outpace China militarily and economically, the new administration must double down on space privatization projects like NASA’s Commercial Crew and Commercial Resupply Programs started under the Obama administration. The Trump administration correctly reprioritized the importance of space for national security, but it directed too much government spending to legacy space projects and fell short in encouraging the next generation of commercial space companies.

An American “commercial first” policy for space technologies can solve government needs at the federal and state levels, which account for about half of commercial space company revenue. By prioritizing the highly competitive commercial sector, the government will bolster U.S. competitiveness without illegally subsidizing it. More important, it would reinforce the American values of free markets and open competition.

As the new administration settles in, national security political insiders are already hedging their bets on who and what will be the winners and losers of the new political cycle. This is especially true for the space sector, not only because it was an area of significant emphasis during the last administration but also because there continues to be significant private investment and anticipated growth in the area.

The unrelenting march of the knowledge economy and remarkable utility of the commercial space industry is limited only to our imaginations. The new U.S. Space Force and other civil space agencies will be better positioned if they leverage the burgeoning industry and do not overshadow it with government alternatives. If, however, the government decides to compete against the private sector with its top-down directed design methods and protocols, our commercial industry will be lost to China, much like the drone market was just a decade ago. 

Economic dominance in the space industry, not space weapons, will ultimately decide which side defines the 21st-century space domain and the national security implications that come with it. America must strategically rethink policies that will take advantage of, rather than compete against, its blossoming commercial space industry. Getting space policy right—commercial industry first and using government solutions only when necessary—will lead to explosive growth. Getting policy wrong? Well, just ask the Soviets.

Charles Beames is executive chairman and chief strategy officer of Colorado-based York Space Systems and chairman of the SmallSat Alliance.

The views expressed are not necessarily those of Aviation Week.


Hopefully, someone will take the time to clean up near space, first. Otherwise we will not need Murphy, to create a disaster.....
"The U.S. economy has generated growth and prosperity unmatched in human history, ...". True, but it has also created, via tax cuts for the rich, the most unequal developed nation on earth with respect to the distribution of wealth and income. So what exactly are the American people paying to defend with their tax dollars?

Since fully 50% of the pentagon's budget already goes to pay private contractors, do we not already have a system with a significant "commercial first" component?

And before one blindly accepts the notion that "private enterprise" can always deliver the best product for the best price, one should consider what a marvelous product the KC-46 has turned out to be.
It has been the consistent position of the USAF that the service would define requirements and then buy the required hardware from private industry in much the same way as it has done with airplanes. The Air Force has no airplane or rocket factories nor even design bureaus with which to compete with industry. With space launch, the cooperative efforte with industry were further expanded to include launch operations, with heavy use of contractor workforces under USAF oversight and control.

This was all supposed to come to an end, with NASA's Space Shuttle, designed by that agency, as the replacement for all other launch systems. That experiment came to an end in 1986.

The USAF went back to its earlier approach to recover from the Shuttle debacle. People calling for a Commercial Approach back then apparently did not realize that the Air Force had always used a commercial approach.

The next approach, under Space Command, was with the Air Force taking a more distant role, using personnel that were more operationally focused, with less engineering and program management skill. This experiment came to an end in 1999, with the failure of three out of four Titan IV boosters at Cape Canaveral. Unfortunately, the earlier mistakes had so savaged the Air Force's expertise that recovery of it was all but impossible.

So, how much more "commercial" could the USAF get? And our experience with placing even greater reliance on private firms has not always been encouraging.
Releazer -- I think that one could argue that the XS-1 was conceptualized by the USAAF somewhat in the manner that NASA conceptualized the STS. And it turned out more successful, although somewhat obsolete due to the development of the F-86 and the failure to develop a successful turbopump for the first generation machine. A lot more successful than the STS.
Wealthy -- but surveys indicate more per capita happiness elsewhere. Recent developments show internal fragmentation and decay have increased. Our problems are not optimizing space economics, it is trying to get a coherent creative population.