The U.S. Space Force and other federal entities must formulate a top-level space vision and protect future space commerce, according to a new, 86-page report from the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL), the State of the Space Industrial Base 2020.
The study stemmed from a four-day May conference hosted by the New Space New Mexico space non-profit–a workshop that convened more than 120 experts from AFRL, Space Force, the Defense Innovation Unit, industry, and academia to discuss a unified space strategy.
The report, which updates a paper last year that laid out problem areas, contains 39 findings and 10 top recommendations–six for the U.S. government and four for industry. The top recommendation is for the U.S. government to promulgate “a whole-of-government, ‘North Star’ top-level vision and strategy for space industrial development” and to establish a presidential task force to execute that vision.
The recommendation for the U.S. government to lay out a “North Star” space vision “is particularly important, and I believe we’re getting there,” Joel Mozer, the U.S. Space Force’s chief scientist, said July 28 during a Center for Strategic and International Studies virtual discussion of the report. “In recent years and months, we’ve seen a lot of action in this direction.” Such recent moves have included NASA’s Artemis mission to return to the moon and the establishment of the U.S. Space Force last year.
“We’re laying some groundwork for it,” Mozer said. “However, it’s still significant that this recommendation came out on top from the workshop. It tells me we still have some work to do to describe this future vision that the nation can get behind and adopt. We have to be specific in what we want the future, as it relates to space, to be, and we must make sure that the decisions we make today and the directions we move in drive us to a future that we can all aspire to be proud of and live in someday.”
The lack of such a top-level vision, Mozer said, is “potentially disastrous.”
The second recommendation for the federal government is for DoD to develop “plans to protect, support, and leverage commerce in space.”
“The United States Space Force is to protect U.S. interests in space,” Air Force Col. Eric Felt, the director of AFRL’s space vehicles directorate, said during the virtual discussion on July 28. “As there gets to be more commerce and commercial activity in space, our mission in the Space Force will become to protect that commerce, protecting the celestial lines of commerce. Do we have the right technology in the technology pipeline to enable the Space Force to grow into that mission over the next decade? I think we have some good seeds there, and we need to fertilize those seeds and make sure that they grow.”
“In particular, I see a need for technology that is going to enable us to go into the cislunar area above GEO [geostationary orbit], and how we operate up there and maintain awareness of what’s going on up there, and I see a need for logistical activities. The further you go away from the earth, the more you need logistics–logistics that are going to make you more resilient in your space capabilities, not more vulnerable.”
The report also said that federal entities must invest in start-up space firms to retain U.S. leadership in space and ensure that foreign companies do not take control of such firms and endanger national security during a time of decreased economic activity due to COVID-19.
“Put the U.S. space industrial base back to work now by executing timely contract awards and modifications that scale prototyping, procurement and production efforts,” according to the report. “The space economy attracts investment capital (broadly debt and equity) by broadcasting its demand curve for the products and services that companies produce. The U.S. government can signal to private investors that it is a reliable customer for what we already committed to achieve in space.
“Private investment in commercial space activity is at an all-time high and growing as entrepreneurs and industrialists create new technologies and adapt existing technologies for space application,” the report said. “This is fueled by the decreasing cost of space access and broad advances in space enabling technologies. This provides the opportunity for an expanded space industrial base beyond ‘big’ aerospace companies that have traditionally supported government space missions. Much like the early days of the automobile or aviation, increased innovation is being driven by the addition of these independent visionaries who seek to find new, efficient, and effective ways to make money in space. These ‘new space’ entrants are a fast-growing segment of the US space industrial base.”
Such space entrepreneurs and entrants include Jeff Bezos’ Amazon [AMZN], Elon Musk’s SpaceX, Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Atlantic, and a number of smaller venture capital firms.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted the entire U.S. space industry,” the report said. “The magnitude and success of the industry’s recovery is uncertain and unpredictable. Maintenance and growth of the U.S. space industrial base requires the return of early-stage investment in launch, services, manufacturing and logistics companies. For the U.S., the COVID-19-produced global recession provides a dangerous opportunity for near-peer competitors to challenge or surpass the U.S. in Space by strategic acquisitions of companies and their intellectual property (IP) and/or maintaining investments while the U.S. private capital is unavailable and the U.S. government is distracted.”