Space is no longer a benign operating environment and is becoming ever more congested, contested, and competitive. Success in modern warfare depends on effects delivered by and through space-based capabilities from GPS, to weather, to imagery, to missile warning, and communications. Near-peer competitors are aggressively developing, testing, and deploying capabilities to counter America’s strategic military advantage on the “ultimate high ground.” Our current space architectures are vulnerable to attacks. Vulnerability is provocative. We must build more resilient architectures capable of withstanding and recovering from attacks. The Department of Defense needs to develop rapid reconstitution options, proliferate capability across DOD, allied, and commercial constellations, and enhance protection among commercial systems.
Our current space architectures are generally walled off from each other creating unnecessary challenges and inefficiencies for our warfighters. Custom-built, stove-piped space systems drain manpower and sustainment resources, inhibit timely information sharing and real-time situational awareness, and make it difficult to insert competitively awarded plug-and-play capability upgrades. In particular, ground segments must be considered as an enterprise with maximum interoperability. The DOD should begin to integrate architectures by requiring multiband terminals and implementing a strategy to automate commercial and military information sharing.
DOD space systems often suffer from cost and schedule overruns during acquisition, and high sustainment costs and diminishing technological superiority once fielded. While some defense missions have no commercial equivalent, there are plenty of opportunities to integrate commercial solutions. Leveraging commercial enhances resiliency and reduces costs. Buying data and services in a competitive market is often more affordable compared to DOD buying, owning, operating, and sustaining its own systems. In some cases, modified commercial solutions can meet specific military requirements. DOD should leverage commercial solutions by better utilizing hosted payloads, buying commercial satellite communication services, and purchasing commercial weather data and services.
NASA is an exceptional agency that has inspired billions of people and transformed the human condition. It has taken humans to the moon and expanded our knowledge of the universe. In spite of its amazing accomplishments, the United States has seen NASA devolve from a human presence on the moon, to maintaining a presence only in low Earth orbit, and now finding itself dependent on Russia for human access to space.
While this may seem bleak, NASA has made steady progress in commercializing its enterprise in low Earth orbit in order to share costs with various market segments, the Department of Defense, and international partners. American commercial enterprise now regularly resupplies the International Space Station and will soon reestablish capabilities to take American astronauts to the ISS. When space exploration is in the national interest, and the capital costs and risks are too high for commercial enterprise, NASA should focus on pioneering space with a purpose to retire risk and commercialize programs.
Over the past twenty years, 27 NASA programs have been cancelled at a cost of over $20 billion to the taxpayer. Many of these have come as a result of changes in presidential administrations. Due to the decades-long timelines of many NASA programs, the NASA administrator should have a set term that spans multiple administrations. And instead of ever-changing Congressional budgets, NASA should be given certainty and flexibility to spend resources where most critical. In return for this stability, mechanisms must be put in place to ensure programs remain on track and leadership is held to account.
The National Research Council reported in 2014 that NASA’s current budgets, strategies, and missions will not get the United States to Mars. Mars should be the horizon goal, and a clear plan entailing necessary funding levels and strategic missions is critical to success.
Commercial space capital requirements and risks are sizeable. The United States commercial space industry must be provided maximum regulatory certainty with minimal regulatory burden. Regulators must be properly funded to provide licenses and reviews in a timely manner. Regulations must be updated so innovative, non-traditional activities, such as on-orbit servicing and human habitats, are in compliance with international treaty obligations and provided a level of regulatory certainty. Regulations must also be updated to allow spaceflight participants to receive training in space support vehicles.
Commercial solutions must be considered when assessing government missions. Commercial service providers maintain distributed, disaggregated, and rapidly refreshed constellations that add resilience to space architectures while sharing costs across numerous non-government market segments. Traditional methods of acquiring government owned and operated space systems often cannot keep pace with the technological and cost reduction capabilities of commercial service providers.
A 2013 study by the Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee determined that the debris population in low Earth orbit will continue to grow due to collisions even if nothing new is launched, with catastrophic collisions occurring every five to nine years. However, launches will continue with increased frequency, meaning the space environment will become unsustainable if not for responsible leadership. It is time for a new approach to the monitoring and management of the space environment. A commercialized conjunction analysis and warning center, overseen by a civil agency, should fuse unclassified Defense data with data from international and commercial sensors to provide a single integrated space picture. Eventually, this information should be used by a civilian agency with authority to take action to minimize collisions in space. This will preserve space access for generations to come.