Lost during the recent controversy of Donald TrumpDonald TrumpTrump touts affordable childcare plans House Dems launch pro-broadband privacy petition Moving the point of obligation is the latest misguided ploy to undermine the RFS MORE and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s dinner-table planning of a response to North Korea’s recent missile launch was admiration that the leaders knew about the launch mere minutes after the rocket engines ignited. That timely intelligence came not from a secret agent passing coded messages out of North Korea, but from America’s unblinking eyes in the sky – satellites.
Two constellations of American military satellites, the Defense Support Program (DSP) and its successor, the Space-Based Infrared System (SBIRS), orbit Earth and watch for the tell-tale burst of infrared energy that indicates a rocket engine in flight. Anywhere a ballistic missile takes off, the U.S. military knows almost immediately. These programs, which combined the efforts of thousands of American workers and military servicemembers with billions of dollars of government investment, are an example of America’s amazing outer-space infrastructure.
Asked what the U.S. government does in space, most Americans would think first of NASA’s astronauts, but only half of NASA’s budget goes toward human spaceflight, while the rest funds scientific investigations of aeronautics, space, and technology. NASA is great, but it is far from the only U.S. government agency doing great things in space.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) operates satellites that have dramatically improved weather forecasting in recent decades. The infrastructure investments in space-based weather monitoring have paid for themselves many times over. For example, without data from NOAA’s weather satellites, meteorologists would have falsely told East Coast Americans that Hurricane Sandy was heading out to sea, instead of alerting them of the urgent need to evacuate as the deadly storm barreled up the East Coast.
U.S. Military and Intelligence agencies operate dozens of satellites that provide secure communications, remote surveillance, weather data, and missile and nuclear detection to the American national security community. These capabilities are vital to America’s security, but much of the military’s space infrastructure has equally important benefits to civilians. The U.S. Air Force, for example, runs the satellite-based Global Positioning System (GPS). Everyday American’s enjoy GPS’ help in navigating with their smartphones, but GPS also provides critical data for America’s electrical, transportation, communications, and even financial systems. According to one study, annual GPS’ economic benefits are nearly half a percent of the entire American Gross Domestic Product.
Which brings us back to President Trump. On the campaign trail, Trump pledge to spend $1 trillion dollars building bridges, roads, rails, and airports across the United States to create jobs and grow the economy. In the face of such a towering number, allow me to offer a modest proposal: President Trump should look higher.
As much as America’s government space programs have accomplished, there are many aspects of our nation’s space infrastructure that are crumbling every bit as badly as interstate highways. Take a tour of most NASA or Air Force space facilities and you will see buildings that predate Neil Armstrong’s first walk on the Moon and that have been postponing badly needed maintenance since the end of the Cold War. Space is an inspiring part of America’s history, but the country’s space facilities should represent the technological state of the art, not a rusting time capsule from the 1960s.
In orbit things are better, but not by much. Budget cuts, outdated contracting practices, and pork-barrel congressional politics have caused cancellation, multi-year delay, and mismanagement of many promising space projects. As a result, some government space systems launching today are far behind the commercial technology state-of-the-art. The military’s newest communications satellite boasted six gigabits per second of communications capacity. A commercial satellite launching this April will have more than 50 times that figure, even though both satellites are built by Boeing.
It’s not just the military’s satellites that could use a boost. The Government Accountability Office has two NOAA weather satellites on its list of high-risk missions. Budget cuts and program delays have left the whole system is remarkably fragile: a couple of high profile satellite mission failures – a real possibility in the dangerous environment of space operations – could devastate America’s weather-prediction capabilities.
Like a falling bridge, these challenges cry out for renewed investment and attention. According to the Department of Homeland Security, 16 of the 18 identified critical infrastructure sectors rely on GPS and other government space capabilities. America’s space investments directly create hundreds of thousands of good jobs and indirectly support millions more.
If Trump is serious about investing in infrastructure that will make America great, he must not forget about the country’s infrastructure in space.
Greg Allen is a George Leadership Fellow at Harvard Kennedy School and Harvard Business School. He previously worked on space issues at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.
The views expressed by this author are their own and are not the views of The Hill.