Space race is on: US can’t afford congressional inaction in this critical economic sector
Last holiday weekend we were thankful to see the bipartisan effort of Congress confirmed by President Trump’s signing of the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act. This bold act demonstrated that our government can effectively work together on important legislation. Yet political paralysis threatens a number of important bills, budgets, and programs that should be nonpartisan. These include support for two organizations necessary to American success in the space-based economy of the 21st century.
Firstly, the Office of Space Commerce lacks appropriate funding and positioning. Established through the cooperation of a Democratic Congress and a Republican White House in the 1980s, this office is tasked with advocating for our commercial space businesses in the global market. While Bank of America and other experts are projecting a multi-trillion dollar commercial space economy, funding for the Office has been less than $2 million annually. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross has advocated for a modest increase to $10 million and for the establishment of a Bureau of Space Commerce, to be headed by an assistant secretary. This is the right plan for the globally competitive 21st century, and Congress should act on it promptly.
At the least, Congress must swiftly address the threat that space debris presents to commercial, civilian and military space systems. The President’s Space Policy Directive-3 (SPD-3) tasks the Office of Space Commerce to develop a new Space Traffic Management (STM) system by 2024. America’s commercial firms are in the process of launching thousands of new satellites that will provide global communications and daily Earth imaging. These massive constellations promise to transform the global economy in much the same way the Internet did during the previous two decades. That bright future deserves bipartisan support of the type the Internet received in the 1990s, under a Republican Congress and Democratic White House. While some favor a Department of Transportation led STM effort, an ongoing debate is simply allowing the problem to grow and puts our market advantage at risk. Congress must make a final decision and follow up with appropriate funding this year. If we fail to implement an STM system, our international competitors, notably China, will. As was the case with aviation, control over the international standards for navigation in space will provide a geopolitical and commercial advantage to whichever nation is prescient enough to set them.
Secondly, the White House has proposed the creation of an independent, sixth branch of the military, deemed a “Space Force” in the Senate and a “Space Corps” in the House. The time has come to recognize that the space domain is unique and rapidly evolving. Space is not an extension of air power; it’s an entirely different medium defined by vacuum and orbital dynamics. Ensuring the rule of law and protecting both our military and commercial assets in space requires an organization wholly focused on that task and led by the best and the brightest our nation can produce. We currently have military space assets spread across all the branches in a manner that provides for almost no coordination or efficiencies in operations or procurement. This is a dangerous arrangement in the face of growing competition from China, Russia, Iran and North Korea.
Importantly, a Space Force would allow us to develop and maintain a dedicated cadre of military space professionals who spend their entire careers developing the expertise needed to protect our nation and our commercial interests in space. At a panel discussion in Los Angeles last year, we both advocated for the Space Force, as well as creation of a Space Guard that would eventually perform constabulary activities and participate in international efforts to mitigate the impacts of orbital debris. Another member of our panel, Doug Loverro, who previously served as deputy assistant secretary of defense for space policy in the Obama White House, has just been selected to head NASA’s human spaceflight programs. Loverro points out that despite having invented aviation, the U.S. was completely unprepared when it entered its first air war, WWI. He has written, “The best assessments suggest that space combat operations could be over in a matter of days, if the country is not adequately prepared” and emphasizes that such preparation must take place now. Congress should stand up the Space Force and provide it with the authority to recruit personnel from all branches of the Armed Forces.
While partisan divisions will undoubtedly continue to grow through the coming election cycle, we cannot sacrifice America’s economic future or our national security by ignoring the pressing need for space legislation and budgeting. Our international competitors and potential adversaries would like nothing more than for us to allow these disagreements to distract us from the critical domain of the next century.
Greg Autry, Ph.D., is director of the Commercial Spaceflight Initiative at the University of Southern California. He served as a member of the Trump administration’s NASA transition team and as the White House liaison to NASA. George C. Nield, Ph.D., is the president of Commercial Space Technologies, LLC. He served as the FAA administrator for commercial space transportation from 2008-2018.
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