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The future of national security and space is on display in Florida

The NASA moon rocket slated for the Artemis mission to the moon rolls back to the Vehicle Assembly Building at the Kennedy Space Center Tuesday, Sept. 27, 2022, in Cape Canaveral, Fla. The launch of the rocket was postponed due to the impending arrival of Hurricane Ian. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

The national security space enterprise today faces significant challenges but also presents a significant opportunity. 

China’s ambitions in space seek to counter America’s strengths but also secure its own capabilities in near-earth orbit and beyond. Meanwhile, the commercial space revolution is yielding not just tangible benefits for average citizens but is demonstrating its utility on a real-world battlefield in Ukraine.  

To see what the future of national security space looks like — in responding to this threat and leveraging the power of the commercial space industry’s innovation — one only needs to visit Cape Canaveral and Space Launch Delta 45 (SLD45), which along with other parts of the Space Force, form the newly established Assured Access to Space (AATS) organization led by Major General Stephen Purdy.  

For the past several years, the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress’s National Security Space Program convened experts from the private sector, government, academia and nonprofit spaces to explore the challenges facing our national security space enterprise. We discussed acquisition reform, changes to risk tolerance and mission assurance, the evolution of the next phase of the launch enterprise, the need to look at space as an ecosystem, regulatory reform and more. We’ve offered several sets of recommendations, hoping to help shift the needle on going faster in space. What is happening in Florida is extremely heartening as many of the recommendations we’ve outlined are being put into practice on the ground and not as an exception to the rule, but crafting a way of doing business for the future.  

For example, Assured Access to Space as a concept once meant simply having sufficient launch providers to put America’s exquisite national security payloads into orbit. Given the proliferation of adversarial space capabilities, China’s ambitions in near-earth orbit and beyond, and the rapid growth of commercial space, the narrowness of this concept is no longer appropriate. A broader definition, one that encompasses launch, platforms, the totality of the space enterprise and the need for on-orbit operations is required. This is precisely what SLD45, the Space Force, and Space Systems Command are pursuing as part of AATS the organization. It is an ambitious goal to be sure, and one that requires a much broader perspective on what national security space entails. 

Achieving what Major General Purdy and AATS envisions requires close cooperation between the government and the private sector. It requires the pairing of creative use of existing acquisition authorities with requirements generation. It necessitates changing the approach to risk and developing a sliding scale of appropriate tolerances for both contracting and mission assurance. It requires flexibility and adaptability, molding existing spaceport assets and platforms to meet the needs of the future while planning for future requirements. It requires a willingness to experiment and iterate, not letting the perfect be the enemy of good. All things that are currently underway at the Cape and SLD45.  

The future of America on and from space is found in Space Systems Command’s vision of space access, mobility and logistics. It is a vision that includes on-orbit repurposing and refueling, tug operations, debris removal and more. This is an ambitious plan, but one that could meet the challenges of today and tomorrow, while providing a pathway for leveraging commercial innovation. It offers a roadmap for the future, one that sees space wholly integrated into future operations, not merely something that is “up there” providing services to the terrestrial fight.  

To be sure, challenges remain, particularly with acquisition policy and resourcing. There is and will remain, a natural tension between the private sector’s need for market demand signals (and government investment), and the government’s hesitancy to abandon a measure of control of the market. They are, ultimately, challenges of policy and perspective, but as evidenced by what is happening in Florida, they are wholly conquerable.  

It is more than the transformation of the Cape into a true spaceport for the future or the burgeoning cooperation between the government and the private sector that is cause for optimism — though those developments are, absolutely, to be welcomed. It is also the enthusiasm of the Space Guardians, both civilian and uniformed, at the Cape, radiating the energy of a group of people focused on the task at hand, supported by higher leadership, and empowered to innovate for the future.  

The value of this culture of innovation and environment of support cannot be overestimated. It is more than just statements and policy pronouncements, but actually inculcates a space where the guardians and their support members can feel empowered to try and experiment, to find solutions, and to see their solutions put into practice. It’s not just big things, like transformational on-orbit solutions. It’s the little things like SLD45’s Radical Advancement Directorate encouraging creativity. If you create an environment where innovation is supported and acted upon, just imagine what it can do for the bigger challenges our country faces in space.  

After visiting the Cape, it is hard not to be optimistic about the future of America in space. With the space guardians of SLD45 and the broader Space Force empowered on the ground, supported by leaders like Brigadier General Purdy, and given political support by Pentagon leaders like Assistant Secretary of the Air Force Frank Calvelli, Undersecretary of Defense William LaPlante and Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall, it would seem that the best opportunity for success and getting space right is unfolding.  

We clearly have the “pacing threat” in China — a country that is rapidly advancing its position in space and seeking to supplant American leadership at every turn. With this urgent challenge upon us, the environment demands that we get it right, and right now.  

Glenn Nye is a former member of the House of Representatives and is the current president & CEO of the Center for the Study of the Presidency and CongressJoshua C. Huminski is the director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence and Global Affairs, and the Director of the National Security Space Program. 

Tags Politics of the United States Space technology United States Space Force US-China relations

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