We need an 'America first' approach to space

We need an 'America first' approach to space
© Getty

No time like the present. The commercial space launch sector is on a rip, with market experts projecting it will exceed $5 billion by 2024, driven by mounting national security and communications demands. Launch capacity will proliferate to match the shape, size, profusion and confusion of security threats, and tracking requirements. Big question is: Are we ready?

Here are the top three concerns policy makers and average Americans should be tracking.


First, in world of high competition and natural concern for American space industry jobs, it makes sense to incentivize smaller American companies to develop and deploy space launch technology.


One way of doing that is to “buy American,” or insist that federal space launch purchases track purely American companies, making launches exclusively from American soil, reaping the dual benefit of creating space industry jobs for Americans in America and keeping national security assets on U.S. soil.

That is timely, since America’s space industry peaked in 2006 with about 267,000 employees, and has suffered steep declines ever since. Corroborating a need to rebuild America’s space industry, recent Labor statistics show a 16 percent drop in employment between 2005 and 2015 in six sectors tied to space.

Admittedly, Congress and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) have encouraged America’s private space launch sector to embrace risk by providing partial indemnification for accidents. As one 2009 study explained, “The FAA fashioned a three-layer approach to covering third-party claims from private launches.”

Federal indemnification is good, but needs revisiting. Are we accidentally indemnifying foreign — or mostly foreign — companies that make a pretense to being American? Are we accidentally encouraging job-creation on foreign soil by indemnifying those who launch on foreign soil? And are American taxpayers being asked to hold pay for companies that goof when launching on foreign soil? If so, we need to be more specific – indemnifying only those who launch on American soil and are at least majority American financed. Common sense, right?

Second, big concern is national security. As the global launch market heats up, and as national security threats proliferate — big, medium and small, every continent and latitude — are we assuring that our national security assets, those headed for all orbits, are solely launched from U.S. soil?

When it counts most, beyond the added risk of pushing classified assets to space through foreign countries, we need to be 100 percent confident — which comes from launching exclusively from U.S. soil. We must seize and hold the ultimate high country.

Third, big issue, versatility of launch options. As the American private space launch sector expands, are we staying nimble? What we do not need is reliance on one or two behemoth companies that monopolize federal contracts and charge through the nose. Needed is a range of options, with smaller companies specializing in launch to lower earth orbits, fast response to crises, quick deployments, and modest cost, paired with seasoned heavy lift options.

In the end, many issues fence the discussion of proliferating American space launch capacity — but creating and keeping jobs in America, not launching national security assets from overseas for any reason; assuring federal indemnification flows strictly to American companies who launch from American soil; and assuring the sector is increasingly nimble, with every size and type of company being incentivized to grow, will be essential elements.

If we can track, guide and land the projected growth in America’s private space launch capacity — keeping it right here in America for Americans — we will be on our way to opening up a new frontier, in space and America’s space industry. No time like the present.

Kent Johnson, Lt Col, USAF (retired), is a former F-15 Strike Eagle and A-10 Warthog fighter pilot, political-military advisor on the staff of the Secretary of the Air Force (International Affairs). Johnson is a fellow of the Royal Aeronautical Society, and senior adviser to the Royal Air Force think tank. Johnson is an adjunct at North Central Texas College specializing in defense studies.