Let’s build a superhighway in space
America’s space systems are a vital infrastructure for our society. Satellites are almost invisible, but our economy and our safety depend on them. GPS satellites provide precise timing for every cell phone call, ATM withdrawal, and stock transaction. Weather satellites have saved countless lives by tracking hurricanes and locating emergency signals. Communication satellites provide streaming video, internet to airplanes and cruise ships, and emergency connectivity during natural disasters. Most of what we know about the changes to Earth’s climate comes from satellites. Earth imaging satellites, like the recently launched Landsat 9, help make the construction, mining , and agriculture industries more efficient. The military relies heavily on satellites to coordinate its worldwide operations and detect threats to our security. Recognizing America’s dependency on these space systems, Reps. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) and Ken Calvert (R-Calif.) introduced the Space Infrastructure Act in June, which would officially designate space as critical infrastructure.
And there’s more coming: We are in an era of exploding growth in space applications, which most people have not yet heard of. Companies are being formed to harvest resources on the Moon. Others are planning to manufacture in space, including artificial organs, pharmaceuticals and fiber optics. Satellites may soon bring the internet to every person on the planet. Space hotels are on the drawing board now, and some are even being built.
China has announced a vigorous program of its own for space development and executed some challenging missions. Having landed a rover on the far side of the Moon and brought back lunar samples, which no nation has done since Apollo, China indicates that the Moon is important economically, and views space through the lens of great power competition. Their development of antisatellite weapons is well known and a threat to U.S. capabilities in space.
What can we do to make the most of all this activity in space? First, we need to change our approach to space today to reflect its importance for the future. For example, a word that describes today’s satellites is “disposable.” We launch them and use them, but never inspect, repair, refuel, maintain or upgrade them. What if we could keep these billion-dollar assets going when they are running low on propellant? What if we could add new electronics to keep them up to date? Our rockets are also disposable. Companies are beginning to reuse parts of their rockets, but other parts are single-use and add to the growing amount of space junk.
The first satellite life extension missions are just going into operation. They are going to need supplies on a regular basis in order to be practical. And speaking of supplies, what about making our astronauts’ stays on the Moon more useful and longer-lasting? Even if we can use resources on the Moon, lunar astronauts are going to need food and other supplies from Earth. Space hotels will also need a steady stream of supplies.
The American economy on Earth is supported by a massive and complex investment of infrastructure for transportation and logistics. The Interstate Highway System, railroad networks, long-haul trucking, maritime and air cargo make our economy work. Logistics systems are flexible, affordable and ample. Very little is wasted — ships, trucks, airplanes and containers are reused over and over again. Every industry, every company, relies on some part of this logistics capacity.
Logistics systems also stimulate the economy. For example, the interstate highway system, formally known as the Dwight D. Eisenhower System of Interstate and Defense Highways, resulted in the long-haul trucking industry. The standard shipping container has been a major factor in the globalization of the world economy. New industries have developed because of the convenience, scalability, and flexibility of logistics.
Should the United States invest in a logistics infrastructure in space? Should we provide transportation, depots, energy and communications that serve the many space businesses and government space programs? The answer is yes, and the time is now to begin building the Space Superhighway.
Technologies are in hand to build a space-based logistics infrastructure like the interstate system and containerized shipping industry. Systems that enable satellite inspection, repair, and modernization in space are already in advanced development. Some companies are already designing future satellites to be able to be refueled and to receive electronics upgrades while on orbit. Building the Space Superhighway — space tugs, fuel depots, and adaptable satellites — will move us from “disposable” to “reusable” systems in space. Every space project, from factories in orbit to habitats on the Moon, can benefit.
Providing far-flung space systems with affordable and timely logistical supply will stimulate economic growth, jobs, and new businesses. The best model is a privately funded and operated one. The U.S. Government could provide seed funding as it has done to stimulate other space programs. Technological support, policy and regulatory interventions, and services contracts will help the fledgling system get on its feet. That will help to attract the private capital needed to build out the system. Other government actions could also serve to stimulate the development of a space logistics infrastructure: a focused R&D tax credit would be valuable, as would the creation of a space technology opportunity zone. But the private sector brings the efficiency, agility, and capital that will be needed for long-term success.
Space is a growing part of the nation’s economy and has positive impacts on society far beyond its revenues and markets. The Space Superhighway can be a whole-of-nation project, a worthy legacy for this administration and Congress, building back better to change forever the nature of space. It will span the many new space ventures now blossoming, generating social and economic benefits for generations to come, while providing America an advantage in the face of the strategic competition in space.
Dr. Gordon Roesler is the president of Robots in Space LLC, providing consulting services to government, industry and academic institutions. He was formerly a program manager at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, where he led programs to provide services to satellites in orbit around the Earth. He is a graduate of MIT and the United States Naval Academy.