March 30, 2022
Dr. Tim Welter co-chaired the event’s panel with Dr. Samantha Weeks (Mission Director, Science & Research for Space X’s Polaris Dawn and Vice President, Corporate Transformation at Shift4 Payment, Retired Air Force Col.). The panel consisted of Dr. Jerry Krassner (Potomac Institute Board of Regents member, co-founder and former National Chairman of MASINT [now ATIA], served as Chief Scientist in several offices at OSD and DIA), and Mr. Thomas Messegee (Spacecraft Design Consultant and Engineer). The conversation focused on the importance of the space domain to global competition and how the U.S. government can compete in that domain amidst increased advancements in space capabilities from geopolitical rivals (Russia, China) and the commercial sector. Dr. Tim Welter, and Dr. Jen Buss delivered introductory remarks.
Dr. Tim Welter began with a historical examination of the contributing factors to the U.S.’s past and present accomplishments in space. Welter remarked that tangible goals, such as winning the race to put a man on the Moon, provided unity and clarity to the U.S. space mission and acted as a catalyst for the U.S. to pursue a dominant role in space. The U.S. has depended on primacy in space for national defense, strategic communications, intelligence gathering, and economic prosperity. However, global space activity is growing. Other nations and commercial actors have significantly increased investments in space activities, creating a more interdependent, competitive, and perilous space environment for the United States. Increased investment rates in space pursuits from geopolitical rivals like Russia and China are an indicator of their recognition of the space domain’s importance to current and future global competition. These investments span from intelligence gathering to space exploration to terrestrial-oriented R&D and represent threats to U.S. military advantages and broader national interests. In addition, significant advancements in space technologies by private businesses have resulted in a proliferation of spacefaring capabilities in the commercial sector. The result is a transformed space ecosystem where U.S. space primacy is no longer assured. To retain its competitive advantage in space, the U.S. will need to develop a strategy that adjusts to these new realities. This will entail finding ways to incentivize and leverage commercial endeavors to assure America’s competitive edge in space in the future. It will need to foster collaboration with allies and strategic partners and maintain channels of cooperation between geopolitical rivals like Russia and China. Lastly, it will need to provide a tangible vision and mission like that of the 1960’s “Space Race” that unifies the American people and allows for continued U.S. leadership in space. As part of its Global Competition Project, the Potomac Institute commissioned a panel of experts to explore these issues and develop foundational references for policymakers, industry leaders and national security professionals to better prepare for near-peer competition.
Dr. Jerry Krasner began his remarks by observing that an era of U.S. space primacy has ended. He noted that this was a result of the fundamental changes in space domain activities in recent years, primarily in the number of countries with space assets (over 100) and the technological revolutions that have occurred in space launch, space flight, and orbit. According to Krassner, the proliferation of space capabilities has propelled us into an era of global ubiquitous space awareness that will limit the ability of the U.S. and any other nation to conduct operations secretly in space. The U.S. must respond to this transformational shift if it expects to be competitive on the global stage in the future. A major part of the response will be the ability to become faster, more cost-effective, and technologically superior to competitors. The U.S. government will need to partner with commercial industry in its space endeavors to achieve these objectives. Krasner mentioned several methods the U.S. government can use to incentivize commercial partnerships, including removing regulations that cause unnecessary delay and put commercial entities at a competitive disadvantage when partnering with the government; leveraging the tax code to incentivize industry partnership (R&D tax credits) and; promoting an immigration policy that allows the U.S. to attract and retain the best and brightest minds in STEM fields. Krasner noted challenges facing the U.S. space mission going forward: 1) Maintaining consistent objectives that survive administration changes. 2) Budget competition; the U.S. has many problems it will need to address in the coming years; how will the space mission remain a top priority? 3) The need to make the case to the public on the importance of the U.S. space mission. 4) Maintaining international cooperation with allies and adversaries in a heated geopolitical environment. Krasner closed his comments by suggesting that the U.S. should focus on securing its satellite assets from adversary attack and interference by distributing their capabilities between GEO-and LEO constellations.
Mr. Thomas Messegee began his comments with an acknowledgment of the importance the Apollo 11 mission played on inspiring a generation of American citizens, like himself, to get involved in the space field. Messegee emphasized that the U.S. does not have a choice when it comes to investing in space. The level of investment the U.S. has made in our space infrastructure requires us to do so. The U.S. currently manages over half of the 2, 787 satellites in orbit. Space operations are a multi-trillion-dollar enterprise that the U.S. cannot afford to cede ground on to adversaries. Messegee noted that the present and future state of the economy and our national security are directly tied to the state of our space efforts. The U.S. must maintain its technological edge in space if it is to remain a world power, much less succeed in global competition. Messegee noted several technological challenges the U.S. space mission needs to overcome to remain a leader in the field. These challenges include: The need to make launching assets into orbit cost-efficient. The advancement of space propulsion technologies and systems that overcome the limitations of chemical-fueled rockets (critical if we ever intend to get humans to Mars). Building artificial intelligence that can operate spacecraft will allow us to “launch and forget” the system, as it will be able to operate in deep space without a multi-billion-dollar terrestrial infrastructure. Lastly, improvement of in-orbiting processing power in spacecraft resistant to the harsh radiation environment of space (advancements in radiation-hardened microelectronics). Messegee concluded his comments by stating that the U.S. needs a unified goal like the Apollo missions that can inspire and attract the next generation of minds to retain America’s space prowess.
The Potomac Institute was honored to have Dr. Samantha Weeks co-facilitate the Q&A portion of the event discussion. Dr. Weeks weighed in on several of the questions, providing a unique and valuable perspective based on her diverse experiences from across her Air Force career and in the private sector.
Considering the reality of real-world geopolitics, is international cooperation a realistic expectation?
Mr. Messegee was the first panelist to answer the question expressing optimism that geopolitical adversaries like China and Russia will realize that the space challenge is too enormous for one nation to tackle by itself. Due to the limitations on the terrestrial resources of countries, levels of cooperation will be necessary for the space ventures of all parties to succeed. Krasner added that the space missions of all nations will require long-term thinking with measures that mitigate the effects of short-term political tensions. He added that collaborative space programs could improve.
Commercial space technology (like STAR-link in Ukraine) is demonstrating terrestrial impact on geo-political events. How will the commercial space industry look, going forward?
Mr. Messegee stated that the commercial sector will lead space exploration. Krasner introduced a sub-question to the panel that explored what would happen when a commercial entity like SpaceX has its space assets (STAR-link) targeted by nation-state militaries (Russia) and how they would absorb those losses if their systems were targeted in a military strike? There are currently many commercial space assets that have dual-use abilities for the U.S. government and military. The U.S. needs to take the necessary steps to limit the vulnerability of commercial space assets that are vital to our economic prosperity and could be targeted because of their dual-use nature.
What motivates people in the space industry to get involved and invest in the field?
Our panelists and Dr. Weeks gave multiple reasons for private entrepreneurship in the space domain to include the desire to make the space operations aspect of their business portfolio more efficient and profitable. There is also a shared desire amongst the personalities in the commercial sector to be a leader in the next frontier of human exploration. SpaceX and its vision to make humanity a multi-planet species was one example. Other reasons such as the improvement of conditions on Earth through space-oriented biological R&D and providing developing areas of the world access to space technologies (GPS, internet) were also given as examples.
How can the U.S. foster international economic growth through space exploration?
Dr. Krasner noted that policymakers need to demonstrate why spending on space is important and how the return on investment (ROI) of space-oriented R&D is beneficial for the average citizen. Messegee provided the microchip example of how R&D for microelectronic use in space resulted in a massive economic and technological boom for the global economy. Both panelists suggested that governments should support specialized research that allows for risk-taking and could generate revolutionary breakthroughs in technology. Doing so will encourage other commercial entities to undertake such future-thinking projects.
What are the focus areas for STEM education to move our space mission/goals forward?
Both panelists agreed that there needs to be sufficient incentives that inspire kids to enter STEM fields and contribute to the U.S. space program. Messege made the point that human-crewed U.S. space missions are a tool for inspiration. Krasner added the need to increase the diversity in representation in the U.S. space program to attract the best minds to space-oriented STEM fields.
Commercial and military spacecraft will use COTS microelectronics for performance and effectiveness. What are the policies the government should adopt to ensure mission assurance?
Mr. Messegee noted that the DoD operates on a different timetable than the commercial sector and at different security levels with regard to parts and supply chains for their respective platforms. The commercial development of spacecraft is often faster and less expensive but is more vulnerable to compromise due to less secure sourcing. Krasner added that the calculus for mission assurance has changed and is less about cost and more about supply chain security and stability. He recommended building secure supply chains that dispersed between domestic production and allies and strategic partners.
What is the high ground in space superiority as it relates to national security?
Dr. Krasner stated that situational awareness of space assets is the new high ground for our national security. He noted recent efforts by the Air Force to transfer elements of managing space assets to the Department of Commerce due to the commercial sector’s prevalent role in the current space domain.
What operational game changers have resulted from ubiquitous space situational awareness?
Dr. Weeks suggested that there is an understanding between nations that space is eventually going to be militarized. She noted the stand-up of the Space Force is evidence the U.S. has acknowledged where the domain is going in the future. Space militarization is an issue the U.S. will need to have a hard discussion about; measures that will need to be taken to defend our sovereignty and our government and commercial assets in orbit and around the globe.
From the cybersecurity perspective, what policies are needed to prevent adversarial compromise of space-based platforms and systems? Does international collaboration with adversaries make the U.S. more unsecure?
Both panelists stated that the most sensitive part of satellite operations is on the ground. Due to the globalized nature of key component supply chains, the risk of adversary sabotage will happen on the assembly line or when assets need to return to earth rather than cyber-sabotage of assets in orbit. Until there are secure supply chains and complete satellite networks in space that do not require terrestrial maintenance, the greatest security threats to our space systems will likely not be from the cyber domain.
How do we protect space capabilities that provide military advantage?
Both panelists acknowledge that there are plans for the military to operate without space-based advantages (GPS, communications, etc.). Dr. Weeks noted that the U.S. has conducted extensive wargames to explore the how the military would function without the space assets that significantly contribute to its advantages on the battlefield. Also, it was noted that the 2022 National Defense Strategy has sections tailored to addressing this challenge.
How do we match the operational priorities of the DoD with the need to partner with adversaries in space ventures?
Dr. Krasner indicated that there is a separation between how the U.S. has partnered in space with countries like Russia and China. He noted that the U.S. government and military does not develop systems and platforms in partnership with adversarial nations. Collaboration has occurred in the past in the use of systems from adversarial countries such as Russian rocket launch facilities to transport NASA astronauts to and from the International Space Station. This aspect of collaboration is a low-security risk to systems and platforms that the U.S. wishes to protect. Messegee noted that the U.S. will need STEM education to provide the workforce that will help solve internal problems (fast rad-hard, sensor fusion) that currently require us to rely on assistance from potential adversaries. Krasner added that the architecture and placement of satellites and space assets need to evolve. He suggested putting assets into different orbits to secure them from adversarial interference.
What are risks associated with human space exploration? How can we reduce such risks?
Mr. Messegee began by pointing out that NASA is currently looking to solve the problems of prolonged space flight by building faster propulsion systems that would get humans to their destination at greater speeds reducing radiation exposure. He also stated that we need to build better shielding from radiation if humans are ever going to explore deep space. Dr. Krasner noted that significant risk has been a factor of every human exploration endeavor ever undertaken. He stated that it is incumbent on us to find technical solutions to minimize risk, but that in the end exploration requires pushing the boundaries. Dr. Weeks added that taking up this problem is our generation’s task and implored us to rise to the challenge as previous generations have done. The Potomac Institute for Policy Studies has studied the radiation risk of deep space travel extensively. Terrestrial treatments and cures for cancer may reduce some of the complications resulting from space exploration. The Institute noted in its study that the principal limits on human space travel are more likely to be food, water, and air supply..
Takeaways and Key Themes
We are in an era of ubiquitous space awareness – The time in which the U.S. was the dominant player in space has ended. The ability to launch space systems into orbit as well as the ground control infrastructure are now disseminated across government and industry. The space domain has entered an era of globally ubiquitous space awareness resulting in new operational realities that require the U.S. to adapt. One is the militarization of space which the U.S. has already sought to address with the creation of the Space Force. Situational awareness and management of space assets should be the top priority for U.S. national security for space going forward.
International cooperation is required for U.S. success in space, even with geopolitical rivals – The challenges posed by gaining notable advnatges in space are too great for the U.S. to tackle alone. Due to the limitations on resources (cost, labor materials), the U.S. will need to collaborate with international partners for in future space ventures. This includes partnering with countries like Russia and China, which are geopolitical competitors to the United States. Until technological (and cost) breakthroughs allow the U.S. to solve specific space flight challenges internally, the U.S. will need to continue collaboration with competitor nations. Multinational projects such as the International Space Station represent the benefits of international collaboration and cooperation. International collaboration in space can also serve as an effective means for the U.S. to strengthen other ties with allies and strategic partners.
The U.S. government will need to collaborate with the commercial sector – The rapid advancement in space technology and capabilities by the commercial sector has changed the space ecosystem. The commercialization of space has played a critical factor in making space launch and orbit more economically efficient, resulting in increased private investment in space ventures. Commercial space technologies have also revolutionized terrestrial capabilities from medical care to materials R&D to telecommunications. As a result, the commercial sector is quickly becoming the leader in the modern-day space race. The U.S. government will need to partner with the commercial sector to maintain its competitive advantage in space going forward.
The U.S. government must outline tangible goals for space that generate support for future endeavors – the U.S. faces multiple budget challenges in the near future that will need to be addressed. To that end, the U.S. must provide a rational, unified message as to why investments in space benefit the average American citizen, both in the present and the future. Developing a national narrative for space that transcends politics and inspires the next generation of minds to join the U.S. space mission will play a critical role in generating support for future investments.