Several years ago, while still in the early years of SpaceX launches and before other domestic suppliers began to take notice of the competition, a very senior level discussion took place within the Pentagon. At the time, much of space policy focus was on the domestic industrial base, assured access and the appropriate risk mitigation steps the U.S. government should take in allowing SpaceX to launch our most exquisite satellites. The discussion pivoted to our ambition to have the United States regain its position as the preferred launch provider for not only American satellites, but also other countries’ satellites. At one point in the discussion, I turned to Elon Musk and asked him, “what do you see as the biggest threat to your launch business?” Clearly not his first time thinking about this, his answer was immediate and straightforward, “I’m not really concerned about the U.S. or Europe, it’s China that concerns me most.” Yes, that was Elon Musk’s response in 2012, but nothing became of that part of the conversation. At least, not until President Trump signaled America’s relationship with China is broken and a huge part of his legacy would be to fix it.
Welcome to the next space race, wherein if our goal is to make U.S. space great again, we must first think about the domestic space industry landscape for the next twenty years.
There can be little doubt now that future of the worldwide space business is careening towards thousands of smaller satellites in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) at a rate that is getting noticed by even the smallest nations in the world. China is on a crash course to leverage the West’s 50 year investment in space with massive investments and alleged outright theft in next generation launch and small satellite technology. Simultaneously, there is plenty of evidence that China has stepped up its active espionage and is investing in American companies, either directly or through proxies to monitor and access our innovative technology base. Other countries are doing the same to likewise gain access to the growing market.
Funded by foreign government grants, sovereign funds or companies largely owned by other countries, these companies see a bonanza of business opportunity in the “next big thing”—the multi-trillion-dollar space economy. Meanwhile, because of both legal limits and cultural inhibitions, the U.S. government is doing very little. While an occasional study or two is good for a press release, it pales in comparison to the aggressive actions taken by other countries with far fewer resources. The Space Pitch Day, hosted by the Air Force in October, was a welcomed cultural pivot and all involved in the next generation space economy applaud the leadership behind its motivations. But even $9 million pales in comparison to the billions of dollars being invested in next-generation space by our foreign adversaries and competitors.
With the support of their own governments, these companies are positioning themselves to outpace American companies in the free-market space business of the future. And to add insult to that injury, many of these foreign-owned companies are becoming so competitive they are winning contracts from our very own defense department and hiring American trained engineers and technicians to fulfill them. The United States government is no longer competing with just Silicon Valley for its best and brightest minds as competition is now coming from abroad. For example, the Department of Justice recently announced that in an act of Chinese aggression, hackers allegedly broke in and stole data from more than 45 tech companies and government departments, including NASA. FBI Director Chris Wray reported on the event saying, “China’s goal, simply put, is to replace the U.S. as the world’s leading superpower and they’re using illegal methods to get there.” China certainly has its sights set on becoming the largest commercial aviation market in the world by 2022 and now it is looking to further its aerospace aviation technologies as a strategic national priority.
Much like the aircraft business, any commercial space company needs to maintain a reasonable level of government work to be profitable and competitive—usually no less than 25% of a company’s business. By not looking to U.S. companies as a key part of their future industrial base, the long-term consequences of the government’s behavior translate to American companies having an increasingly difficult time competing for international business. Labor rates in China and other emerging markets, combined with their far less stringent export control, puts it on a trajectory to prevent the U.S. from competing in the future space economy. This behavior mirrors Musk’s own prescient warning about China and puts the U.S. space industry on a glideslope towards oblivion in the next decade or so.
Some look to NASA’s Artemis program as signaling the reemergence of U.S. leadership and grandeur in the future but the recent past is likely just prologue. Despite Doug Loverro, one of the most accomplished space visionaries in government today now leading the charge, the deck is stacked high against him. Today’s hyper-partisan congressional politics leads to ping pong policy support for alternating agendas and often translates into billions of dollars poured into geographic sinkholes with little tangible results. While Artemis may be very important for diplomatic, military or even national prestige, going to the moon again will do very little to advance our real power to influence the world in an economic sense.
It’s time for the U.S. to become as supportive of its commercial space economy as it is with its aircraft, automotive and technology sectors. In the past, the government enacted strict export control laws to keep adversaries and competitors from gaining a quick and easy advantage. With foreign owned companies now winning contracts with the U.S. government and hiring American engineers to perform on them, that concern is no longer relevant. What government leaders need to focus on is ensuring that U.S. owned companies are competitive for the benefit of the domestic economy, national security and diplomatic influence. While we’re focusing on making America great again, let’s not forget the $3 trillion economic sector, which in its infancy won the Cold War, created millions of jobs and gave our diplomats a currency unmatched in resolving international conflicts. It’s about time we pivot our priorities to compete or our space industry will go the way of British shipbuilding in the 20th century, with similar consequences.
The adjusting of priorities to “America first” seems to be working but we’re on a perilous path for a backseat ride when it comes to the future space economy. The real future of profitable space, even government cost plus funded contracts, will be in lower earth orbits than the traditional geostationary orbits and mostly small satellites. Unless we change course, in another ten years there will be very little U.S. space industry left outside of that kept on life-support by politicians only trying to ensure continued support of their constituents. Elon Musk saw it years ago without a security clearance—now our own national security elite talk about it openly to the press. Let’s hope Trump remembers that his legacy will include his indelible footprint on U.S. space policy for this century.
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