For strategy or science? Can’t it be both?
America is going back to space! In the first meeting of the National Space Council (NSC), held October 5 in the National Air and Space Museum, Vice President Mike Pence presided over panels of politicians, heads of industry, and military personnel to discuss the logistics of taking the U.S. back into space. Nestled amidst one of the most amazing reconnaissance aircraft ever built, the SR 71 Blackbird, and the space shuttle Discovery which flew over 148 million miles in its time, the assemblage covered a three-tiered approach (civil, commercial, and military) to returning us into the heavens.
“We will once again astonish the world as we boldly go to meet our future in the skies and the stars,” Pence announced. He recalled the sight of the first artificial satellite, Sputnik, a blinking dot across the night sky, and how that spurred the great Space Race with the Soviet Union. The U.S. did succeed in getting our rockets to the moon first, but the ardor over the space program fizzled in the 1970s and ’80s. The last manned mission to the moon was in December of 1972, and NASA’s national presence diminished as interest and funding waned.
“For too long our government’s commitment has failed to match our people’s spirit and meet our nation’s needs,” Pence said. “The truth is, America entered this new millennium without a coherent policy or vision for outer space,” With the goal of learning about the needs of industry players already developing spacecraft for the U.S. and private entities, the President and CEO of Lockheed Martin, Marillyn Hewson, the President and CEO of Boeing, Dennis Muilenburg, and David Thompson, the president and CEO of Orbital ATK joined the Council as the first panel contributors.
Focusing on the civil space program and deep space exploration, the panel expressed the expedient need for a cohesive and comprehensive space policy for working together with the government, as well as partners in both civilian domains and other countries. Hewson called for strong government leadership, visionary programs, and stable sustained funding.
“We need to have in space an international regulatory framework because there are over 70 countries in space today, [with] a variety of things that they are doing, and the U.S. needs to be the lead on getting into place that regulatory framework,” Hewson said.
The need for sustained funding continued to arise as each new panel sat. The next group to address the NSC embodied the commercial domain and included SpaceX President and CEO, Gwynne Shotwell, Bob Smith, CEO of Blue Origin, and Fatih Ozmun, Owner and President of Sierra Nevada Corp. The main focus of their panel was to discuss the need for regulatory reform within bureaucratic policies as they relate to permitting, free trade, and protections in a new space economic zone, and how this pertains to dealing with government, industry, and non-American interests.
Director of the Office of Management and Budget, Mike Mulvaney, responded, “Noone understands this, which we kind of like, but we have the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. We touch every reg and de-reg effort within the government … If you folks could be specific to which regulations are impeding innovation and impeding investment, specifically identifying changes in laws, keep in mind there are some things we can do as an administration without Congress.”
The final panel addressed the military domain of space, and the need to expediently achieve dominance in the field. Former NASA Administrator and former Deputy Director for Strategic Defense and Technology, Dr. Michael Griffin, Admiral James Ellis, former head of Strategic Command, and Colonel Pamela Melroy, former Discovery shuttle Commander and Deputy Director to the Tactical Technologies Office at DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency), addressed the tactical elements of going back into space.
“Our adversaries well understand that our space assets are critical to the way in which we fight and win wars. We must develop our own capabilities to project power in space and we must hold adversary space capabilities at risk even as they do so to ours,” Griffin stated to the NSC. “If you agree with me that space launch is like submarines and aircraft carriers, a strategic asset for our nation, then we must also agree to treat it as such.”
Melroy emphasized that the current low-orbit sensors, of which there are only 12 globally, are scattered widely, can be affected by weather, and only take periodic snapshots, so hours or even days can go by without updates to orbital object locations. “We need tactical intelligence to support the ability to find and target, track and engage, as well as to perform battle damage assessment … under the direct control of the warfighter as tactical intelligence assets,” she said.
Melroy gave the example that all ATM transactions go through commercial geo-satellites. The importance of securing the critical infrastructure is crucial, and any disturbance of these systems by adversarial elements puts the American people at risk. Griffin also referenced the GPS satellites that so many technologies rely on, including ATMs.
“80% of national security communications go via commercial satellite routes,” Griffin said. “If we were to lose that infrastructure, our national security communities would be greatly reduced in capability.”
All of the panelists eloquently and effectively expressed to the NSC the need of the United States’ re-entry into the business of space. From the economic boom it will create — increasing jobs and dollars spent on our soil — to the possibility of commercial ventures to colonize and explore deep space, to the need to protect our current and future assets in space in a militarized manner, it appears that the American government is listening to the recommendations from our scientific and industrial communities. If they can clear the way to achieve sustained funding and maintain the necessary thrust to keep the program moving forward, we just might find that we will be a leading space-faring nation once again.