In his landmark response to the Soviet Union’s leadership of the world in the space race, John F. Kennedy set a deadline for America to put a man on the moon “before this decade is up.” His strict deadline focused our attention and stimulated our goal of achieving the extraordinary. Today, we are in the midst of a different space race — one characterized by economics, not Cold War-era symbolism. The winners will determine the fate of humanity in the final economic frontier, which will be determined by either authoritarian rule or the free and open space economy guaranteed by international law.
For years, War Games have highlighted that America’s greatest near-term threat to space systems is cyberattacks. Frequent attacks on large and small businesses and critical infrastructure, which underpin our food and energy industries, point to a massive vulnerability that is easily exploited by our adversaries.
Cyber resilience requires the best people vetting, advanced software architectures, and robust supply chain control. When those fail, as happened recently, we must have the ability to quickly rebuild to a state of minimum in order to prevent societal collapse. Such an ability would provide real resilience while deterring a unilateral attack.
Attacking GPS, telecommunications, weather, intelligence gathering, missile warnings and a whole host of other space capabilities, is something that worries the team even General Nina Armagno, Space Force Staff Director. Satellite networks lay the foundation for our modern way of life, and hackers have learned that targeting them can deal a major blow to the United States, so if a competitor like Russia moves from oil pipelines to attacking our vulnerable space systems, we will face a crisis of confidence and our entire national economy will remain hostage So we have the ability to rebuild quickly without giving up.
We don’t need a further expansion of a cumbersome military industry to tackle this Achilles heel. Instead, taking advantage of epic private space investments that can meet fast and repeatable deadlines (such as JFK’s announcement in the first space race) will add a new kind of flexibility to our space infrastructure – an example of this is Virgin Orbit’s headlines.
The Space Force’s recent air launch activity was a useful initial demonstration of what could be done with just a few years’ notice to get the right equipment. Learning from the highly successful Big Safari program for special mission aircraft during the Cold War, Chief Space Operations General Jay Raymond challenged the industry to “develop a capability in tactical timelines, integrate it into the launch vehicle and launch it, and let’s see how quickly we can do it.”
In less than a year, Space Safari took commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) components, combined them with a COTS satellite carrier, and married the two to create a space field awareness satellite. The expanding US aerospace industry is more than capable of meeting the challenge, and is willing and able to pump up the pump for the continuous improvement of the responsive space.
To ensure low-cost rebuilding is feasible, we must begin annual “travel before purchase” deadlines to showcase systems and services (satellite, instrument payload, ground systems, and of course, launch) that can at least partially restore critical power outages on our rainy day. Perfect restoration is not necessary, but something like a home auxiliary generator that enables us to operate at degraded capacity when the power goes out is critical to national security.
Low-cost launches annually will deter aggression by rapidly demonstrating real capabilities, modernizing our industrial resilience, speeding up next-generation hybrid operations needed by the Space Force, and encouraging more private investment in the commercial space sector. Sprints over frequent one-year deadlines, with time slots eventually shortened to semi-annual sprints, will make the component of reshaping flexibility a visible and viable deterrent.
Commercially derived launch and satellite capabilities can also be stored forward for additional flexibility. Integrated with defense needs, a robust commercial supply chain will ensure a sustainable reconfiguration capability and lay the foundation for American space security.
Doing so would not be met with major hype like the first steps on the moon, but it would do far more to secure the space future of the United States and its allies than any token handshake by politicians. It will encourage the entire commercial small satellite sector, not just support non-competitive defense companies.
As a country, we must continue to do the tough stuff that pushes the envelope in space. As John F. Kennedy famously warned, the path will not be easy, but it is the only way to stress-test our system to identify and protect where we are weakest. If we wait for the unthinkable to happen, our options will be few and far between. The era of resilience analysis paralysis we are locked in must end, and a new era of space survivability must come to an end. Setting tough deadlines and meeting them afterward will require real determination, but the country will be able to exhale a little easier knowing we won’t lose everything – a challenge like space exploration that JFK said “we are unwilling to put off, and one we intend to win.” “
Charles Beams is CEO of the SmallSat Alliance, an industry group that represents 50 next-generation space companies in the US Congress, the Department of Defense and the intelligence community. He held several executive positions in the Department of Defense, including that of Principal Director of Space Systems and Intelligence.