Last week, the Defense Innovation Unit (DIU), the Space Force and the Air Force Research Laboratory celebrated their fourth annual joint report on the state of the space industrial base.
The verdict: The US has a lot of work to do if it wants to compete with China in the long run.
The report, prepared by four prominent Pentagon space officials, calls for more thoughtful state industrial planning and outlines the role industry should play in that future. Thinking further and working hand in hand with commercial space, the authors believe, will allow the US to move faster.
“While there are isolated bright spots at NASA and DOD, the sense of urgency is not universally shared — especially within the massive bureaucracy that constructively slows US commercial progress through regulatory pressure,” the authors wrote.
What are we actually trying to do in space? Within the DOD there is no clear or generally articulated vision. The report highlights this sin of inaction as a vulnerability.
China, on the other hand, has clear plans until at least 2045 and makes its space program a national priority. “China could surpass the US in space superiority if we don’t increase our investments,” DIU director Michael Brown said at an Atlantic Council event last week.
- Last year, China led the world in number of launches (although the US won in total) up mass).
- “While the space industrial base in the United States is on an upward trajectory, participants expressed concern that the upward trajectory of the [People’s Republic of China] is even steeper, with a significant catch-up rate, requiring urgent action,” the authors wrote.
In 1962, the White House released a “North Star” vision affirming the federal government’s commitment to the Apollo program.
Now, the authors write, we’re in a new — don’t say it, don’t say it — space race. The stakes of that race are lasting economic superiority and space security. That’s why the report argues that Washington needs a new North Star to unite government, the space industry and the public toward a set of common goals.
The report’s recommendation for a new North Star target is the same as what the authors outlined in last year’s report: space development and settlement. The Artemis program and the development of the moon are part of that vision, as are increasing funding for science and technology, reforming policies, declaring a space economic zone and incorporating space technology into long-term infrastructure plans.
Encouraging the industry
The cumbersome machine that is the government procurement system is stepping on the toes of the aerospace industry. The report’s authors call for major changes in the way DOD and NASA identify and prepare new space technologies for government use.
“What it takes to win the space race is the strengthening of private-public partnerships that emphasize commercial technology over custom systems,” said Michael Brown, head of the DIU, at the Atlantic Council’s event last week. .
The report identified a few key bottlenecks:
- Licensing agencies (including the FAA, FCC, and NOAA) have not expanded to meet the demand for satellite launches, and licensing applications take too long to review.
- Tender procedures leave little room for innovation and make too many demands.
- Public investment is sporadic.
The innovation that drives the commercial space industry could have a huge impact on US national security infrastructure, if only the government were willing to purchase that technology. The report echoes the common refrain that a stronger public-private partnership and shared vision are needed to strengthen the US as the economic leader in space.