Since the dawn of the Space Age – and even earlier – visionaries have dreamed of routine spaceflight for science, exploration, and commerce. Achieving their dream would be a major milestone in culmination of humankind’s long history of gazing at the stars and contemplating the unknown. Today, we are in a period of transition: the dream of a vibrant space economy is on its way to becoming reality. The United States government and private industry both played a key role in making it happen, and the U.S. has the opportunity to continue its leadership during an ongoing period of disruption.
The first source of disruption is the increasing democratization of space. New players are becoming active in space, and some may intentionally or unintentionally cause difficulties. Many countries now have access to technologies in which the U.S. formerly had a comfortable lead. Launch is a key example. Thanks to development of new indigenous launch systems and contracts with international public and private launch providers, where space once was the purview of government-funded space agencies, today elementary school students can build satellites and find a ride into orbit. Where once only the superpowers and close allies could afford launch, now diverse countries have ambitious space programs; for example, India has sent a science probe to orbit Mars, Sri Lanka is preparing to launch its second satellite, and the United Arab Emirates is recruiting astronauts.
A second source of disruption is the sheer scale of emerging space activity, yielding an increasingly crowded environment. Around the world, government and industry researchers are pursuing capabilities to support space-enabled businesses and national security. Increasingly, such capabilities are achieved with large numbers of small, short-lived satellites rather than small numbers of large, long-lived satellites. The downside is the need to address growing space traffic that includes thousands of active satellites and an even greater number of debris objects – many of them the legacy of past space projects that were conceived before protecting the orbital environment was a priority, and others the product of rising powers destructively demonstrating their space warfighting capability. Efforts to address this challenge require international cooperation, and leadership from the United States will be essential in framing what a global space traffic management regime should look like.
Space weapons tests underscore the third disruptive trend, in which space is becoming a militarily contested domain after being viewed as a “sanctuary” since the end of the Cold War. That is, space-based military capabilities will be threatened (and maybe civilian satellites as well), making the space environment riskier for all operators. The precise directions of this trend depend on future choices, but increasing commercial activity in space depends on a safe operating environment, just as the global flow of trade could be greatly disrupted by a great power conflict at sea.
Some fear this disrupted future. But the opportunity for American leadership is enormous, and should be cause for excitement, not fear. The fact that others are catching up to the United States was inevitable as observers around the world saw the advantages of space applications and began pursuing them in an age of rapid technology democratization. The United States is still dominant overall, and in an excellent position to shape the future of space.
Neither commercial nor government efforts alone will be sufficient. Space remains an area where government and private interests are intertwined. In the United States, private industry has long been involved in space through government contracts, and as in other areas, has applied this experience to the development of products and services for commercial customers. Satellite communications was the first example, followed by launch services and the sale of Earth imagery from orbit. As a result, the global commercial space economy is now estimated to exceed a quarter-trillion dollars annually, most of it attributable to communications sector activities like satellite television subscriptions.
The United States now has multiple private companies that can launch payloads into space, and more domestic launch providers are on the horizon. The U.S. is the first country to be in this enviable position, and it is the only country that is transferring responsibilities for launching human crews to the private sector. With more ways to get to space, launching satellites will become more affordable, creating a ripple effect of declining costs and increasing participation in space operations.
But this has been merely the opening act. While growth in the space launch and satellite business has been significant, it is dwarfed by the rise of space applications like communications, navigation, and remote sensing. With the rise of the data economy, the growing investment in space from so many players is no surprise. Looking into the future, we are in the early stages of a transition that will vastly expand our concept of a space economy. Emerging areas include on-orbit servicing, microgravity research and manufacturing, exploitation of extraterrestrial resources, and even space tourism.
Human and financial resources are both essential for success in space. The United States has long been a magnet for people with dreams of exploring and developing space. For example, a young man named Elon Musk came from South Africa to study, made his fortune, developed a new rocket, became a formidable player in the global launch market, and launched his sports car into space as a demonstration of his ambition to go to Mars. The space economy will be built by such people and today many countries are competing for this talent.
The United States achieved space leadership through decades of investment in civil and national security programs. The commercial sector is now investing significantly on space projects that used to be government responsibilities, but that does not mean U.S. government investment should slacken. To remain a dominant actor in space, the United States must be the pace-setter for a global assortment of collaborators and competitors across government, industry, and academia.