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Event Recap August 24, 2022

“An analogous gold spike”: Harnessing the space industrial base for twenty-first century prosperity

By Delharty Manson

On August 26, the Scowcroft Center’s Forward Defense (FD) practice hosted a virtual event, “State of the Space Industrial Base 2022: Advancing prosperity, sustainability, and US leadership in outer space.” The event served as a launch and discussion of the State of the Space Industrial Base 2022 report, a joint effort of the US Space Force, Defense Innovation Unit, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), and the Air Force Research Laboratory. The report lays out the critical juncture that the United States is facing in the space domain. At the event, a panel of space experts and report authors discussed how the United States can maintain its competitive edge in the space domain.

A second space race emerges

Director of the Defense Innovation Unit (DIU) Michael Brown set the stage for the discussion by harkening back to the US-Soviet space race during the Cold War, which marks the last time in which the United States set out a definitive national strategy and vision for space. Brown noted that these investments, while large at the time, produced later economic and strategic benefits that were indiscernible at the time. He argued that there is a second space race today, this time against China as it catches up to the United States with its rapid research and development programs.

Brown highlighted recommendations from the report, including the need for the United States to increase its space technology investments both within the government and through private partnerships to maintain the United States’ edge in space. The United States must rely on private companies because they are able to research and produce innovative space technology far faster than the US government. For example, Brown stated that there will be an estimated one thousand commercial satellites for every government satellite by 2030. The United States has a history of engaging the private sector to achieve national aims such as it did with the transcontinental railroad. Today, the US government can provide the foundational investments to encourage private innovation and production.

What has changed in the space domain since 2021?

Dr. Mir Sadat, a nonresident senior fellow with Forward Defense moderated the ensuing conversation between the panelists on the State of the Space Industrial Base 2022 Report. Panelists Steven J. Butow, director of DIU’s Space Portfolio, and Maj Gen John M. Olson, USSF, both discussed how the United States has grown in the space domain since 2021. They pointed out notable achievements such as NASA’s new James Webb Space Telescope, the upcoming launch of the Artemis I, and a record-setting $15 billion investment into the commercial space sector. However, they also noted that industry leaders believe that the United States should be moving faster in research, development, and production by outlining a national strategy that sets out a “whole-of-nation” approach. Mandy Vaughn, chief executive officer and founder of GXO, Inc, agreed, stating that industry representatives are waiting on a national plan and funding on space innovation from the government.

The China factor. When asked by Dr. Sadat about China’s recurring theft of US intellectual property, Col Eric J. Felt, USSF, relayed that there is worry among some experts that China is now reaching a stage of its technological innovation in which it may be able to leapfrog the United States in innovation rather than rely on reproducing from stolen designs. There must be a balancing act in protecting intellectual property throughout the research and development process. Vaughn agreed, arguing that private companies need better training and education, particularly for new start-ups before they go into the classified space of research and development with the government.

The Artemis Accords and private industry. Next, Maj Gen Olson and Col Felt laid out the critical nature of unity with allies and partners in pursuing a comprehensive space strategy. Col Felt noted that since 2021, more nations have signed unto the Artemis Accords that sets out rules and guidelines for exploring and extracting resources in space. Vaughn added that private companies are excited to join the US government in its space strategy. Investors are waiting on cues from the US Congress and the Department of Defense (DoD) that they will support investments into space technology and exploration. Speaking from his experience within the Pentagon, Maj Gen Olson agreed that policies within the DoD need to be changed to provide incentives to investors and private companies to support space innovation.

The time for change is now

The panel closed out its discussion on their favorite recommendation from the State of the Space Industrial 2022 report. Overall, the panelists overwhelmingly agreed on the need for the United States to urgently tear down government barriers such as over-classification and bureaucratization to allow for smoother cooperation with allies, partners, and the private industry. The State of the Space Industrial 2022 report comes out at a critical time, as the United States continues competing for space superiority with adversaries like China and Russia, concepts of warfare (and targeting in space) are changing, and climate change threatens US and allied security objectives. In the words of the report authors, “in order to save the planet, you have to get off the planet.” This report lays out how the US government can partner with the private sector to do just that.

You can re-watch “State of the Space Industrial Base 2022: Advancing prosperity, sustainability, and US leadership in outer space” here. You can also read the report here. For more information about the Atlantic Council’s Forward Defense practice or to read our latest reports, op-eds, and analyses, please visit the website here. You can also sign up for updates from Forward Defense to hear the latest on the trends, technologies, and military challenges shaping tomorrow.

Delharty Manson is a Project Assistant for Forward Defense in the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security.

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