WASHINGTON — A new Department of Defense report on the state of America’s space industrial base finds strength in the near-term while lamenting the lack of a long-term focus. To that end, the report calls for the White House to develop a National North Star Vision to guide civil, commercial and national security space efforts.
Drawn up by the Space Force, the Defense Innovation Unit and the Air Force Research Laboratory, the State of the Space Industrial Base 2021 report is the result of discussions with 232 industry experts earlier this year in New Mexico.
The authors of the report find a strong industrial base with significant commercial investment in innovation that can support the government’s space missions.
“All of the near-term metrics about what’s going on in space are very exciting and strong. If you look at the number of inventions and new things that are being done in space, at the innovation ecosystem where you have lots of new companies coming into space, private investment where you have a record amount of venture capital flowing into space startups — that’s all very positive and very strong,” explained Col. Eric Felt, director of the Air Force Research Laboratory’s Space Vehicles Directorate, at an Atlantic Council event discussing the report’s findings.
That said, the authors note that the flurry of commercial space activity cannot be sustained without strategic direction. Key challenges include ensuring sufficient contract and prototyping funding and opportunities, securing American supply chains, and strategic workforce development.
“There’s lots of concern that that may not continue,” Felt said of near-term energy and growth in the space sector.
To that end, the report recommends the White House and its Space Council adopt “space development and settlement” as our National “North Star” Space Vision to synchronize efforts across the military, commercial and civil space sectors. That vision would guide near-term goals, such as the nation’s development of cislunar space, as well as more ambitious long-term goals — specifically, space settlement and “enabling humanity to become the first multi-planetary species.”
That North Star vision recommendation is a carry-over from the 2020 version of the report.
“How can we bring the civil, commercial and national security sectors together to work in a unified way?” said Bucky Butow, director of the Defense Innovation Unit’s space portfolio.
The report’s main recommendations for the Department of Defense mirror the Space Force’s messaging in its nearly two years of existence: The Department of Defense needs to adopt more commercial technologies and services while bringing in more small businesses. Space Force officials have been clear that they want to adopt more commercial services for its missions, and under the new Space Systems Command the service has established a commercial office to help do just that. The Space Force has also opened up more opportunities for small businesses by embracing Other Transaction Authorities and events like Space Pitch Days. Organizations like DIU, AFWERX, SpaceWERX and Space Prime have also been created to help bring in new contractors.
But the authors want to see more rapid adoption of commercial services in the near-term. They recommend the Department of Defense mandate 20% of the overall DoD budget go to non-traditional commercial service acquisitions. Currently that number is in the single digits.
There are specific criticisms of government efforts on this front as well. The report calls out the National Reconnaissance Office and the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency for being too slow in adopting commercial imagery. While the NRO does have some commercial imagery contracts, it’s in the middle of changing the way it acquires and uses said imagery. In 2019 the agency issued study contracts to guide that effort. It plans to issue the first awards informed by those study contracts in early 2022.
The authors also call out overclassification as an issue that prevents small companies from engaging fully with the government.
“Our security and resilience in space is critical for our democracy-based world order in the future,” said Chief of Space Operations Gen. Jay Raymond in a statement. “The recommendations, if followed, have the power to unite and unleash the full innovation, technological and industrial capability of the U.S. and the benefit of all humanity.”
Nathan Strout was the staff editor at C4ISRNET, where he covered the intelligence community.