In his historic response to the Soviet Union leading 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 through.” His firm deadline focused our attention and galvanized our purpose to achieve the extraordinary. Today, we are in the throes of a different space race — one characterized by economics, rather than Cold War-era symbolism. The winners will determine humanity’s fate in the final economic frontier, which will either be defined by autocratic rule or a free and open space economy secured by international law.
For years, war gaming has highlighted that America’s greatest near-term threat to space systems are cyberattacks. The repeated attacks on large and small businesses and critical infrastructure, which underpin our food and energy industries, point to a massive vulnerability easily exploited by our adversaries.
Cyber resilience requires the best personnel screening, advanced software architectures and robust supply chain monitoring. When those fail, as they have recently, we must have the ability to rapidly reconstitute to a minimal state in order to prevent societal collapse. Such a capability will provide real resiliency while deterring a unilateral attack.
An attack on our GPS, telecommunications, weather, intelligence collection, missile warnings and a whole host of other space capabilities is something that even Lt. Gen Nina Armagno, Space Force staff director, is very concerned about. Satellite networks lay the foundation for our modern way of life, and hackers have learned that targeting them could yield a significant blow to the U.S. So, if a rival like Russia pivots from oil pipelines to attacking our vulnerable space systems, we will have a crisis of confidence and our entire national economy will be held hostage until we have the ability to rapidly reconstitute without capitulation.
We do not need to further expand a cumbersome military industry to address this Achilles’ heel. Instead, leveraging epic private space investments that can meet fast and repeatable deadlines (like JFK declared in the first space race) will bring a new type of resilience to our space infrastructure — Virgin Orbit’s recent headlines being an example.
The Space Force’s recent air launch activity by “Space Safari” was a useful first demonstration of what could be done with only a few years advance notice to acquire the right equipment. Learning from the Air Force’s hugely successful Big Safari program for special-mission aircraft during the Cold War, Chief of Space Operations Gen. Jay Raymond challenged the industry “to develop a capability in tactical timelines, integrate it onto a launch vehicle and launch it, and let’s see how fast we can do it.”
In under a year, Space Safari took commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) satellite components, integrated them with a COTS satellite bus, and married the two to create a space domain awareness satellite. America’s expanding space industry is more than up for the challenge, and is both willing and able to prime the pump for a continuous improvement of responsive space.
To ensure a low-cost reconstitution capability, we must embark on yearly “fly before buy” deadlines for the demonstration of systems and services (satellites, instrument payloads, ground systems and, of course, launch) that can at least partially restore critical capability outages on our rainiest day. A perfect restoration is not essential, but something akin to a home auxiliary generator that enables us to operate at a degraded capacity when the power goes out is critical for national security.
Yearly low-cost launches will deter aggression by demonstrating real capabilities quickly, as well as modernize our industrial resilience, accelerate the next-generation hybrid operations the Space Force needs, and encourage further private investment into the commercial space sector. Quick competitions on recurring one-year deadlines, with intervals eventually shortening to half-year sprints, will make the reconstitution component of resilience a visible and viable deterrent.
Commercially derived launch and satellite capabilities can also be stored forward for an extra measure of resilience. Integrated with defense needs, a robust, commercial supply chain will ensure a sustained reconstitution capacity and lay the foundation for America’s space security.
Doing so will not be met with as much headline fanfare as the first steps on the moon, but it will do far more to secure the U.S. and its allies’ space future than any symbolic handshake by politicians. It will encourage the entire commercial small satellite sector and not just subsidize otherwise uncompetitive defense-only companies.
As a country, we must continue to do the hard things that push the envelope in space. As JFK famously warned, the path won’t be easy, but it is the only way to pressure test our system to identify and protect where we are weakest. If we wait until the unthinkable happens, our options will be few and far between. The era of resilience analysis paralysis we are wading through must end, and a new era of demonstrated space survivability must take its place. Setting and then meeting demanding deadlines requires true grit, but the country will be able to exhale a little easier knowing we will not lose everything— a challenge like space exploration that JFK said “we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.”
Charles Beames is executive chairman of the SmallSat Alliance, an industry group representing 50 next-generation space companies to the U.S. Congress, the Department of Defense and the Intelligence Community. He held several executive positions in the Department of Defense, including his last as the principal director of space and intelligence systems.