It’s fair to say that the Trump administration wasn’t defined by space policy. However, there are handovers for the Biden’s administration, from laying the groundwork for a lunar colony to the creation of the U.S. Space Force and the beginnings of commercialization of low Earth orbit research.
The first 100 days of the new administration will be crucial as we begin a new era of space investment.
Space investment does not present an urgency in the same way other national issues, like responding to the COVID-19 pandemic, but it is urgent in the sense that it will decide whether we get the future right. The biggest failure of the last administration was the assumption that existing models of space investment, innovation and management would suffice. For example, focusing on the Space Launch Systems (SLS), a costly, slow-moving project to reach the Moon, rather than a widening of the aperture to innovation and alternatives. Also, creating the Space Force, which is essentially just an elevation of an existing Air Force Command, and the continuing reliance on the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) for airspace management of space launches.
Each of these perpetuates a model of space that is remarkably similar to air flight and lacks the innovation and investment we saw that propelled the U.S. ahead at the start of the space race. That’s why we need to see in the first 100 days of this new administration a renewed focus on space.
It is likely the government will provide 10 to 20 percent of the investment in space over the next 15 to 20 years, a far cry from the nearly 100 percent just 20 years ago, but still a significant sum. This federal investment will be most effective front-loaded to initiate progress and spark private investment within the next five to 10 years. In space, the long-term nature and risk of failure can make private investment by any but the largest firms unreachable.
There are three crucial opportunities for investment that the new administration should focus on:
The first priority is space transport — projects that drive down the cost of getting to space, while increasing the frequency and reliability of trips and enabling a sustainable path for getting people, materials and goods back from space. This would range from the mundane, like commoditized space launches, or the completely new, like space elevators.
Secondly, we will never be able to fully capitalize on the opportunities that space offers us if we do not invest in space sustainment. These are the projects that create an ecosystem in space, meaning one that has water, sewage and power utilities — all the basic features we take for granted. Leveraging a strategy that allows for dynamic and functional space activity by enabling the basic necessities of life will free up entrepreneurs and workers to actually innovate.
Lastly, each of these ambitious plans require dedicated space support. These are the projects that support new technologies while directly enabling a higher quality of life on earth. Projects like advanced material manufacturing investments, or space-based solar power, are in many cases the key enablers for success in space. And most actually have immediate benefits to the rest of the country — as we’ve seen throughout the history of NASA innovation.
At a time of economic slowdown, lowering the barriers to space investment will help create hundreds of thousands of new jobs in diverse industries from advanced materials manufacturing to trucking. The technology developed will have direct uses in green energy, medicine and future construction. And a renewed investment in space infrastructure will require new facilities and supply chains nationwide.
There is a constant risk that the U.S. will be left behind in an accelerating new space race. That’s why the U.S. needs a third office to support the efforts of NASA and the Space Force and to bridge the civil, military and federal space innovation and investment divide. A new public-private partnership in the form of a federally chartered corporation called the SPACE Corporation Enterprise (SPACE). SPACE, which I helped design, would serve as a linchpin for the planning, financing and administration of basic infrastructure to, from and through space. This could be done while being revenue neutral to the U.S. Treasury.
My foundation urges decision-makers in the U.S. to be mindful of the threats that exist and will be expanded in the future affecting our national security in Space. We are also mindful that space infrastructure, financing and development will take a combined partnership between the public and private sectors and history has shown us the way in previous efforts requiring a nation will, such as the COMSAT ACT of 1962, which created a system that enabled the President John F. Kennedy to speak by telephone to Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the surface of the moon.
The next 100 days will set the tone for the future of space infrastructure and our national role in providing it. There are clear logistical voids that prohibit extended space operations, but if the right building blocks are put in place, it will set the foundation for which all subsequent space operations will be supported.]
Tim Chrisman is the co-founder and executive director of Foundation for The Future (f4f.space), author of ”Humanity in Space” and former CIA intelligence officer and retired Army Special Operations officer.