SpaceX founder Elon Musk recently laid out an ambitious plan for colonizing Mars. Whether or not Musk’s plan is viable, the fact that it exists raises important questions about the future of private enterprise in space. The international community is divided over what private companies and individuals should be allowed to do beyond Earth’s atmosphere. In particular, the United States government is concerned that private space companies could compromise national security, and these worries may interfere with private efforts in space. That’s why it’s important to emphasize that commercialized outer space can also enhance national security.
Take commercial space-launch services, such as those offered by Blue Origin, Orbital ATK, and Musk’s SpaceX. The capabilities provided by innovative, cost-effective launch services, if allowed to develop more or less freely, will benefit America’s national security. However, to enjoy the full value of these services, the U.S. government must not stand in the way of their development. National security will be best served if the government promotes an active, dynamic market that serves commercial interests and avoids a nearsighted, risk-averse idea of its security interests in space.
The military and intelligence communities rely on satellites for coordination, communication, and reconnaissance. For a long time, the United States did not have to worry very much about satellites once they got into orbit. Today, however, there is a growing number of countries with active and burgeoning involvement in space operations. Potential rival powers are looking at America’s satellite constellations as a vulnerability to exploit. There are serious concerns that, in a security crisis, a sophisticated country could destroy or degrade America’s space capabilities.
Satellites, with their unique operational high ground, are hard to replace with other systems. Even if the military can develop alternatives, the wider defense community—and the economy that underpins U.S. military strength—would still rely on commercial space infrastructure. Mitigating risks to America’s space system requires developing resilient, dynamic constellations. This means increasing the number of satellites, as well as having plans to replace them quickly if needed.
But replacing satellites is expensive. Until recently, the only launch systems used by the U.S. military were provided by United Launch Alliance (ULA). ULA uses two legacy systems that are reliable, but costly. The Delta 4, for instance, costs between $164-350 million per launch. The Atlas V has a smaller price tag, but comes with added national security concerns because it uses Russian rockets. New commercial companies want to launch satellites that don’t rely on foreign production, and for much less money.
SpaceX recently won a contract with the Air Force to launch a GPS satellite for only $83 million. With its Falcon 9 reusable rocket system, it hopes to bring costs down to $43 million. Other American companies, while not yet certified to launch for the military, are also working to build approved rockets. Orbital ATK was awarded a contract to develop a heavy lift rocket for the Air Force, and Blue Origin wants to compete directly with SpaceX’s Falcon 9. Not only do these competing companies drive down costs, but they also force ULA to innovate. To compete against SpaceX’s cheaper rockets, ULA wants to develop a completely new system.
However, new systems come with risk—as demonstrated by the recent explosion of a SpaceX rocket. Cheaper rockets do not help in a crisis if they blow up. That’s why the U.S. government has an “assured access” policy of maintaining two proven launch vehicles. New providers then must demonstrate reliability. How can the U.S. military both promote cheaper launches while being confident it won’t lose its equipment during launch?
Launch companies need to demonstrate reliability over time. But the government is unlikely to award enough contracts to each company to give each a suitable track record. The military could support specific companies, like it has with ULA, but those companies would likely prioritize maintaining proven systems over innovating future, untested ones. Thus, in order for multiple companies to get enough practice, these companies need non-governmental customers.
Problems with commercial launches, while costly, do not have the same consequences that the loss of a national security satellite would. Promoting commercial use of space could provide launch companies the experience needed to work with the military and intelligence communities.
This is important because while commercialization of outer space seems likely, it is not a foregone conclusion. Concerns about international tension, space debris, or even domestic national security could lead to overregulation. If implemented without foresight, such regulations could kill the industries that launch providers need to test new, innovative, and cheaper services.
Commercialized outer space is not just a dream for billionaires who want to go to Mars, but an issue of national security. If the United States wants to own the high ground of outer space, it needs to be able to quickly and cheaply launch new satellites, or other equipment, into orbit quickly.
American innovators can help with this, working through risks to produce new services and capabilities. An open, competitive market—with the draw from new profits to be made—will find and fix problems before the government spends a dollar on new technologies. Promoting this market will give private companies the needed practice, and the United States the innovation needed to stay on top.
Op-ed by Joshua Hampson; originally run in RealClearFuture