Experts: America’s Unique Position in Space Likely Ending, It Should Start Acting Like It

The co-authors of a new report published by AFA's Mitchell Institute, Peter Hays (left) and James Vedda (right), presented their research at a Tuesday panel moderated by Jamie Morin (middle) on Capitol Hill. Staff photo by Gideon Grudo.

Space experts agree it’s time for the US to accept that it might lose its big dog status in space, and begin approaching the domain more constructively and open mindedly.

In a report published Tuesday by AFA’s Mitchell Institute, Aerospace Corporation’s James Vedda and George Washington University’s Peter Hays presented recommendations regarding space management after conducting dozens of interviews with more than 30 experts across the space field comprising government, academia, industry, military, NGOs, and other sectors. Their findings are based on concerns arising in part by what the researchers call the “democratization of space,” or the ever-increasing presence of non-US actors in the domain, including small satellites that are “being deployed on orbit on behalf of universities, high schools, and even middle schools.” Even NPR’s financial news podcast Planet Money announced last week it had launched a space mission.

“There’s potentially a need to think through new sets of norms and build others,” Jamie Morin, executive director of the Center for Space Policy and Strategy at the Aerospace Corporation, said at the report’s launch on Capitol Hill Tuesday morning.

“It’s time to start assuming that everything you do in space and on spacecraft can be seen,” said Vedda, a senior analyst with Aerospace Corporation, adding “rendezvous will become common.”

With new commercial space opportunities coming online under the control of industry actors, the US government must “decide what it absolutely must do to maintain its government function in space,” said Hays, a senior analyst with GWU’s Space Policy Institute. Missions other than nuclear command and control and its ilk should join a list of opportunities to partner with industry on space management or even to hand off entirely to the private sector.

Hays said he finds security the “most exciting” of the evolving architectures in space, arguing large commercial architectures currently working their way into the domain “are tailor-made to provide a more resilient approach to space,” but warned getting to safer space is “not going to be business as usual.”

“We can’t have a stovepiped architecture” with the government developing everything, he said. Even if a more inclusive approach results in projects not always fitting perfectly into federal or military requirements, “I think it’s better than us trying to build” the old way.

To that end, space tracking must evolve out of solely government hands and normalize among all other agencies currently and potentially entering space, Hays and Vedda recommended.

From debris to satellites, space experts told Vedda and Hays they believe there would be “significant benefits flowing from moving towards a space traffic management model, away from DOD organizationally, and towards greater transparency.” Moreover, the experts agreed manufacturers should outfit all future satellites with tracking aids, though the size, efficacy, and function (passive versus active, for example) of such requirements was an issue for debate.

To this end, while there’s broad agreement the US should lead the way in building a tracking infrastructure, some experts argue it should let go of its unique and singular arm in determining its course.

Throughout selected quotes strewn across the paper, one interviewed expert argues maintaining unilateral control of tracking is beneficial for the US: “As the global provider, we have differential access to the data and the ability to withhold information we feel creates information asymmetries that provide advantage to the United States and its allies.” Another expert sees things differently: “Air Force and DOD leaders want to be space warriors, not space traffic cops. DOD is not a regulatory organization.” (The paper provided a full list of contributors at the end, but did not specifically provide attribution to quotes throughout.)

Generally speaking, the experts cited in the report agreed the government should do more in space, or at least start talking about doing more, in space. But, the researchers repeatedly point out there won’t always be consensus on who such conversations should involve, what exactly needs to be done, and finally, and maybe most importantly, what shouldnt be done.

“We’re on a good path to coming together on what’s the problem and how we should attack it,” Morin summarized. “And that’s the first step to getting it done.”

Hays finally reminded attendees, “Of course the challenge with these kinds of issues is: They’re easy to agree to in principle, and then there’s the money.”