Summit whiteboard

As Space Gets Crowded, Government and Industry Face Growing Challenges

By Bradley Hague

As civil space enterprises surpass and supplant many government services, ensuring the safety, security, and success of space is an urgent endeavor. MITRE connected thought leaders from the civil space sector to discuss what’s next.

The universe may be infinite, but space is getting crowded. Once the exclusive domain of government institutions, space is now a vital civil and commercial arena. In 2022, the space economy was valued at more than $560 billion. The year 2023 alone saw more orbital missions launched than in the first 50 years of space exploration combined, most of them deploying privately funded commercial satellites.

Orbital lanes are getting congested, launch windows are tightening, and there's an urgent need for collaboration. The satellite systems we rely on every day, for everything from banking and directions to national security, are increasingly vulnerable.

“While we tend to think about space divided into different sectors of work—civil, commercial, and national security—few, if any, of these issues can be considered in isolation,” says Jonathan Pellish, director of civil space policy at the National Space Council.

That’s why MITRE connected executives, entrepreneurs, researchers, and regulators at our headquarters in McLean, Va., to collaborate and discuss the challenges facing civil space.

“This is a good example of a whole-of-nation approach, bringing together regulators, technologists, and government to ensure U.S. dominance in this critical area,” says Yosry Barsoum, vice president of MITRE’s Center for Securing the Homeland. “We need cooperative, common solutions.” 

We tend to think about space divided into different sectors of work—civil, commercial, and national security—few if any of those issues can be considered in isolation.

Jonathan Pellish, National Space Council Director of Civil Space Policy

A Changing Ecosystem and a Threatening Future 

Over 32,000 objects—satellites, space junk like rocket bodies, and even hand tools lost during space walks—occupy low Earth orbit. Preserving orbital pathways and developing capabilities for space situational awareness were themes throughout the summit. 

“There’s a conversation that’s starting to bubble up, with the continuum of the Earth-to-space risk profile, that I don’t know that we’re ready to address,” NASA’s Charity Weeden, associate administrator for technology, policy, and strategy, told the crowd. “We want to be a helpful catalyst for not only NASA but for the globe to move forward on really implementing and taking action to address orbital debris issues.” 

Since the days of Apollo, America has held a privileged position in space. And it has used that capability to build support, not just for our technology but for our ideals and values.

“Leadership today is about how many people want to be part of what you’re doing, not how much can you do by yourself,” says Kelvin Coleman, associate administrator of the Office of Commercial Space Transportation.

But strategic competition, especially with China, is a growing problem. Anti-satellite missile tests and, more recently, reports of plans for a Russian nuclear weapon in space are adding to the danger. 

“Everything we do from a national security standpoint relies on space. That’s not new, and it’s not just a U.S. Issue,” said Clayton Swope, deputy director of the Aerospace Security Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. However, countries around the world routinely use attacks like satellite jamming and GPS spoofing, which can cause real problems. “There is a normalization of deviance,” Swope continues. “These things are happening so much now that we consider them commonplace, but we didn’t intend them to be, and they aren’t good.” 

Norms against physical attacks on space systems have held, but threats are increasing. With increasing capabilities of adversaries and allies alike, the question of who manages the risks is uncertain. “Right now, no one group is in charge,” added Ron Keen, a senior advisor at the National Risk Management Center. Federally funded research and development centers like the Aerospace Corporation and MITRE's Center for Securing the Homeland are well-positioned to assist.

“Working across government, industry, and academia, MITRE plays a unique role driving integrated approaches to these challenges, bringing the best from each sector to meet those challenges head-on,” says Kevin Toner, vice president, Center for Enterprise Modernization. 

A New Frontier of Innovation for Business and Policy

Despite the fears and threats, the possibilities of the space economy are too promising to ignore. With such a fast-paced, dynamic ecosystem, and with more rapid development on the way, government needs to stay involved without over-regulating.

Permitting and planning, coordination, and risk-assessments require innovation. “Things have already become more complex, and the government finds they don’t have the capabilities to do what they did in the past,” said Scott Pace, director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University. 

NASA’s commercial cargo and crew missions exemplified creative use of statutory authority to boost space missions without creating something new. “This is one of the profound lessons that the [space regulatory] community is learning,” said Diane Howard, director of commercial space policy at The National Space Council. “We don’t need to reinvent the wheel; we need to look at the wheel differently.” 

The goal, she says, is government and industry connected, collaborating with a common understanding of what's inherently governmental and what could be farmed out to private industry. 

From mega constellations of satellites to direct-to-device systems, the changes happening in private space are revolutionary. Speakers consistently praised the speed, ingenuity, and adaptability of private sector companies. “You can put something in a small payload now which would outperform a full satellite 10 years ago,’’ said Eric Ingram, president of Scout Space, an orbital imaging company. 

Keeping Pace with Industry Changes

Policymakers noted that often the government stands in the way of businesses that want to take a big risk. Kevin O’Connell, former director of the Office of Space Commerce, now works in the private sector. “My worry is that we’re out of time,” he said. “There will be a terrible crash and well-intentioned politicians will come up with policies that destroy the private space system.” 

The best defense against that may be the type of wide-ranging, cooperative, candid, and collaborative conversations like those that took place at MITRE. “The dialogue we started here sparked innovative ideas and partnerships that will propel us forward,” Toner adds. “We are following up with key attendees to formulate approaches that will help ameliorate risk and enable our private sector partners to innovate and grow our space economy with new capabilities.”

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