Taking One Giant Leap Toward Opening Space for Business

July 2019
America sits on the verge of opening space’s commercial potential. It's a complex effort that must mesh safety and national security concerns. As a partner with a range of federal agencies, MITRE works to ensure this new space race launches smoothly.
Space junk orbiting around the Earth

It's the kind of undertaking for which the term "moonshot" is now (perhaps too often) used. It's as complex and ambitious as its 1960s namesake. And fittingly, it will happen in space.

Based on recommendations from the new National Space Council, since late 2017 the current administration has issued four Space Policy Directives to what many see as a new space race. Among the goals are a return to the moon and, ultimately, voyages to Mars, along with the creation of a new Space Force. 

One directive specifically involves the commercial aspects of space. In the era of SpaceX and other private firms, the U.S. wants to incentivize private sector investment in, and exploitation of, space by streamlining regulations and fine-tuning how to manage all new space traffic. That will make it easier for business to compete in the new sphere. 

Given the inherent complexity, what's the best way to achieve these goals? How can we bolster space commerce potential without harming other forms of commerce? How can business and national security concerns combine to build a new model for traffic management in space? How can we protect cybersecurity functions of satellites so they can't be hijacked or taken offline?

"These are underlying questions that need to be answered, both technically and organizationally," says Scott Kordella, MITRE’s director of space systems. "That cuts to the kind of work MITRE does. We have technical expertise in systems engineering, mathematics, and computer science. We have many years of experience working across government to find solutions to complex challenges."

An Engine with Interchangeable Parts

With that background, we've partnered with representatives of the federal agencies that have roles in executing Space Policy Directive goals. The first step: determine which tasks each entity should carry out. 

"We're proactively engaging with each of these sponsors," Kordella says. "Dean Fulmer [of the Center for Advanced Aviation System Development, or CAASD] is leading engagement with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Kevin Toner [of the Center for Enterprise Modernization] is connecting with the Department of Commerce. Bob Porter [of the National Security Engineering Center, sponsored by the Department of Defense], is leading a corporate initiative titled ‘surface-to-space,’ and as this initiative progresses, more people will get involved. 

"Dean helps leverage the FFRDC (federally funded research and development center) in advancement of the FAA’s critical role in space, including through its Office of Commercial Space Transportation. Similarly, Kevin is engaged with the Department of Commerce’s Office of Space Commerce to identify ways to improve space traffic management, and to streamline the tangled web of bureaucratic hurdles obstructing commercial investment in space."

True to MITRE’s goal of being the systems engineering resource working across the federal enterprise, according to Kordella, "We then talk to one another and try to integrate the interests and objectives of the different government agencies into a single story."

It will be a complex story to weave together. The U.S. is trying to both establish a civilian space traffic management capability and protect its interests in what all acknowledge is a potential warfighting domain. And the entire apparatus of government—not just one or two agencies—will have to implement it. 

The Department of Defense will transfer its responsibilities for providing commercial space situational awareness data to the Department of Commerce. In addition, making commercial space work—and keeping it safe—will require help from the FAA, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (part of Commerce), the Department of State, NASA, and others.

"I think of what we're trying to build as an engine," Toner says. "And there are certain things each cylinder is responsible for and certain things the government can do as a spark plug to ignite this big engine.

"The whole goal here is growth—well-founded, constrained growth that also respects the domain for warfighting and national security interests. So, we have to achieve a balance."

Building on Our Aviation, Space, and Defense Expertise

MITRE isn't a newcomer to space work. 

The FAA, for example, has worked on integrating space vehicles into the National Airspace System for many years. As the operator of the FAA's FFRDC, MITRE has helped the FAA design a repeatable process for the operation of space vehicles. We've also created decision-support tools so the FAA can understand how space operations in the National Airspace System affect others in the same system, such as commercial airliners. 

We're addressing another key concern as well: making space systems more resilient in the face of cyber attacks. The company already works to strengthen cyber resiliency for certain business sectors, many of which may ultimately intersect with space operations.

"You won't see a MITRE logo on a satellite that goes to orbit," Kordella says. "But that doesn't mean we're not involved. It's that we've been involved foundationally with the information that comes from space."

That information takes a variety of forms. "For instance, satellite imagery—for purposes as diverse as weather mapping and military surveillance—has become commonplace," Kordella notes. "And soon internet access from space will become commonplace as companies launch huge satellite constellations to provide those services." 

"I think that as the world recognizes space is part of our everyday lives, our role increases,” adds Kordella. “Getting data from space systems is as commonplace as getting data from a drone or a traffic camera. There are an analogous set of processing and exploitation steps with these data, and we're right in the middle of all that. 

"MITRE excels at information integration, sharing, protection, and automation,” says Kordella. “That expertise is needed to address the challenge presented by the growth in the commercial space industry. For example, space information and airspace information must be integrated. We can help with that."

Developing a Surface-to-Space Framework

MITRE's corporate initiative called "surface-to-space" research focuses on developing key operational principles and a framework to improve the safety and efficiency of space vehicles traversing national and international airspace and reduce barriers to private investment in space. To determine how such plans will work, MITRE has brought together space operators (such as SpaceX and Virgin Galactic), commercial aviation groups (such as the National Business Aircraft Association and the Airline Pilots Association), and the FAA and Department of Commerce. 

The work has already yielded prototypes of several tools to make managing space traffic better and safer. In addition, MITRE has contributed to two aviation rulemaking committees, consisting of industry partners, which are developing recommendations for managing commercial space. The committees expect to make formal recommendations to the FAA soon.

In the process, MITRE has helped kindle engagement among key players in space and aviation. We've started a dialogue that's never taken place like this before.

"I think the community is taking positive steps toward a more collaborative approach to operations," says Bob Porter, MITRE’s lead for the surface-to-space initiative. "It used to be that they would go to their separate corners and kind of duke it out in the court of public opinion. 

"Now, they're meeting and working more effectively together to find some common solutions,” Porter adds. “People look forward to making this work better for everyone."

—by Russell Woolard

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