Note: This paper was written last year as a response to a set of questions sent out from the Pentagon regarding multiple topics pertaining to how commercial space efforts can help the future in regards to critical national security issues. This was my paper response. It ended up in many interesting places. It has been published now by the “Strategic Multilayer Assessment ” Office (Joint Staff J39) and thus I am putting it out here for the larger community. My central premise is that there are many ways of enhancing security that do not involve offensive space activities. These may inevitable, but the more that we can do to build confidence by passive activities that increase resiliency and thus our national security while enabling space commerce, the better off we all will be.
Emerging Commercial Space Capabilities Potential to Transform National Security Space in the 21st Century
SMA Subject Matter Addressed
National Security & Space
- What opportunities are there to leverage ally and commercial capabilities to enhance the resilience of space services for commercial and national security critical space services? What are the major hurdles to doing so?
The commercial space sector is transforming before our eyes. What began as a state directed contest of wills in a race to the Moon is being transformed by an explosion of well financed commerce. Space commerce has traditionally been confined to telecommunications, though recently this has expanded into remote sensing. However, the emergence of SpaceX, and soon by Blue Origin, is the beginning of a true paradigm shift in the launch sector. Additionally, with announced efforts for commercial Moon, Mars, asteroid missions, and in-space manufacturing, a decisively enhanced set of capabilities not considered in previous defense planning are emerging. This missive will explore these efforts, discuss the capabilities that they bring, offer thoughts on the direction of commercial space development and how understanding and cooperation between the emerging space sector and the national security enterprise can be beneficial to both, and potentially crucial to maintaining peace.
Elon Musk wants to colonize Mars and Jeff Bezos is investing in an Amazon Prime like lunar delivery service. These efforts, funded by tech billionaires, coupled with commercial lunar development plans, asteroid mining efforts supported by Luxembourg, and the assembly of large structures in space, indicates a dramatically different emerging capability and operational tempo by the private sector from the government driven historical norm. The question is, how can these emergent capabilities be best leveraged by the national security space sector? Additionally, cultural questions arise for the military services as a result of this seismic shift. Is current planning process considering this future? Additionally, are its planners open minded enough to consider the resulting capabilities implied by the above efforts and how they may utterly transform national security space?
This missive will focus on new logistical concepts and systems pertaining to commercial systems architectures for Moon, Mars, and asteroid utilization. Additional focus will be on the transformative aspects of in-space manufacturing and services. It is in these areas most divergent from the current thought process in the national security space enterprise where engagement with those active in these areas during their early development phase has the greatest potential for beneficial cooperation. Leveraging these emerging capabilities will enhance the resilience of national security space services and provide strategic and tactical options not previously considered by planners.
The Impact of the New Generation of Space Enterprise with Money, Will, and Vision
Early Efforts Create a Template
The heart of the new space enterprise began in the 1990’s comprised of people with money, will, and vision. The first disruptor of the government centric space enterprise was Rene Anselmo, founder of Panamsat. His self-funded attack on the monopoly in geosynchronous orbit and Intelsat began a transformation that lowered prices, improved services, and transformed the GEO satellite industry. Panamsat’s success encouraged other new entrants and investment capital to flow into other space communications efforts. These efforts peaked, then crashed in the late 1990’s with the bankruptcies of Iridium, Globalstar, and Orbcomm. The template pioneered by Anselmo is being repeated today in the “new space” sector. First, well financed individuals are investing large sums of their own money for goals that are personally important to them and which also have space commerce potential. Second, with success of these ventures comes an increased interest from the investment community, enough to bring more capital into the sector and potentially set up a virtuous cycle of increasing capabilities and commerce, thus begetting more investment and successes. If sustained, this cycle will profoundly transform the space sector as the Internet transformed global commerce.
Musk and Bezos in Launch
At the beginning of the new millennium Dot Com cash out Elon Musk started SpaceX, ostensibly in fury over high prices for existing launch vehicles coupled with his passion for Mars.[i] Blue Origin was founded in 2000 by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos with the explicit goal of lowering launch cost to bring affordability for putting people into space.[ii] Both Musk and Bezos are strong believers in lowering the cost of space commerce and for putting humans into space and taking them to the Moon (Bezos) and Mars (Musk). The transformative aspect is that they have the financial wherewithal to do it. Musk is 34th and Bezos is #2 on the Forbes 400 richest persons in America. Thus, in these two we have the money, the will, and vision to accomplish their goals independent of government funding.
Though Musk’s actualized capabilities are well ahead of Bezos, both are aiming for what can be considered to be ubiquitous space operations. Musk is aiming to send a commercial human flight in a lunar free return trajectory before 2020[iii] and Bezos’s Blue Moon project seeks to provide Amazon like delivery services to the Moon by 2020[iv] as well. Thus, in the 2020’s it is likely that there will be Americans returning to the Moon for commercial purposes, creating new capabilities that have not been considered by national security space sector planners.
Commercial Lunar and Asteroid Resource Utilization
There are other efforts companies funded to various levels for lunar and asteroid resource utilization. The Google Lunar X Prize incentivized U.S. companies like Moon Express, Astrobotic, and Synergy Moon to develop their systems, while companies in allied countries such as Space IL in Israel, Team Indus in India, and Team Hakuto in Japan are all working to develop lunar landing capabilities[v]. Though it is unlikely that any of these will meet the X Prize deadline, it is likely that their progress is such that many of them will ultimately reach their goal of a lunar landing. A company called Planetary Resources Inc. is a company who’s business plan includes the exploitation of resources from asteroids[vi]. It is funded to the tune of tens of millions of dollars. The government of Luxembourg invested $25m dollars in November of 2016. The company was founded in 2009 with the goal of obtaining water and other resources from asteroids. It claims its first asteroid mission will commence in 2020. Another company, called Deep Space Industries, less well funded, is developing an asteroid mission, but with no announced launch date[vii]. While these companies are less credible than Musk and Bezos, they are developing technologies, and an incremental growth approach that allows them to move forward toward their ultimate goals.
If these companies or other emerging companies like them are successful, the acquisition of resources from the inner solar system will transcend the entire macroeconomic equation that underpins many futurists concerns related to the resource limits of the terrestrial resource base[viii]. As competition for resources is a fundamental cause of war in history, this could bring many benefits toward a more peaceful world in the 21st century. Consider also that the capability of humans and advanced robotic systems operating in the inner solar system can bring options to the national security space planner that could dramatically increase the resilience of an expanded national security space systems architecture, while promoting economic growth. Just as the government assisted growth of the 1930’s commercial aviation industry provided the basis for American airpower in WWII, so the growth of the commercial space industry beyond communications and remote sensing can be transformational for the future in ways that have not been captured by the national security space sector.
In Space Services
In space services incorporates a wide range of activities. The nearest to fruition is the in-space servicing of client satellites, under development by Orbital ATK, with their Mission Extension Vehicle (MEV)[ix]. The architecture of the MEV was originally patented by this author, and licensed to Orbital ATK. Its purpose is to dock with and extend the useful operational life of a geosynchronous satellites. This service is nearing operational status. A multiplicity of vehicles of this type would be a major asset to national security planners. Another player is the DARPA/MDA/Loral Robotic Servicing of Geosynchronous Satellites (RSGS) system[x]. This vehicle is much more advanced, with robotic arms and an advanced suite of satellite servicing tools and fuel for refueling. Its proposed operational date is 2020. The greatest question there is whether or not the imposition of military requirements will result in a system that is also commercially viable.
The second and most promising of emerging technologies is in-space manufacturing. This can be robotic manufacturing from raw materials such as the company Made in Space is attempting, or the Orbital Logistics Vehicle, with parts assembled into vehicles that Skycorp is developing (disclaimer: this author is the founder and CEO of Skycorp). Figure 1 illustrates the concepts.
Figure 1: Skycorp In Space Manufacturing Facility (Left at ISS) and Made in Space Archinaut in Operation
In space manufacturing is truly transformative. In space, aperture is everything, from solar arrays for power, to antennas for communications, and maximizing this parameter at the lowest cost brings exceptional value. With the advent of the International Space Station as a worksite for assembly and manufacturing in space, or through autonomous robotic assembly, no longer will space systems be confined to the limitations of the launch vehicle fairing. Our group is developing high thrust to power ratio solar electric vehicles and the world’s first reusable and reprovisionable spacecraft. Just as the key to lower launch costs is reusability, the key to sharply lower in-space systems costs is predicated on reusable, reconfigurable, and reprovisionable systems. This change will impact every facet of national security space systems, from concept, procurement, and lifecycle systems engineering.
Perhaps the most profound change that the new space enterprise brings to the national security space arena is cultural. Systems development driven by the requirements and acquisition process tends to end up looking like what came before with only incremental improvement. This is inherent to the process as all cost and technical modeling by formulators and reviewers is based upon past experience. Anything that is not quantifiable through the lens of past experience is considered risky, downgraded in evaluation and thus unlikely to be funded. Contractors know this and so tailor their proposed systems to meet these expectations. The Silicon Valley thought process is entirely different, and inherently disruptive to the status quo. Common to the Bezos/ Musk (more broadly defined as the Silicon Valley Method or SVM) method, the focus is on simultaneously lowering cost and increasing product performance with continuing unabashed injections of new technologies and improved processes. This has been crucial to the success of the SpaceX Falcon 9.
An additional cultural element with the SVM method is the influence of venture capital. Success begets success and once the venture capital community see positive exits in a new sector (defined as a company returning multiples of funds invested), a flood of capital flows into the sector. For example, the market capitalization of SpaceX is $21.1 billion based on the latest funding round, placing it in the aerospace industry top ten[xi]. Other companies such as Skybox and the Climate Corporation have had successful exits. This incentivizes more venture capital money to fund further innovation[xii]. This is a global phenomenon that empowers our friends and adversaries, and thus it is imperative that the national security space sector participate in this arena.
Envisioning the Future Through Capabilities Brought by the New Space Enterprise
Establishing the Premise
While the preceding sections on new and emerging capabilities should be illuminating, how do these answer the question posed regarding how these new capabilities enhance the “resilience of space services for commercial and national security critical space services”. The definition of resilience in this realm was defined in a 2015 White paper from the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Homeland Security and Global Security[xiii].
Resilience: The ability of an architecture to support the functions necessary for mission success with higher probability, shorter periods of reduced capability, and across a wider range of scenarios, conditions, and threats, in spite of hostile action or adverse conditions.
The White paper defined six resiliency elements; 1) Disaggregation, 2) Distribution, 3) Diversification, 4) Protection, 5) Proliferation, 6) Deception. However, current discussions regarding resiliency have a common limitation, previously defined by this author in a 2008 National Defense University Space Power Theory book chapter as a “geocentric mindset”[xiv]. This term is defined as:
Geocentric Mindset: a mindset and public policy that sees spacepower and its application as focused primarily on actions, actors, and influences on earthly powers, the earth itself, and its nearby orbital environs.
While the definition of space resilience is broad enough to encompass previously described capabilities, policy discussions and applications in the national security sector have been entirely geocentric in nature. While this missive cannot explore all of the relevant publications to illustrate this premise, the USAF Air Superiority 2030 Flight Plan (AS 2030 Flight Plan) provides a key example of a geocentric approach in future planning[xv].
Figure 2: USAF AS 2030 Flight Plan Systems Architecture Graphic
The illustration shows space assets in low orbit and geosynchronous orbit. The GPS constellation flies in a medium Earth orbit. None of these assets, nor are any space assets planned, to fly in orbits above geosynchronous orbital (33,700 km) altitude. Russia, due to its northerly location has assets in highly eccentric Molniya orbits with an apogee altitude of 63,000 km. Orbital altitudes higher than this are rarely discussed and are absent in the AS 2030 flight plan. This was not always the case. In 1959 the Army Ballistic Missile Agency prepared the Project Horizon classified (then) report under the direction of Major General Robert Medaris to emplace a military base on the Moon. A key passage from the report: “Moon-based military power will be a strong deterrent to war because of the extreme difficulty, from the enemy point of view, of eliminating our ability to retaliate”[xvi]. Additionally, the only military mission ever flown to a lunar distance was the 1994 Ballistic Missile Defense Organization’s Clementine mission. This mission was ostensibly for testing technologies relevant to ballistic missile defense. However, its proponent, USAF Brigadier General Simon P. Worden (ret) was a proponent during his military career of extending the battlespace to the Moon and beyond[xvii]. Thus, considering previously described emerging capabilities, what do they bring to the subject of resiliency?
Lunar, Cislunar, and Similar Orbital Space Contributions to Resiliency
Considering the taxonomy of resiliency, the emerging capabilities of commercial lunar, Mars, asteroid development and in-space manufacturing directly pertain to distribution, diversification, and protection. These capabilities could also contribute to the higher-level Space Domain Mission Assurance taxonomy for reconstitution. A capabilities based approach is consistent with the 2015 definition of resilience and extends it greatly. Lunar here is defined as surface activities, and cislunar as any system or activity in orbits near the Moon and similar orbits pertains to any orbit within the gravitational confines of the earth. At our current level of technology, it would be almost impossible for an adversary to coordinate multiple attacks across millions of miles of space in order to cripple our space based assets without revealing intent. Thus, time and distance provide protection to our space based assets. This is not an exhaustive description of the capabilities brought by these locations but an introduction to stimulate thought. Central to the premise here is that these systems would be almost impervious to the Space Pearl Harbor syndrome.
In 2013 NASA launched the Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE). This spacecraft carried a laser communications system as a secondary payload. With a downlink data rate of 622 megabits/sec and an uplink of 20 megabits/s this was one of the highest bandwidth single communications payloads ever flown. Much faster systems are under development. Laser and conventional communications systems in lunar orbit or beyond would be an exceptionally resilient primary or backup communications system for the National Command Authority (NCA)
Emplacing NCA communications systems on the lunar surface would also be exceptionally resilient. This could be expanded to include data storage systems providing backups that are impervious to electromagnetic pulse damage. As it would be a clear act of war to attack such systems under existing treaties, and the fact that these systems could be buried beyond the reach of attack, this provides exceptional resilience for data storage and communications. Also, with the exceptionally stable surface of the Moon telescopes could be emplaced that could backup, supplant, or enhance the capabilities of all but the highest resolution low earth orbit imaging systems. Thus, important services such as weather prediction, temperature, and other optical and non-optical systems could be emplaced, serviced, upgraded, and sustained as part of a commercial lunar installation.
Other Earth Orbital Space
Other Earth orbital locations above 300,00 kilometers offer many of the same benefits of lunar orbit. The Lagrange points at L3, L4, and L5 offer quasi stable orbital locations that could be used for communications and optical systems. Coupled with the in-space manufacturing of large optical and RF apertures, these locations would provide massive capabilities with large distributed and diverse systems that with the time and distance problem, any launch of a simultaneous attack would be exceptionally difficult to hide. At the L2 orbital location beyond the Moon strategic space assets could be stored as an asset for reconstituting capabilities even down to low earth orbits. That orbit is chosen in that a lunar flyby could provide most of the energy required to return an asset to geosynchronous orbit in a few days. This provides a rapid reconstitution capability that would be available even if all American and allied launch sites were destroyed.
Asteroids and Mars
The United States through NASA has had an amazing capability to communicate and navigate across the solar system for decades now. As lunar, Mars, and asteroid operations increase, navigation and communications systems are likely to improve by orders of magnitude over current systems. This means that well before 2030 the national security space enterprise could emplace communications, data storage, and other strategic assets in Mars orbit, on an asteroid, or on the surface, well beyond even the most sophisticated and coordinated attack by an adversary. No advantage lasts forever, but a robust support of the private sector development of these capabilities would help to dramatically extend the life of our national space sector superiority by leveraging private commercial activities. A bonus is that none of this capability development is offensive in nature. None of it threatens our potential adversaries and is thus likely to be supported by the arms control community.
In Space Manufacturing
In-space manufacturing is another field of space development that can bring new capabilities currently unaccounted for the space security sector planning. Large aperture satellites with tens of kilowatts of electrical power and extremely large antennas can overcome jamming. Large space platforms in geosynchronous orbit with tens to hundreds of kilowatts of power can host a multiplicity of payloads, which can be upgraded, refueled, and re-tasked, providing capabilities unheard today. Such large platforms can have defensive mechanisms to protect itself from all but the most determined attacks. Skycorp is developing lightweight highly maneuverable solar electric propulsion vehicles that are the world’s first reusable systems. Our internal systems architecture roadmap and cost analysis indicates that reusable spacecraft have lifecycle cost reduction potential exceeding 80% through re-provisioning, modularity, and interchangeable payload modules.
These systems, soon to be built on the International Space Station (2020 timeframe), first deploying commercial communications payloads, will help to correct the growing imbalance between terrestrial and space communications customer pricing. A highly maneuverable spacecraft with ion propulsion would simply be able to move out of the way of most ballistic threats, thus passively defeating attacks. The more systems that can be built with characteristics that diminish the effectiveness of growing adversary ballistic anti-space systems, the more robust our resiliency is, which helps to lower fears of a Space Pearl Harbor. This, along with the other capabilities outlined in this missive, if implemented, neuter current threats. These capabilities help reduce global instability and help maintain our national security space systems superiority without resorting to developing offensive space systems.
It is imperative to bring engagement between the national security space sector with the emerging new space enterprise that are developing new capabilities currently not under study. It is further imperative that the national security space sector understands that the incipient tipping point regarding beyond geosynchronous orbit architectures and systems development is at hand. This engagement can take many forms. Bringing people associated with these systems in to participate in national security space sector planning would help to inform and broaden the perspective of those engaged in forward planning. There is also the potential for positive vetting of these plans by the national security space sector and providing feedback to developers that may help the execution of their plans. War-gaming scenarios based on the outline provided in this missive and further community engagement can further broaden the intellectual base of understanding. These forms of engagement can inform and provide a means whereby the new capabilities can be folded into future planning. This also provides senior national security sector leadership with intellectual tools to further engage and inform senior political leadership in the executive and legislative branches. If the contentions in this missive are even partially right, breakthroughs will occur and a dramatically improved national security space sector will result.
It is crucial that at this time in the development process of these new capabilities that support be provided by the government. This support can come in many forms. Technical support by providing access to national laboratory and testing facilities will help lower costs and provide a means of further engagement for the national security space community. Technical advisory councils, made up of retired or active national security space sector representatives can provide valuable “Red Team” support to both the actors developing these capabilities and to the financial community that at this time has inadequate technical gravitas to properly vet investments in this field. It is crucial to also not create a new contractor community. Providing funds to only the well-funded current developers would be less than optimum. A shortfall of the national security space sector current viewpoint is to focus only on technical risk reduction and not business risk reduction. Support for startup and small businesses engaged in this field are likely to bring far higher return on intellectual and financial investment than simply handing out money to incumbent contractors or even SpaceX/Blue Origin.
Legislation should be considered in the mold of early 20th century Airmail acts that provided direct financial support to companies delivering airmail. The national security space sector could sign, and obligate funds to purchase advanced capabilities, such as a laser communications link to and from the Moon or other deep space locations. Data services for storing national security pertinent data as described previously here would also be helpful. Contracts of this manner, signed to early entrants into this field, would help provide gravitas to these ventures and would provide the investment community with greater confidence and business risk reduction for their investments. Developing an analog to the Civil Reserve Air Fleet, with direct payments to firms engaged in developing these capabilities would also be helpful. Direct financial support to some of these ventures for risk reduction exercises could also be accomplished. It has been observed by those knowledgeable in the field, that tens of millions of dollars are paid to the incumbent contractor community for risk reduction exercises in space systems development with little result. Thus, as the venture capital community invests in new or emerging enterprise for a larger return on investment than with mature companies, the government through risk reduction exercises with these organizations is likely to provide a larger return for risk reduction expenditures in these new and emerging fields.
Encapsulation and Summation
The purpose of this missive is to convey that advancements in commercial space are upon us that have been scarcely dreamed of previously and certainly not integrated into national security space sector planning. This is brought about by the influx of money from wealthy and committed visionary individuals and investment community capital influx. The time horizon for this is current and accelerating by 2020. By 2030 there will be a different world in space that must be integrated into the planning process. These advances provide opportunities to the national security space sector to leverage emerging capabilities to dramatically enhance the resilience of national space assets. An additional benefit is that the new capabilities mentioned within the context of national security space systems are defensive and or passive in nature, thus reducing the perception that the United States is developing offensive space weapons and will help to reduce the threat of a global space arms race.
The last question posed by the SMA subject matter request pertains to the hurdles that have to be overcome for this to happen. The answer is simple in concept, and difficult in implementation. Simply put the problem is cultural. Just as the institutional wisdom of the U.S. Army Air Corps was inadequate to the task of developing the concepts and effectively executing a strategic air power doctrine post WWII, so today the services need a revolution in institutional wisdom to effectively develop a 21st century strategic space systems architectures. Thus, it is imperative to have focused and sustained effort in these areas in our national security space sector planning by people trained in a culture that understands these space trends. It may be time to adopt recent proposals for a new an independent national space force for the same reason that the USAF was created in 1947.
Strategically in the 21st century the millennia old competition for earthly resources will inevitably advance into space in order to transcend terrestrial resource limitations. This move is necessary to support and bring prosperity to a planetary population of more than 9 billion people in just 33 years from now. This is a highly desirable move and should be supported by civilian political and national security sectors as it brings stabilization by incorporating a vast new resource base for a prosperous future. It also brings an intangible benefit that may be even greater, hope. The move into space, and the economic development of the solar system is beginning. Public pronouncements from our most advanced potential adversary China regarding lunar resources indicates an understanding of this dynamic[xviii]. We as a nation have the chance now to support, enhance, and leverage private and commercial American developments underway now and maintain and enhance our strategic position in a manner that will have positive developments for decades if not centuries.
[i] Chakin, A. (January 2012). Is SpaceX Changing the Rocket Equation? Retrieved from http://www.airspacemag.com/space/is-spacex-changing-the-rocket-equation-132285884/
[iii] SpaceX. (2017). SpaceX to Send Privately Crewed Dragon Spacecraft Beyond the Moon Next Year. Retrieved from. http://www.spacex.com/news/2017/02/27/spacex-send-privately-crewed-dragon-spacecraft-beyond-moon-next-year
[v] Google Lunar X Prize. (2017). “Wikipedia”. Retrieved from. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Google_Lunar_X_Prize
[viii] Meadows, D.H., Meadows, D.L, Randers, J., Behrens III, W.W., (March 1972). The Limits to Growth. New York, New York, Universe Books.
[ix] Orbital ATK. (2017). Mission Extension Services. Retrieved from. https://www.orbitalatk.com/space-systems/human-space-advanced-systems/mission-extension-services/default.aspx
[x] Foust, J. (April 2017). DARPA and Space Systems Loral Move Ahead with Satellite Servicing Program. Retrieved from. http://spacenews.com/darpa-and-space-systems-loral-move-ahead-with-satellite-servicing-program/
[xi] Winkler, R. Pasztor, A. (July 2017) Rocket Maker SpaceX’s Valuation Soars to 21 Billion. Retrieved from. https://www.wsj.com/articles/rocket-maker-spacexs-valuation-soars-to-21-billion-1501199444
[xii] Dillow, C. (August 2017) Investors Pour Billions into Commercial Space Startups as they Approach Exit Velocity. Retrieved from. https://www.cnbc.com/2017/08/09/investors-pour-billions-into-spacex-blue-origin-planet.html
[xiii] Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Homeland Defense & Global Security. (September, 2015). Space Domain Mission Assurance: A Resilience Taxonomy.
[xiv] Wingo, D.R. (2008), Economic Development of the Solar System: The Heart of a 21st Century Spacepower Theory. Chapter 8. Lutes, C.D., Hays, P.L. National Defense University. Toward a Theory of Spacepower.
[xv] United States Air Force Enterprise Capability Collaboration Team. (May 2016) Air Superiority 2030 Flight Plan.
[xvi] United States Army. (March 1959), Project Horizon Volume 1, Summary and Supporting Considerations: Requirement for a Lunar Outpost
[xvii] Worden, S.P., Shaw, J.E. (September 2002) Whither Space Power? Forging a Strategy for the New Century. Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama. Air University Press