The late summer heat is almost unbearable in Logan, Utah. Yet we still come in waves of thousands this year, to attend a conference that only hundreds attended not that long ago. Last week marked the 33rd Conference on Small Satellites, an annual gathering of next-generation space engineers, investors, executives, tinkerers and enthusiasts from around the world.
What was once an annual sideshow to the much bigger and corporate-financed National Space Symposium, the conference is now garnering the attention of senior leaders in the U.S. government. Last week’s conference may very well have revealed the emergence of this generation’s maverick leaders who will finally reshape the arc of a space industrial complex that emerged in the space race of the 1960s. The surging attendance and growing influence by the government was palpable. Their motivation likely comes from a yearning for real innovation at the same time that resilience—the ability to persevere in a prolonged battle—is becoming an urgent need. Or, perhaps this new generation of smallsat technology has finally demonstrated enough military utility that it has earned its seat at the table for serious conversation. Regardless, never before has there been so many senior Air Force officers and government executives eager to learn and participate as we saw last week. And for everyone, especially for those who value our modern way of life and the tax dollars associated with providing it, this is a very good sign.
During the opening panel of the symposium, two of the panelists from the Defense Department were quite unambiguous in their replies that both the Army and the Air Force are actively seeking to explore the possibilities in commercial space. Separately reported in SpaceNews, Jim Pruneski, Army Space and Missile Defense Command space and strategic systems director, said, “We are very interested in working with industry to identify new innovative [space] applications.” As Colonel Dennis Bythewood, the USAF’s Program Executive Officer for Space Development said, it’s now up to this next generation of smallsat companies to demonstrate to him which of their concepts have the technical chops and the pricing to merit consideration for true national security missions.
Equally as interesting was the perspective of Jimi Crawford, founder and CEO of Orbital Insight, a commercial space data and AI company. His insight to the audience is that the military’s needs are remarkably similar to his current commercial customers from other economic sectors, including agriculture and investment banking. Evidently, another space rubicon has been crossed: there will never again be enough analysts to leverage the valuable tsunami of exponentially increasing data collected from space. His company and others are combining machine learning tech from e-commerce with space data to improve gains all across the private sector.
This community of small satellites, next-generation launch systems and advanced analytics is starting to see the green shoots of a government renaissance. Not only has the Air Force established a fast yet disciplined acquisition approach to leveraging this commercial capability, it is already awarding real performance contracts instead of only studies. The Space Enterprise Consortium or SpEC Program is demonstrating that the Air Force knows what it needs from this community and is eager to contract for it.
In other sessions and private conversations throughout the week, senior executives from the U.S. government were routinely using a new term, hybrid space architectures, to describe large and small satellites constellations working together synergistically. The rhetorical regularity of the expression implies an almost foregone conclusion to at least one aspect of future government resilient architectures. This generation of government leaders may finally accomplish something their predecessors could not—both leverage and support the commercial space community.
Aside from associated cost savings, there was also significant discussion around the need for a strength in numbers approach to out-maneuver and endure against an imminent threat. Much like the special operations community maintains its agility by leveraging off the shelf technology in new and innovative ways, the military now needs tailored space capabilities fielded in a matter of a few months rather than several years, which is how long current strategic systems require. These recent public proclamations and the discrete contract actions of the Air Force and others indicate the national security need for these capabilities has shifted from nice to have to essential in a domain that has become contested militarily in only a few years.
Along with the political deliberations regarding a separate Space Force, the last twenty years have seen an internal government debate about the proper role it must take in addressing, leveraging and promoting the commercial space industry. The official National Space Policy is periodically updated and Presidential Policy Directives are occasionally issued, most famously NSPD-27 which provides direction to all branches of the federal government. For the most part, however, the government and the commercial industries have operated side by side, rarely having much to do with one another outside regulatory matters.
Both sides of the space economy now see the necessity and are ready to engage again in a more fulsome discussion. Government policy must be readdressed at all levels from acquisitions to export control because it will have profound implications for the direction a Space Force takes in defending America and its ally’s interests. Done with the necessary forethought, the entire U.S. space industry will emerge strengthened and competitive for the future. If the government misses the mark this time, it may be eclipsed by an international industry that is growing exponentially every year and leaving the American industry, its progenitors, in its wake.