Globalizing Space Launch Sector Risks National Security

Globalizing Space Launch Sector Risks National Security
NASA/JPL-Caltech via AP
Globalizing Space Launch Sector Risks National Security
NASA/JPL-Caltech via AP
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The lightning-fast growth of America’s resurgent space industry is both wonderful and worrisome.  From serious talk of humans on Mars to an explosive American commercial space industry, there is great goodness – and serious reason for concern – in the wind. 

On the plus side, closer to home than moonwalks and Mars, commercial space launch is going gang-busters, both at home and abroad.  With 29 orbital launches from U.S. soil in 2017, America led the world in total launches for the first time in a decade. 

However, fast growth comes with risks, and there is reason to believe neither the White House nor Congress has thought deeply about invisible risks attending exponential growth of global commercial space launch – the unintended and second-order national security threats posed.

National security vulnerabilities are often invisible, until glaringly obvious – at which point they are either inordinately costly to fix, or it is too late.  On the other hand, they flow predictably from accelerated reliance on new technologies; think reliance on computers, and then the national security threats posed by state and non-state hacking. 

Today, America is watching space launches proliferate – for light and heavy payloads, geosynchronous and non-geosynchronous orbits, long and short-duration satellites, deliveries to just above the atmosphere to deepest space. 

All this is good, except when it opens an invisible door, to a massive national security vulnerability.  Think “Magnus effect,” which takes a perfectly designed missile sideways and off target, just the way an easy-to-hit pitch becomes a slider, curveball swerves, fastball zips past the unsuspecting batter – also Magnus effect. 

In commercial space launch, the hidden vulnerabilities are foreseeable, and here they are.  Just as the Trump Administration worries about foreign influence over American jobs, and others worry about foreign influence over the Trump Administration, average Americans should worry about something simpler:  Foreign influence over commercial space launch, and over what we are putting in orbit.

Common sense says although common law lags: Protect our burgeoning American space launch industry – small companies and large – from foreign usurpation.  More specifically, protect American national security assets from being shipped abroad for launches, even if the trade maven’s “call of the wild” or economic “animal spirits” say launch wherever is cheapest. 

As trade and security get more interwoven by the Trump administration, keep one eye on vulnerabilities –particularly commercial space launch.  As we continue to capture a bigger share of the global launch market, putting more international payloads in space, beware the flip side:  America cannot risk entrusting our national security assets to launches on foreign soil. 

If all this seems obvious, remember no one thought foreign-based international computer hacking would ever jeopardize American national security either, yet here we are. 

One last question remains, of course.  How might Congress and the Administration assure what is “near and dear” to all Americans – our national security – remains sacrosanct, even in an era of explosive and global commercial space launch? 

Answer:  Think about how a savvy baseball hitter outwits the slider, curve and well-pitched fastball –forward thinking, strong and level swing, always protecting home.  Those who want to protect American national security should see the vulnerability clearly, and then assure all American satellite payloads get launched only from U.S. soil, on cost-effective, U.S.-owned and operated, predominantly American financed rockets.   

If all this sounds elementary, it is.  That is how America has always protected our national security, and related jobs, by thinking ahead.  And remembering great goodness and serious concern hide in lightning-fast growth – especially a globalizing space launch industry.  The key:  Protecting home.  

John Cody Mosbey is a retired Air Force colonel and current university instructor. He is a former executive director of the Center for Homeland Defense and Security of the Naval Postgraduate School. He is a researcher and writer on Russian geopolitics and holds graduate degrees from the University of Alabama in Birmingham and Trinity College, Dublin in addition to a graduate degree in National Security and Strategic Studies from the U.S. Naval War College.

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