Future historians may declare the original Space Race to have been a mere leg in what is now a marathon. That era, which began with the Soviet Union’s launch of the first satellite, Sputnik 1, in 1957, had little in common with the explosion of activity we see today in space.
Beyond a change in the sheer volume of satellites in space, the actors at center stage today are fundamentally different: a shift from humans and complex hardware to software and shoebox satellites. With the barrier to entry lowered significantly since 1957, today, entities can horizontally integrate an entire space architecture in mere days. Anyone can enter the market. Indeed, this marks a new era of the current space-age - a new space race is upon us. Luckily, the United States has an edge against competitors like China and Russia if it can keep it.
While space has long been important for GPS-based navigation services, predicting weather, humanitarian and military reconnaissance, and supplementing land-based telecommunications systems, our ability to function throughout our everyday lives are not wholly dependent on space infrastructure. However, before the end of the decade, we will become fully dependent on it. A significant portion of internet traffic will transit space, while governments, businesses, and ordinary people will depend more on things like real-time motion imagery, all based in space.
Whereas today you may use satellite pictures to examine the location of a supermarket and aggregated cell phone data to gauge how crowded it is, tomorrow, you might look at an actual video feed of the parking lot that is seconds old. These examples illustrate how rapidly our human decision loops are shrinking – and these are only civilian examples.
Unfortunately, with complexity comes vulnerability. Over the last ten years, the dematerialization, demonetization, and democratization of components and systems have drastically reduced satellites' cost, size, weight, and power requirements (and the infrastructure that supports them). What that means is that far more than marvels of engineering, satellites ought to be thought of more as flying Linux computers. The Mars Perseverance Rover is running Linux right now. On the surface of Mars. For the rest of the 2020s, advantage in space will be gained or lost based on the superiority of software rather than engineering and the daring of astronauts. And with that software-centric focus comes the same risks that we face from flawed software on Earth: cyber-attacks and espionage.
The good news is that the United States leads in space and has the means to make space communications far more secure. Today, 1,897 operating satellites are American, whereas 412 are Chinese and 176 are Russian. While this may sound like “winning” to some, sheer numbers are the wrong metric – this could be just as much of a liability as an asset. Yes, American companies have a dominant position in the new space economy – both in terms of a supportive business and government environment. We also have the talent and software that makes them go. Unfortunately, we are still subject to supply chain risk – both before and after launch, which can involve an adversary using one of our satellites to their advantage. And our lead is not insurmountable. The rate at which American companies propose to launch thousands of satellites in the next several months and years suggests we are throwing caution to the wind. Driven by a frothy investment environment to launch and operate in the shortest time possible, security is often one of the most expensive things to get right and also the least understood.
How to maintain the edge? The Biden administration would do well to actively encourage a hybrid space architecture that understands the importance of security. This would involve not just the government using commercial satellites more extensively and vice versa but the ability to communicate securely amongst them and our allied partners. Getting there will require a public-private communications strategy and architecture.
If it weren’t for the networking and security standards we apply today, the internet would just be a bunch of disconnected computers. The same could be true for the satellites of the space sector. To that end, we need to embrace serious policy around space security and consider what real measures of effectiveness satellites will have to meet.
Finally, the American space industry should transcend what is known as first or second horizon space technology. If the first technology horizon is making the things we already have, better; the second horizon is applying existing techniques in new ways or to new areas. The third horizon is the creation of entirely new capabilities to disrupt or counter disruption itself. By working together toward this goal, government and business can prototype, test, and evaluate space applications that leapfrog a generation of satellite technology and keep America in the lead in this crucial field.
Michael Campanelli is the Vice President of Federal of SpiderOak, a secure-communications data and aerospace company.