In recent years, small start-ups and technological entrepreneurs have emerged as cutting edge innovators in space-related technology. The sudden growth in private sector innovation in areas such as space launch capabilities and small satellites has resulted in heady predictions regarding the seemingly limitless commercial and scientific possibilities ahead. For some, these developments signal a coming democratization of space, where nation-states are no longer the only actors involved. However, these admittedly dynamic and fast-paced advances have not gone unnoticed by traditional players. In particular, the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) has begun to target and exploit these new innovations for explicit defense and war-fighting purposes.
In relation to space launch, the U.S. Air Force recently turned to Elon Musk’s Space Exploration Technologies Corporation (SpaceX). In May of 2015, it certified SpaceX as only the second provider cleared to launch national security payloads into orbit, including communications and intelligence satellites. Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James called the certification “a very important milestone” for the Air Force and DoD. “[L]everaging of the commercial space market drives down cost to the American taxpayer and improves our military’s resiliency,” she added.
SpaceX has already begun to replace or at least strongly compete with traditional players, namely, United Launch Alliance (ULA), a joint space venture formed in 2006 by Lockheed Martin and Boeing Defense, Space and Security. Since its inception, ULA had been the sole provider of national security satellite launches for the Air Force, was paid several hundred million per launch, and $800 million annually to maintain launch facilities and other infrastructure. In addition, ULA depended on Russian-built RD-180 engines to power its Atlas V rocket. Due to these exorbitant costs and worsening relations with Russia (which have limited the supply of RD-180 engines), SpaceX has become an attractive alternative.
In January, SpaceX was awarded a contract for the development of the Raptor rocket propulsion system prototype for the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program, which ULA had previously monopolized. The agreement followed Section 1604 of the Fiscal Year 2015 National Defense Authorization Act, which required the development of a next-generation rocket propulsion system that will replace the Russian-supplied RD-180 engine with a domestic alternative for National Security Space launches. In addition to providing enormous cost savings, SpaceX’s completion of the first-ever rocket landing during an orbital launch in December 2015, also signals the future possibility of rapidly reusable rockets, which would fit in to DoD’s strategy regarding rapid mobility and response.
Moving from space launch to small satellites, the Pentagon’s effort at capturing the spin-on effects of private, commercial advancements is just as evident. In 2006, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the Pentagon’s longstanding R&D arm, began its Future, Fast, Flexible, Fractionated Free-Flying Spacecraft program, or System F6 program. The F6 program aimed to break up the big, complex and monolithic military satellites that handle several tasks simultaneously, including surveillance, communication, and self-defense. The problem with this so-called “battleship” approach is that by integrating everything into one satellite it makes acquisition more complicated and expensive, and, additionally, opens up the satellite to kinetic attacks against which it cannot protect itself. If the satellite is knocked out, you lose all its integrated parts.
Instead, the F6 program tapped into a new trend, specifically, the steady rise in mini- and micro-satellites. In place of a large satellite, the program would develop a network or cluster of satellites, with each micro-satellite performing a single task. They would orbit in close formation, wirelessly swap data and power, and if one were damaged or destroyed its tasks would be passed on to the others. Such an approach would enhance adaptability and survivability of space systems, as well as shorten development timelines and reduce barriers-to-entry in the national security space industry.
However, due to problems related to cost and poor management, Systems F6 was cancelled in mid-2013. Nevertheless, the ideas behind it remained alive. They were embodied in Defense Secretary Ash Carter’s 2014 Defense Innovation Initiative and the establishment of the Pentagon’s own start-up, the Defense Innovation Unit Experimental (DIUx), located at Moffett Field in Silicon Valley, CA. Unlike the F6 program, DIUx’s mandate does not involve funding technology but, rather, serving as a matchmaker or hub between the DoD and Silicon Valley, facilitating both DoD’s access to leading-edge technologies from high-tech entrepreneurs as well as assisting those companies navigate through DoD acquisition rules and regulations.
Similar to the F6 program, though, DIUx was intent on pursuing the capability of putting large numbers of small, interoperable networks of satellites into orbit. According to DIUx Director Dr. George Duchak, formerly a program manager at DARPA, certain companies caught DoD by surprise with their ability to launch tens if not hundreds of small satellites, networked together, which can shoot video from space.
Although not mentioned by name, one company he likely has in mind is Planet Labs, a small San Francisco-based startup founded by former NASA scientists. In February of 2014, they launched the world’s largest constellation of Earth-imaging satellites, called “Doves,” that are a fraction of the size of traditional satellites. More importantly, it estimates that in the next year it will have more than 100 satellites in orbit, permitting them to capture a picture of the entire Earth – everyday. This advancement would allow the Pentagon to achieve persistent surveillance. According to Michael Vickers, former undersecretary of defense for intelligence, this would mean the ability to stare at the same location for long periods of time, rather than having to wait for satellites to be re-tasked or to fly over that particular part of the globe.
Another likely candidate is Terra Bella, formerly Skybox Imaging, a company purchased by Google for $500 million in June 2014. Their satellites capture photos from 500 miles up with a sub-one-meter resolution of the ground below. They, too, have plans over the next 18 months to put more than a dozen more into orbit, which will increase their imagery “refresh rate,” from one new image every three days to four to five new images per day. “In the end,” writes David Samuels, “the government will likely commandeer some of Skybox’s imaging capabilities under terms similar to those imposed on other vendors.” Moreover, one of the company’s co-founders, John Fenwick, previously worked as a liaison in Congress for the National Reconnaissance Office, and its CEO has held jobs in the past that involved close contact with DoD. In short, Terra Bella’s personnel have preexisting contacts that would enable working with DIUx.
In closing, we are witnessing a definite increase in new, private sector players in space-related technologies, and an attendant shift in the nature of the Pentagon’s innovation and acquisition patterns. Deputy Defense Secretary Bob Work remarked that, whereas in the past DoD controlled government-specific, innovative technology with little or no commercial value, today there are many dual-use technologies. These are driven by the commercial sector, but also possess potentially transformative security and war-fighting applications. Thus, the emergence of tech startups building micro-satellites in Silicon Valley garages does indeed signal a clear paradigm shift in terms of the type and number of actors in space. Nevertheless, when the Pentagon comes knocking, with the offer of a profitable and expanding market, not to mention the full power of the national security apparatus behind it, one must admit that the so-called democratization of space may be premature yet.
*This article is part of the IPI Space Security Initiative Series on Space Policy of Major Powers.