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Government officials are reaching out to commercial ventures for space race revival

Alan Boyle
An artist’s conception shows a next-generation moon lander. (NASA Illustration)

RENTON, Wash. — Fifty years after the landmark Apollo 11 mission blasted off for the climax of the U.S.-Soviet space race, officials from NASA and the Air Force highlighted the role of commercial space ventures in running a new race for American leadership on the final frontier.

Clayton Turner, deputy director of NASA’s Langley Research Center in Virginia, noted that the space agency was born a little more than 60 years ago, in the wake of Sputnik’s launch and the dawn of the first space race.

“For a lot of that time, NASA was the only player in town. NASA and DOD [Department of Defense] were the only players in town,” he said here today at the Space Frontier Foundation’s annual NewSpace conference. “For the next 60 years, the next 100 years, that is not going to be the case, and that is a great idea.”

Turner said most of the airplanes flying around the world today are built by commercial enterprises, with governments purchasing services as needed. “That’s what we want to think about for space development,” Turner said.

NASA’s renewed push to the moon and onward to Mars serves as a prime example: Commercial ventures are being asked to provide transport services for lunar experiments, and submit proposals for landers capable of carrying astronauts to and from the moon’s surface. (Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture, based in Kent, Wash., is among the players in the moon-lander marketplace.)

Just today, NASA issued its first round of guidelines for free-flying commercial space stations that could serve as new orbital destinations for spacefliers. Commercial ventures are due to build components for NASA’s moon-orbiting Gateway platform as well.

And that’s just the start: Turner said the Gateway concept, which is expected to turn into a reality by the mid-2020s, would serve as a model for farther-out space outposts. “One can imagine something similar around Mars,” he said.

For NASA, the imperative driving the commercial space race has to do with exploration and eventually settlement. But for the Air Force Space Command, there’s a geopolitical consideration similar to that seen during the ’60s space race.

“The next great-power contest will be won by new space,” the Space Command’s chief scientist, Joel Mozer, said during a follow-up NewSpace session.

Mozer echoed past pronouncements that space operations have become as crucial to national security as military operations on land, air and sea — and said the United States would have to rely on new technologies developed by private industry. “Gone are the days when government drove all the innovation in space,” he said.

He singled out China and Russia as America’s top rivals on the final frontier. If those countries could degrade U.S. capabilities in satellite communications and surveillance, that could give China an opening to expand its dominance in the South China Sea, or alter the dynamics for Russian encroachment on NATO’s turf, he said.

“It’s a national imperative to win this space race,” Mozer said.

In an echo of the early ’60s, Mozer claimed that the clash of national interests “will extend to the moon soon.”

“China has a national plan not only to explore the moon, but to put Chinese settlers on the surface and exploit the resources of the moon,” he said. “The Chinese national goal is to be the technologically dominant global power by the 2040s. China’s reach, in its military sense, will extend to the moon and possibly beyond. From a national defense strategy perspective, we must ensure that we have the technology to surpass China’s reach.”

He said the top trends in space technology include spacecraft miniaturization and greater spacecraft autonomy — potentially including artificial intelligence for space operations. “These technologies may drive new modes of warfare,” Mozer said.

The rise of satellite mega-constellations will complicate the picture even further. In May, SpaceX deployed the first 60 spacecraft for what’s expected to be a Starlink broadband data constellation comprising thousands of satellites. Other companies, including OneWeb and Amazon’s Project Kuiper, have plans for thousands more.

Mozer said government officials were just starting to work through the challenges for space traffic management raised by the first 60 Starlink satellites. “We have no idea what the second or third tier of such a constellation might mean,” he said.

One aspect of NASA’s space exploration plan sparked some pushback at the NewSpace conference, which tends to draw heavily on the entrepreneurial side of the space industry. During the Q&A part of his presentation, Turner came in for questions about NASA spending on the heavy-lift Space Launch System and Orion deep-space capsule.

Critics of the SLS-Orion development effort, which has Boeing and Lockheed Martin as prime contractors but is managed by NASA, say it’d be faster and cheaper to use SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket, which has already been launched twice — or the SpaceX Starship launch system, which is in an early stage of development.

In response to the questions, Turner said NASA was currently committed to SLS and Orion for the initial missions to the moon in the early to mid-2020s, but could consider a wider range of space transportation systems once they’re up and running. He emphasized that such systems would have to be certified as safe for human passengers.

“At some point, when those other vehicles are ready and demonstrating that heavy-lift capacity, for a human-rated vehicle, then we will transition to those,” he said.

One of the questioners was Peter Garretson, an independent strategy consultant who focuses on space and defense. After the session, Garretson told GeekWire that he’d like to see NASA reconsider its plans sooner rather than later.

“We really need to stop and take a second look: Is this the right architecture, to go fast or to go far?” Garretson said.

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