The Road Forward in Space – Does Anyone Here Have a Roadmap?

As a chief executive, I know that my role is to provide the strategic and operational planning for my company, to define the roadmap if you will. I can delegate many things to my extremely capable team, but it’s my responsibility to chart the course.

Based on my years of experience in the satellite industry, I’d have to say that  one of the greatest weaknesses in the U.S. government’s space communication program is that no one seems to be  attempting to comprehensively chart the future.

Some in the industry may dispute that statement (and I encourage you to do so via a comment!) But no one is designing the architecture that can take all of us forward in an increasingly vital and crowded arena. There are so many players – including many other governments and entities – and so little coordination.

It’s as if Metro decided to start building the extension to Dulles airport, without any analysis or planning ahead of time.

Yes, the government has made some useful policy recommendations.  The Administration’s National Space Policy contains many encouraging elements, including embracing international partners and new ways of doing things like hosted payloads. The DoD and the DNI released an unclassified summary of their National Security Space Policy, which also contained useful objectives and potential approaches.

But who is responsible for implementing these excellent recommendations and turning them into reality? And what are the metrics for success? Unfortunately, there are no answers to those questions right now. There have been encouraging meetings and discussions, but no action.

This has created an atmosphere of great uncertainty. Adding to that uncertainty is the nature of the industry’s relationship with the U.S. military. An incredible 90 percent or more of in-theater military communications rides on commercial satcom networks, efficiently and economically.

Yet the DoD is actively building out its own new, very expensive satellite systems so the military can have its own infrastructure. No one knows exactly how many satellites will be built and launched – the current budgetary situation would certainly seem to call for fewer rather than more. In such a climate, it’s almost impossible to make rational investment decisions that directly impact how we support the warfighter.

Let me be very clear on this point — there will ALWAYS be highly secure satellite assets that should be wholly owned and maintained by the military. This isn’t like the terrestrial Internet, where the government totally got out of owning the infrastructure back in 1995. But for many satcom needs, commercial is a better solution than government ownership. In this age of reduced fiscal realities, there doesn’t seem to be anyone asking the tough budgetary questions when it comes to space.

As I said before, the Administrations Space Policy and the DOD’s Space strategy both contain some great sentiments, but it is time for federal budgets to reflect the  implementation of a new architecture for space communications. My company wants to play a role, but in the grand scheme of government contractors we’re a small fish. This needs to be an effort with all the players onboard.

Of course it’s impossible to know exactly what the future will bring, especially in an area like space where the technology changes so rapidly. That’s no excuse for inaction. We all need to start designing architecture for space-based communications now.  Our future security and prosperity depends on us getting this right.

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