Excerpt: Reframing America’s Infrastructure by Marc Gravely
Space | Why Space Tech Needs to Take Off
"Space-based services and technologies are key in understanding climate change... among countless applications to which space can contribute."- United Nations, Sustainable Development Goals document
As we explore Mars and prepare for the first civilian missions to space, not everyone realizes just how crucial the development of space infrastructure is for the future of humanity. As of March 2021, American, Chinese, and United Arab Emirates vehicles are exploring the surface of Mars. The Chinese Tianwen-1 mission entered the red planet's orbit on February 10, one day after the arrival of the UAE's Hope mission, while NASA's Perseverance mission landed on February 18.
During a conference sponsored by Beyond Earth in March 2021, NASA's Kathy Lueders emphasized the connection between space missions and the technology that has enabled us to live wiser on Earth. Efficient water purification and food sources are some of the most salient examples of how technology developed for space missions can help us navigate the challenges of climate change.
According to Lueders, an Associate Administrator of Human Exploration and Operations at NASA, everybody on Earth is a space person, and every company is a space company; they just don't know it yet. Thus, space infrastructure is Earth infrastructure. And if our government fails to invest enough to develop and maintain that infrastructure, America will pay dearly for it.
In line with Lueders' views, I envision the creation of an infrastructure akin to that of the iPhone. Just like Apple had no inkling of all the apps that could be developed for that platform, we won't know what private companies will be able to achieve if NASA succeeds in developing an infrastructure capable of fostering innovation.
By the end of the decade, small communities of contractors and scientists will likely be living in space. NASA's vision is to use lower orbit missions as a testing ground to prepare to colonize the moon and then use our experience on the moon to prepare to colonize Mars. For former astronaut Dr. Janet L. Kavandi, who is Executive VP of Space Systems at the Sierra Nevada Corporation, the ultimate goal is for us to become "a very successful interplanetary species."
Once a subject matter only fit for science fiction novels, space tourism and lunar colonization are just around the corner. People seldom think about how space exploration affects them, but without satellites, for example, we wouldn't have GPS technology. As China, Russia, and others invest heavily in the space race, it is important to understand that lagging behind cannot only impact the lives of astronauts but of every human being on our planet.
NASA's Infrastructure Failures
On February 18, 2021, a NASA Safety Panel recommended that the agency focus on space infrastructure and strategically develop its workforce. During NASA's Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP) meeting, former astronaut Sandy Magnus stated, "The agency must define clearly its central role, authorities, and responsibilities, and the approach that NASA chooses to take should inform not only the skill sets and the workforce of the future but also the acquisition strategy, the operational posture should establish and the infrastructure that should be available."1
As NASA's operations involve an increasing number of strategic partnerships and new operational paradigms, hiring should be based on clear strategic guidelines. The agency's workforce is one of the central elements of its space program, and the Safety Panel expressed concerns in its last annual report. "It is not clear to the Panel that NASA is deliberately addressing certain workforce issues at the strategic level," the document states. "Failing to do so could result in blurred responsibilities and the directly related concern that some risks may not be actively or adequately managed."2
During the NASA Panel meeting, Magnus referred specifically to infrastructure, stating that the agency has "an opportunity to align [its] infrastructure to [its] long-term strategy. The workforce, the infrastructure, and the strategic direction are all linked."
One of the central issues today involves excessive fixed costs and maintenance of facilities that are no longer critical to NASA's programs. Likewise, the permanent workforce should be reduced, thus freeing resources to hire needed personnel for the duration of specific projects. If the agency's resources are not speedily optimized, I believe space infrastructure will suffer.
Safety review is also failing at NASA. A proposed safety culture audit has been long delayed. Panel members have repeatedly pointed to "lingering systemic issues related to risk management, quality, and safety."
The Story of The Infamous SLS
NASA has spent approximately $20 billion on developing a heavy-lift rocket, the Space Launch System (SLS), which is expected to bring astronauts to Mars. Despite the exorbitant expense, the project is "years behind schedule, relies on outdated technology, suffers by comparison to private-sector alternatives, and has little justification to begin with," a recent Bloomberg editorial stated.3
According to NASA's Inspector General, the SLS project, which was initiated in 2011, has endured "rising costs and delays," "shortcomings in quality control," "challenges with program management," "infrastructure issues," "technical issues," "development issues," and "performance issues."
In January 2021, a test of the SLS failed due to an initially unidentified anomaly. One of the rocket's biggest problems is that its core stage can only be loaded with super-low-temperature fuel nine times. This means that if tests continue to fail, there won't be much margin for error when a mission to the moon is finally launched. The whole project seems quite absurd considering the private tech companies like SpaceX and Axiom Space are developing today. For example, SpaceX and Blue Origin are developing reusable rockets while NASA continues to spend hundreds of millions on the disposable SLS.
As innovators and governments project a sustainable human presence on the moon, it seems to make little sense to spend massive amounts of taxpayer dollars on developing a single-use rocket.
The January test was only one in the SLS's long list of disappointments. The rocket's onboard systems activated an automatic abort after about a minute. Originally, the SLS was supposed to fly for the first time in 2016 and to reach Mars sometime in the 2030s. Yet the 2016 date was pushed back all the way to 2020, and Mars seems further away than ever before for NASA's infamous rocket.
Preparing for Cybersecurity Threats in Space
Critical infrastructure on Earth depends on space-based assets to function on a daily basis. Communications, trade, defense, meteorology, and transport rely on satellites, ground stations, and complex data networks. All of these critical assets can be vulnerable to cyberattacks. If successful, these attacks can negatively impact the global economy and compromise vital infrastructure both in space and on Earth.
As space exploration transitions from an activity reserved for government agencies to a commercial industry, these vulnerabilities increase. NASA has saved millions of dollars by partnering with private companies to provide spacecraft and other services, but these savings may come at a cost. With more and more spacecraft connected with critical assets on the ground, opportunities for cyberattacks increase.
According to the Aerospace Corporation, space infrastructure is in dire need of security upgrades in four specific areas:
- Spacecraft vulnerability to command intrusions
- Potential system overload
- Malware attacks on ground control centers, and
- Malicious intrusions in communications between ground and spacecraft
If we allow terrorists and other criminals to exploit these vulnerabilities, the consequences could be devastating. For example, it would be fairly easy to attack satellite communications and get GPS to calculate incorrect military positions. In many scenarios, this could put lives at risk.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and Space Policy Directive 5 have created an incipient framework for safeguarding space infrastructure. Despite its name, however, the Directive does not mandate anything, merely introducing a number of guidelines, and many vulnerabilities still need to be firmly addressed.
As regulators hesitate between creating hurdles for innovation and preventing cyberattacks, the U.S. must create sustainable legal frameworks to mitigate long-term risks.
Space Sector Challenges
There are three key areas in space infrastructure and services:
- Earth-to-Space (E2S): infrastructure/services developed on Earth for use in space
- Space-to-Earth (S2E): space-based services used on Earth, including satellite communication and GPS
- Space-to-Space (S2S): services delivered in space, for example, catering to in-orbit locations, including space tourism
When we consider private-sector innovators, all three segments face numerous challenges, including inadequate access to funding, regulatory barriers, ROI and market readiness issues, and slow technological innovations. The government must mitigate some of these problems, creating an environment more conducive to innovation and success. If cutting-edge space innovators and spacecraft developers cannot find a sustainable business model, space infrastructure will likely suffer due to NASA's outdated methods.
As of early 2020, there were 5,500 satellites in orbit, 3,200 of them defunct. Rocket explosions and other anomalous events have produced thousands of objects that pose a threat to active satellites. With nearly a million objects larger than one centimeter traveling at high speed in the Earth's orbit, the threat is only too real.4
Space debris becomes even more challenging as S2E services require large networks of operating satellites. Although there is surveillance and tracking of larger objects in space, it is not nearly enough, and critical space infrastructure is at risk.
As we launch more and more satellites, we will need seamless space traffic management systems to prevent collisions. Meanwhile, nations continue to test anti-satellite weapons, thus creating more dangerous debris. And the existing debris mitigation policies consist of guidelines and lax frameworks rather than enforceable rules.
Near Earth Objects also pose a threat to our planet. Though smaller meteors burn through the Earth's atmosphere on a daily basis, larger ones could hit the surface of our planet and cause significant damage.
NASA has established a Planetary Defense Coordination Office and launched asteroid redirection missions, but its efforts are insufficient. Unless our country focuses more vigorously—in coordination with other nations—on mitigating the risks posed by space debris in the Earth's lower orbit, many tragedies could befall us.
Propulsion system performance will be vital for the development of the next generation of spacecraft. Launch vehicle technology has made minimal advances over the last 20 years. Although we now use superior materials and manufacturing techniques, propellant performance has not changed substantially.5
A welcome development, reusable launchers have not sufficiently reduced costs. Hypersonic engines are promising, but we need to develop more prototypes that can land like airplanes, reducing the cost and time of service between missions. Hybrid in-space propulsion holds equal promise.
If we want to send manned spacecraft to other planets, we need higher-performance propulsion systems to enable faster travel and larger payload delivery.
Human Life Sustainability in Space
Developing the technology to create sustainable environments for humans in space poses enormous challenges. We need to create artificial ecosystems that foster both physical and mental health. Among other things, we need to build resource replenishing and waste minimization systems.
Although several organizations have focused on developing Large Space Structures (LSS), we have observed little progress. If we want to build space bases on the moon or other planets, we need to be able to deploy LSS. Satellite solar power, for example, will require the deployment of massive structures. Meanwhile, the deployment of smaller instruments like telescopes and antennas is still too costly. Our ability to develop lightweight, efficiently packaged, and easily deployable equipment will be vital for space infrastructure.
Robotic In-Orbit Servicing
Satellite servicing and debris removal can be carried out with the help of advanced robotic technologies. While this is nothing new, the challenge we face today involves improving performance and reducing costs.
In 2007, when a Chinese missile hit a weather satellite, the U.S.'s status as a dominant space power was challenged in a way that had never seemed possible. Since then, Russia has created several additional threats. And our nation is still struggling to regain its leadership. Dominating space is vital for national defense because it has significant implications for warfare on Earth. Military operations, for instance, rely heavily on space-supported technology.
In August 2020, in an address before the National Defense Industrial Association, U.S. Space Command mobilization assistant, Army National Guard Maj. Gen. Tim Lawson warned, "Adversaries don't have to dominate space, they merely need to have the capability to disrupt space operations."6
- Interference in communications
- Anti-satellite lasers
- Nuclear explosions in space
- Ground station attacks
To deflect these threats, the U.S. needs to deploy resilient satellite networks and expand its partnerships with allied governments and private space companies. These challenges are not only a matter of national security but also of global security.
Space Sector Priorities
Space systems are vital instruments of sovereignty; these include autonomous launch capability, civil observation, and space-based military systems. On the other hand, the space sector represents a rapidly growing share of our economy. Therefore, understanding the sector's priorities is key to developing the space infrastructure that can facilitate the technological and scientific advances the Earth will need over the next decades.
Earth observation is central to security and defense. Over the next few years, our government must develop and acquire new data and analytics systems to support these types of operations.
Satellite communications are continually evolving. Demand for new technology is growing, especially in the areas of mobility, IoT, and Machine to Machine (M2M) communications. Significant investments are needed to ensure the US infrastructure doesn't lag behind that of our competitors.
GNSS, the satellite navigation tech on which GPS is based, has seen many advances recently. Centimeter-level accuracy in real time is an attainable goal. Precise Point Positioning (PPP) and Real-Time Kinematic (RTK) are central to the functioning of high-precision applications. Our country must focus on developing these technologies, as well as Space-Based Augmentation Systems (SBAS).
Cost-to-orbit has decreased significantly over the last few years. Today, competition is fierce among sovereign nations, with more and more countries developing launch capabilities. Whether NASA collaborates with private companies or develops its own projects, the agency will have to modernize its launch technology.
Space Traffic Management
The large number of satellites and new space missions underway has created a demand for much more advanced space traffic management than we have today.
From lower-orbit missions to lunar colonization and crewed missions to Mars, exploration will continue to demand an infrastructure that is not yet in place.
Mobility and Logistics
The U.S. military should be making larger investments in mobility and logistics technology to support activities in space.
Although there is currently no need to deploy troops in space, we should be ready. "As we move forward, we're going to want to find ways to be more mobile in space," U.S. Space Command deputy commander Lt. Gen. John Shaw said during a virtual roundtable held in February 2021. "If we don't address those requirements, that would be shutting a door that we need to keep open," he said.7
Logistics should enable the military "to replenish space assets rapidly from the Earth's surface or elsewhere in orbit," according to Shaw. "I cannot imagine operations in space in the decades and centuries to come without mobility and logistics underpinning all of this, like they have in the other domains."
While the Space Force has announced it will enter into various partnerships with private companies to accelerate technological developments for space mobility and logistics, it is not moving fast enough.
Weather capabilities are critical to the success of military operations. In Iraq, for example, being able to predict dust storms could save lives. But as the Air Force's Defense Meteorological Satellite Program (DMSP) comes to a close, the lack of a substitute is putting our military's meteorological capabilities at risk.
Once a pioneer in weather prediction on a global level, the DMSP program was terminated in 2015. According to Space News, "Decisions made over the years by DoD, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and NASA have led to the very real possibility of significant gaps in cloud characterization and theater weather imagery, specifically over portions of the Middle East and Southeast Asia."8
Journalists have referred to the Air Force and NASA's failed attempts to create a substitute for the DMSP as a "broken architecture." As the Space Force reactivates a decommissioned satellite and resorts to private contractors to address the most pressing defense weather needs, it is uncertain, as of February 2021, whether the issue is going to be efficiently managed.
Threats on a Global Scale
After the Space Shuttle was retired in 2011, NASA was unable to send astronauts into orbit for almost 10 years. Later on, our country started paying Russia $82 million per seat on its Soyuz capsule. As early as 2010, two Apollo astronauts warned that U.S. leadership that the space sector was suffering. During a Senate hearing, Neil Armstrong said, "If the leadership we have acquired through our investment is simply allowed to fade away, other nations will surely step in where we have faltered. I do not believe that this would be in our best interests."9
Over the last decade, our government has been trying to remedy infrastructure failings through industry partnerships, but this tactic is not appropriate for all types of space programs. According to influential astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, private companies can provide routine space flight services but are unlikely to make uncertain long-term investments on risky projects that can advance the space frontier.
In a February 2021 TV interview, deGrasse Tyson said, "my read of history tells me [Elon Musk] is not sending [its Starship] rocket anywhere first because that's expensive and [the idea would result in] a very short venture capitalist meeting: What do you wanna do? / Send humans to Mars. / How much does it cost? / I don't know, trillions [of dollars] maybe / Will people die? / Probably. That's a five-minute meeting."10
"I can tell you that the first people to do really expensive things where they are dangerous and people could die, those are not business people, those are governments," deGrasse Tyson said in a 2020 interview. When Europeans discovered the American continent, it was not an effort led by the Dutch East India Trading Company, "it was Columbus, funded by Spain," the astrophysicist explained. "Then he draws the maps, here's the trade winds, here's where the hostiles are and the friendlies, here's where you find the fruit that you can eat. Then you can make a business case for it, otherwise it's a really short meeting... someone has got to go out there with the long view, longer than the quarterly report view. Once the patents are awarded and you establish what's dangerous and what's safe, then you make the business case."11
Based on this historical perspective and considering the enormous risks involved in a crewed mission to Mars, the need for our government to invest in space infrastructure becomes abundantly clear.
NASA maintains numerous collaborations with the private sector. Its Artemis program, whose goal is a 2024 lunar mission featuring a female astronaut, involves partnerships with Elon Musk's SpaceX and Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin.
Today, space exploration relies heavily on collaborations with private companies. Likewise, the private sector has largely benefited from technological advances derived from space exploration. While developing new materials and manufacturing techniques to build spacecraft, NASA has driven many engineering advances. Bluetooth headphones, memory foam mattresses, and programmable ovens rely on technology first developed by the space agency, among many other everyday products.
Today, NASA faces significant challenges. As its infrastructure becomes obsolete and its budget fails to adjust to our nation's growing exploration needs, competition from foreign countries increases and leadership is lacking.
More than eight years ago, former National Space Council Executive Secretary Scott Pace referred to "the fundamental disconnects... between the policies and programs and budgets" and other programmatic challenges. "There's never enough money; there's never enough time, Pace said during a talk entitled "The Future of U.S. Space Policy."12
"What you have on the human space flight is an existential problem," Pace added. The lack of policy directions he complained about was reminiscent of the 1970s. Unfortunately, not much has changed since the current head of the Space Policy Institute uttered those words.
In an age when innovation is the distinctive sign of world-leading nations, space is central as a source of knowledge and potential resources. Without scientific and technological advances derived from space exploration, it is unlikely that our civilization will attain sustainability and overcome the climate crisis. And without clear policy directions and substantial budget increases, it will be impossible to succeed.
The space sector faces both difficult challenges and promising opportunities. A combination of Cloud, Blockchain, and Machine Learning technologies has heralded a new era of space exploration. Today's advanced manufacturing systems enable us to build cheaper rockets with a longer useful life, faster. The 3D printing market for the space sector is expected to be valued at USD $5.5 billion by 2027, and space-related investments are booming.
With automated systems, miniaturized electronics, and global supply chains, costs are decreasing as capabilities increase. Space technology developers can find scalable business models, cloud computing democratizes access for startups, blockchain can support cybersecurity and the financing of space missions, and machine learning enables innovators to develop space-based applications for a variety of markets.
In spite of fierce competition and massive challenges, if our government makes the necessary investments in space infrastructure today, America will thrive in the next era of space exploration.
- Safety panel recommends NASA develop strategy for workforce and infrastructure (link)
- Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel Annual Report for 2020 (link)
- Scrap the Space Launch System (link)
- Space debris by the numbers (link)
- Current Challenges and Opportunities for Space Technologies (link)
- Space Challenges Prompt DOD Response, Space Superiority (link)
- U.S. Space Command to recommend investments in space infrastructure (link)
- DoD weather capabilities have lagged; Space Force can turn that around (link)
- Neil Armstrong Criticizes Obama Space Plan (link)
- "It's Got A Helicopter!" - Neil deGrasse Tyson's Favorite Parts Of The Mars Rover (link)
- Elon Musk: DeGrasse Tyson’s ‘sceptical’ claim over ‘five-minute' Mars meeting revealed (link)
- The Future of U.S. Space Policy (link)