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By Robert Bunn -- Warrior Contributor
American Space Launch Sector Wakes Up – Exciting Times Ahead
We live in exciting times. From President Trump’s focus on “Space Force” to heavy and light launch innovation, the American space sector is awaking from a long sleep. During the past decade, American payloads reached orbit on rockets with Russian engines, American astronauts travelled to the International Space Station (ISS) on Russian rockets, and new heavy and light lift was slow in coming. All that seems to be changing – and unusually fast.
On top of presidential directives creating Space Force under the US Air Force, President Trump pushed a fiscal 2020 budget that seeks $21.5 billion for NASA (a $1.6 billion pop), $14 billion for military space operations, $13 billion for missile defense (including satellites to warn of hypersonic missiles), and signed an executive order pushing “Buy America” provisions.
Meantime, Vice President Pence announced that America will aim to land American astronauts with American rockets on the moon by 2024, echoing President Trump’s State of the Union commitment to launching American astronauts on “American rockets” – after introducing legendary Apollo 11 astronaut and moon-walker Buzz Aldrin.
All this adds up to something, and that something is energy, enthusiasm, and a new-found commitment to the space launch sector in America. More particularly, technology and budgets are tracking with renewed national commitment.
For example, American-made satellites are getting both heavier, at one end of the spectrum – and lighter, at the other. Commercial and military satellite technology is evolving, quickly. As the demands for more and better communications, military and man-made crisis monitoring, climate change and atmospheric prediction, international and border protection, maritime and remote domain awareness all grow, the need for faster, cheaper and more creative launch options is also growing.
On the heavy end, satellites in GEO are getting more sophisticated, which can raise costs and lengthen launch times, but also produces lower ground station costs and delivers more valuable information once satellites are aloft. Heavy lift also promises to get more reliable, as more private options materialize, are tested and eventually become man-rated.
Meantime, on the lighter end of launch innovation, cube satellites and miniaturizing technology, along with data transmission innovations, are pushing the sector for faster, cheaper, all-American options to launch national security and commercial payloads which the average American could hold in his or her hand. This is revolutionary – both the payloads and low-cost, fast-turn, responsive launch options.
The sector is also coming alive in other ways. Competition – even with preference for “Buy America” – is widening and growing. Cost-effective launch is a priority. But Congress and this Administration also seem to want the ability to launch quickly, not wait months for the next “window,” especially for small payloads. They are seeking “return on investment,” for both suborbital and orbital requirements.
In another development, studies are emerging which discuss the impact of competing rocket fuels on the stratosphere. As launches themselves multiply, some are discussing not only how better to monitor atmospheric change, but how to assure rocket fuels do not contribute to existing problems.
Last, there appears to be new public interest in the space sector, from commercial launch and better communications to preventing, anticipating and responding to conflicts or security threats. Certainly, the need for faster, cheaper, more cost-effective access to space is growing. And from secondary education to renewed national interest in exploration, the sector is moving from reactive to proactive, from yawning to waking.
The only question now is – once American eyes again rest on the skies – where will we stop? Dreams, bigger budgets, cheaper access to space, more capability and renewed American leadership are all good. Some of that leadership will improve life on earth. Some may take us back to the moon – or Mars. Exciting times, for sure.
Robert Bunn, former senior law enforcement attorney in Florida and commentator on national issues, has special interests in rocketry, intelligence, international affairs and national security. He holds multiple degrees from Harvard University and is author of two books, one of which is The Panama Canal Treaty: Its Illegality and Consequential Impacts.