Op-ed | Assuring U.S. space competitiveness should be a national priority

David Melcher, president and CEO of the Aerospace Industries Association, speaking April 4 at the 33rd Space Symposium. Credit: Tom Kimmell

At a time in which many countries aggressively promote their commercial space industries and are striving to leapfrog the U.S. technologically, we must think more boldly about helping our commercial space industry to thrive as the commercial uses of space expand.

This industry, which comprises established aerospace companies that were present at the dawn of the Space Age and new entrants that began more recently, is key to U.S. leadership in one of the most dynamic global economic growth markets. It is also a vital contributor to America’s national security space systems and civil space programs.

With new markets emerging for everything from internet communications, remote sensing, satellite servicing, transportation to space and manufacturing in space, we simply can’t afford to be left behind. We must take a fresh look at the policies, regulations and tax structures impacting America’s commercial space leadership and take steps to assure U.S. space competitiveness.

To help give policy makers a better understanding of what’s at stake in the emerging space marketplace, this winter the Aerospace Industries Association and Bryce Space and Technology (formerly known as Tauri Group Space and Technology) joined forces on a study of U.S. space competitiveness. It notes that the commercial civil and national security space sectors are increasingly interrelated, generating innovative solutions, export revenues and high-technology jobs for our citizens, while underpinning our security in ways seldom understood by the public.

But the report warns that foreign commercial competitors are rapidly catching up. What’s helping them close the gap are their own national aspirations to be major players in 21st century space activities, and ill-thought out domestic policy decisions harming our domestic commercial space industry.

It was the U.S. government that put stringent controls on satellites exports, and then was slow to adopt export reforms which haven’t kept pace with technological change, resulting in billions in revenue going to foreign competitors and jobs being lost at home. No foreign power told us to do this. We did this to ourselves.

The same goes for the unfathomable way in which we have stopped the Export Import Bank of the United States from being able to conduct a key element of its job: providing sufficient loan guarantees and credit insurance for international satellite sales and domestic launch-services providers. Right now, Ex-Im can’t conduct significant business until Congress approves additional members for its board of directors. From 2010 to 2014, Ex-Im supported over $4 billion in satellite exports. That level of support has ground to a halt with the bank in limbo. This is negatively impacting our space industrial base and driving up the cost of vital national security space system.

Leveling the playing field

In our report on space competitiveness, we see three priorities for enhancing and strengthening the U.S. commercial space sector.

First, we believe in “Leveling the playing field” in the international commercial space marketplace. Because of the reasons cited above, it’s simply not fair to expect our companies to compete shackled by outdated export rules, the inability to draw on export-credit financing, or a tax system that doesn’t do enough to encourage U.S.-based space investment.

Expanding space market opportunities

Our second set of recommendations calls for “Expanding space market opportunities.” To this end, we must preserve a reasonable allocation of spectrum to enable space communications services and new satellite applications. Policy makers must recognize that mobile telephony is not the only spectrum application out there. Can you imagine a world where GPS didn’t exist because the optimal spectrum had been sold to solve a short-term federal budget gap? That’s the logical and frightening extension of this kind of reasoning.

The government should also step up efforts to closely monitor the orbital environment and provide incentives for space actors to reduce hazardous debris. And to help new space business opportunities such as space tourism thrive, Missile Control Technology Regime restrictions should be modernized. Simply put, many of the new peaceful commercial applications that have emerged do not pose any credible military technology proliferation risk. If necessary, extra safeguards can be implemented, as was done for launching U.S. satellites on Russian launch vehicles.

Make competitiveness a national priority

Finally, our report spotlights the need to “Make space competitiveness a national priority.” Achieving this goal will require significant national security and NASA space technology investments. It also requires government rule makers to adopt a mindset that space is poised to become a more important engine of national economic growth in the future. This is one area where our industry sees a strong potential role for a new National Space Council. And that is to emphasize the importance of commercial space to national space activities and accelerate the interagency decision-making process on relevant issues.

We need a more robust commercial space industry because our national security establishment is counting on a healthy space industrial base for the innovative space solutions of the future. This will help provide greater resiliency through a mix of commercial and dedicated spacecraft and launch systems.

Similarly, NASA will increasingly need the commercial space industries’ strong participation as it seeks to conduct new civil space missions.

And all Americans will be turning to commercial space, just as we did to the nascent aviation industry a century ago, to propel us into a more promising, prosperous future. That’s why we will continue in the months ahead to advocate for strengthening this critical component of the national space enterprise.

David F. Melcher, retired U.S. Army lieutenant general, is the president and CEO of the Aerospace Industries Association.

SpaceNews.com

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