Faster and fully reusable rockets, check. Satellite designs that really do leverage Moore’s Law, check. Ground and space data analytics that rest on the brilliance of the Silicon Valley tech revolution, check. Everything technical seems to be falling into place nicely for the United States to win the second Space Race – but we are not. The country’s National Geospatial Intelligence Agency (NGA) just ran the numbers, and we are behind. Not just behind superpowers like China, but even smaller nations like Finland. America’s prizefighters who won the championship rounds of the last space race are becoming obsolete and are no longer competitive internationally.
So, where are we dropping the ball? Ironically, it’s not that we aren’t innovating actual space technology or spending enough money. The real issue here is that current space acquisition policy has fallen behind what’s needed for America to win again. Perhaps the most impactful acquisition improvements since the 1980’s, Frank Kendall’s iconic 10 principles of Better Buying Power, clearly emphasized this idea, stating specifically in his seventh principle that “competition and the threat of competition provide the most effective incentive.” We must reimagine our aging defense business policies by leading our industries, advisors, and universities to place competition as our top priority.
Competition is a powerful incentive and has historically brought out our best performances. Our relentless individual and group desire to win is octane in the fuel that has propelled humanity to extraordinary feats, long after our basic needs are met. Innovation in redefining a truly competitive landscape is what is missing in the U.S. government space business. It must begin with Pentagon leadership retooling the lengthy and bureaucratic government requirements and acquisition processes into a highspeed, streamlined pipeline.
When industry competition was forced upon a gentrified launch industry that was specifically designed by the government to prevent it, something extraordinary happened. In 2013, Kendall, by then the chief weapons buyer for the Department of Defense, decided to allow Elon Musk’s nascent SpaceX (long before his Falcon 9 was officially certified by the Air Force) to commercially compete against the unassailable incumbent. As a result, he set in motion the most significant series of free-enterprise events in space history – and the greatest leap forward in government launch policy since Kennedy decided to go to the moon.
With that, an ossified sector of the American economy sprung to life, creating billions in new revenue and tens of thousands of new jobs, saving taxpayers billions while delivering the ability to reclaim national pride, and propel us further into our ultimate destiny. Competition might have been number seven on Kendall’s list of ten principles, but those of us working for him saw it as the key to the other nine.
Without healthy competition, the cultural default is to not innovate. In the past, space system designs and architectures were created by the government and built by large defense contractors, so competition always seemed futile. Nothing advanced much besides redesigning copies of what was on-orbit, despite sinking over a year and hundreds of millions of dollars in solicitation costs by the government and bidders. These defense contracts are typically enacted as “cost plus,” where it isn’t the best value to the taxpayer that wins, but rather which company has hired the best proposal writers.
And the cyclic process largely continues to this day – keep the congressional wheels turning and the gravy train funded as long as possible, whether a capability actually gets delivered or not.
Today, fully capable commercial satellites, ground systems, and launch services are available off the shelf and no longer require lengthy government-led development cycles. The best solution is competitions, and lots of them. We must shift to think of the space economy as a marketplace that the government buys actual products from, not just engineering time to build government designs. Contracts should also observe two essential competition provisions: fly it before buying it and pay only on delivery for a fixed price. To always keep competition alive, no competition winner should ever be a “winner takes all.”
Even by the measure of General Raymond, the country’s top Space Force general who has led operations on nearly every government designed system for the last 35 years, innovation in space systems by commercial companies is vital to our countries space security. And it is no longer just SpaceX that is demonstrating it. As a matter of national policy, we must reward the smart investments that outpace legacy government designs and integrate them into a hybrid architecture that combines the best of both. The only way that will happen is through rapid, repeated, and regular competition.
The aging prizefighter naturally resists the challenger’s hunger to enter the ring because he does not want to risk losing the belt, but he also knows there comes a time when he will have to accept the challenge. This also applies to the U.S. space business, and the time is now – China and Europe see it too.
We must encourage the new generation of space mavericks to win again. This time around, it is not about getting to the moon and back, but to secure the heavens for a century of free enterprise and adventure.