NASA and the Space Force should catalyze the US space economy

Success in outer space is essential for American leadership and prosperity. Space holds infinite potential to strengthen America’s national power through scientific discovery, technological advancement, international cooperation, military advantage, resource extraction, and most importantly, economic expansion. 

China understands the importance of economically developing space. China, which strives to become the leading space power by 2045, is actively pursuing the goal of developing and dominating an Earth-moon economic zone worth up to $10 trillion by 2050.

The United States should not stand by and allow China to assume leadership over the global space economy. Rather, the United States should make strategic investments today to secure its global leadership and economic prosperity in space tomorrow. Therefore, NASA and the United States Space Force should employ commercial solutions over solutions made in-house to the maximum extent possible. This will stimulate and sustain greater U.S. commercial space investment, innovation, and activity. NASA and the Space Force can accomplish this with programs and initiatives they already possess.

First, NASA has its Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program, which was established to competitively fund companies to rapidly deliver payloads and services to support the agency’s broader goals for the moon and Mars. What makes CLPS missions unique compared to other NASA missions is that they will be built and operated by the commercial sector with minimal oversight from NASA in order to cultivate new and efficient ways of operating in space. The CLPS program should be used as a model for a more expansive program that funds commercial activities that advance space exploration and science objectives across the entire solar system.

A solar system-wide commercial payload services program would allow NASA to rapidly explore unexplored or under-explored worlds using competitively funded solutions to augment flagship exploration missions. Rocket Lab’s planned private mission to Venus shows that the commercial sector is already primed to deliver end-to-end space exploration capabilities. Moreover, the same technologies and spacecraft used to conduct planetary science and search for evidence of extraterrestrial life could be used to prospect for natural resources across planetary systems and asteroids. 

This program will lay the groundwork for future in-space economic development, achieve science goals identified in the Planetary Science and Astrobiology Decadal Survey 2023-2032, and fulfill the congressional mandate for NASA to maximize the commercial use of space.

Next, the Space Force employs numerous initiatives to fund research and development of space capabilities that advance U.S. national security and economic prosperity, such as in-space servicing, assembly, and manufacturing (ISAM), space-based solar power (SBSP), and rocket cargo. While warfighting will remain a top priority for the Space Force, strengthening our military power must go hand in hand with strengthening our economic power. Next-generation capabilities like ISAM, SBSP and rocket cargo have the potential to revolutionize the way the Space Force supports and defends U.S. and allied national interests.

Therefore, the Space Force should pursue an investment strategy that rapidly develops and deploys commercially produced ISAM, SBSP and rocket cargo prototype systems. This strategy will allow commercial operators to take calculated risks and maximize innovation. The resulting prototype systems will provide the Space Force with initial demonstration capabilities to validate operational concepts and incrementally increase joint force resilience and flexibility in the short term. This investment strategy will yield ISAM, SBSP and rocket cargo capabilities that are economically viable in new civilian markets and ready to be procured as future programs of record fornew Space Force missions.

NASA and the Space Force should also work together to find new ways to support the U.S. space economy while achieving mutually beneficial goals. For example, the Space Force should support the Planetary Defense mission by bringing in NASA as a partner within the Space Domain Awareness (SDA) Marketplace. This will allow NASA to purchase observational data of near-Earth asteroids swiftly and reliably from the same vendors who sell observational data to Department of Defense consumers. SDA Marketplace vendors would be incentivized to produce and sell more observational data to service a broader customer base.

NASA and the Space Force are the best government organizations to catalyze the U.S. space economy. Partnerships with NASA and the Space Force help startups overcome barriers to entry, encourage established businesses to expand their portfolios into space, and signal to the world that the United States is serious about space economic development. The new space race is a marathon, not a sprint. Success will require deliberate and sustained effort over the coming years and decades. NASA and the Space Force must make plans now to ensure that the U.S. space industrial base is guaranteed to win the race.

Tyler D. Bates is a space professional. The views expressed here are his alone and do not necessarily represent the official policy or position of the U.S. Space Force or any U.S. government department or agency.