The US Regains Leadership in Space

In the field of competitors in the global “NewSpace” economy, American companies appear to be maintaining a capability and technology development advantage over both European and foreign entities.  The latest “Buy America” White House Executive Order issued January 31st, 2019 will strengthen this lead, likely bringing procurement, additional manufacturing, new research and innovation, and space launch missions all home to the United States. 

However, even before the crafting and release of President Trump’s latest “Buy America” Executive Order, the tables were turning in favor of America’s competitive space advantage.

Late last year, Popular Mechanics published an interesting article entitled “How American Space Launch Left Europe in the Dust.”  Among other things regarding the future of space, the article noted that our “space industry is booming, and not everyone is excited about it,” especially Europeans and those using foreign space ports. The article continues that, “The Europeans, who dominated commercial spaceflight before the rise of American upstarts… are suddenly worried” that cheaper American launch options are proliferating.  The article observes that European space launch experts are concerned, recently issuing a report on “a further strong challenge to European competitiveness and freedom to act in space” – from the United States.

These foreign launch experts worry that America’s procurement is shifting toward American space launch providers, and that U.S. incentives are “creating an industry that could swallow the comparatively moribund European effort.”   

Truth is, they are right to worry.  The U.S. space launch sector is taking off – a critical part of a booming and dynamic American space technology industry that is often referred to as the “NewSpace” economy – and the U.S. government is reinforcing the launch renaissance.  As the article acutely noted, “This represents a stunning turnaround for the U.S.” 

True enough.  But that is just the start of this renaissance.  Over the past decade, the U.S. Congress and successive administrations have pressed for more and varied private sector options for both heavy and light lift to orbit.  The incentives have worked – and the most recognizable companies in the NewSpace commercial space industry – like SpaceX and Blue Origin – have been making continued strides in technological accomplishment as a result.  In fact, the 2017 relaunch and landing of the Falcon 9 rocket by SpaceX exemplifies the paradigm-shifting moves that U.S. companies are making in space.  But other innovative domestic space companies like those in the small satellite and “cube-sat” industry are cranking out capable, cost-effective, and game-changing capabilities at a blindingly fast pace as well.  As the U.S. imperative to maintain commercial and national security advantages in space grows in the years ahead -- and as space-based capabilities need to be cheaper, more resilient, more quickly replaced, more capable and more swiftly launched -- this NewSpace industry promises a significant area of economic growth and opportunity for America.   

When outside observers ask why and how this has happened, many political, policy, and procurement experts can take pieces of the credit.  Two administrations and multiple Congresses have tried to make up for lost ground over the past decade, with the result that more options are appearing.  Of course, these new launch options are key to both U.S. commercial interests, as well as for U.S. government missions and priorities.  For numerous elements of the U.S. government, being able to tap into this new space economy and the innovation and speed-to-market that it offers, not only makes sense, but is critical if the U.S. is to be able to maintain pace with peer competitor nations that are rapidly developing key capabilities in space. 

But perhaps the most poignant observation by Europeans – and others who have relied on foreign launch sites, subsidies and companies – is nested in the Popular Mechanics article.  International space launch experts note that, in response to new U.S. spaceports and companies, Europe has slowed. 

Most notably, however, there has been no “Buy European” policy to match strong U.S. pressure -- ramped up again in February by President Trump -- to “Buy American.”  As a result, while Europeans claim market distortions, asymmetries, and U.S. federal procurement overtly favoring U.S. companies -- which manufacture, hire and launch from America -- that is exactly what President Trump and others tied to U.S. space launch desire and expect.

Looking ahead, as Europe and other foreign launchers grapple with resurgent U.S. space leadership, the focus by American procurement officials and agencies will likely stay on how to reinforce American launch, American manufacturing, American job creation and doing more to “Buy American.” 

In this NewSpace economy, America is back.  With efforts like the Trump Administration’s “single license for all types of commercial space flight, launch, and re-entry operations,” national security provisions tied to bringing launch home, and “Buy America” Executive Orders, the path to orbit for American payloads -- human and material -- seems increasingly to start from the United States. 

Of course, Europe does not like that -- but many on this side of the water seem to think that’s just fine. 

John Cody Mosbey is a retired Air Force colonel and current university instructor. He is a former executive director of the Center for Homeland Defense and Security of the Naval Postgraduate School. He is a researcher and writer on Russian geopolitics and holds graduate degrees from the University of Alabama in Birmingham and Trinity College, Dublin in addition to a graduate degree in National Security and Strategic Studies from the U.S. Naval War College.

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