Space: The next frontier and battleground

CW Editor-in-Chief Jeff Sloan reflects on the goals outlined leaders for space travel at the 35th Space Symposium – exploration, commercial travel and military defense among them – and the role of composites in the vehicles under development to reach them.
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It’s April 9 as I write this and this week CW senior editor Scott Francis and I are in Colorado Springs, Colo., attending the 35th Space Symposium, a four-day conference and exhibition that, as the name implies, is focused on the exploration, use and development of near-Earth space, as well as technologies to transport cargo and people to the moon, Mars and beyond. 

This event, however, is not focused strictly on the benign use of space for scientific and exploration purposes. Indeed, within just a few minutes of arriving at the Space Symposium, it is obvious that there is a serious and substantial military component as well. The event is replete with uniformed U.S. Air Force personnel of all types, ranging from very young U.S. Air Force Academy cadets to seasoned, decorated generals. In addition, there are uniforms of other countries, including the U.K., France, Netherlands, Germany and more.

On the exhibition floor you can find many of the companies you would expect at such an event, such as NASA, Northrop Grumman, Lockheed Martin, United Launch Alliance, Boeing, Airbus, BAE Systems, Firefly, RUAG, Ball Aerospace, and many more. Conspicuous by their absence on the show floor, however, were SpaceX, Blue Origin and similar commercial entities, but I’ll get to them in a minute.

It was from the speakers, however, that I got the truest sense of this event. The speaker lineup on the second day is designed, clearly, to demonstrate the star power and focus of this conference. In an auditorium filled to overflowing with about 3,500 people we heard presentations from acting U.S. Secretary of Defense Pat Shanahan, U.S. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross, U.S. Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson, NASA administrator James Bridenstine, U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein, Air Force Space Command Commander Gen. John Raymond and Northrop Grumman CEO and president Kathy Warden.

The tone was set by Shanahan (ex-Boeing), who set a somber and militant tone as he described a near-Earth space environment that has become the target of aggressive and threatening actions by China and Russia, designed to compromise and disrupt American satellite technologies, including communications, surveillance, location and targeting systems. He described an American policy that advocates a free, unfettered, unmolested near-Earth space environment, and allows all countries equal, fair access to the advantages space provides. Shanahan also admitted that the Department of Defense was “behind” in its development of space-based technologies and that U.S. military presence in space requires additional resources to catch up.

As part of catching up, Shanahan echoed the message coming from the Trump administration, announcing the creation of the U.S. Space Force, a sixth branch of the U.S. armed services that is being formed and trained up now and will have a seat on the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff. Shanahan also stated repeatedly that the U.S. could not act alone to protect its interests in space, and he pointed to international partners that he would work with, as well as commercial partners who already have technology and tools to enable a more assertive American presence in space. 

Secretary Ross, whose presence in the speaker lineup was somewhat of a head-scratcher at first, made sense as he spoke: The U.S. Department of Commerce has been tasked with facilitating relationships between the U.S. government and commercial space enterprises, such as Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, SpaceX, Blue Origin and Boeing. He announced the formation of a new Space Bureau within the Department of Commerce to, among other duties, facilitate application of commercial space technology to government programs. 

For his part, NASA’s Bridenstine focused on the to-do list his organization has, and at the top of that list is a new challenge issued by U.S. Vice President Mike Pence to return to the moon (a man and a woman, it was noted repeatedly) by 2024, followed by a sustainable U.S. presence on the moon by 2028. This would be followed, soon after, by a moon-to-Mars mission. Bridenstine says NASA is up to this task — again, with help from the commercial sector. The only thing NASA does not have is the funding for this enterprise. Yet.

The message here is clear: The human tendency to assert control and authority over new domains is as pronounced in space as it is on Earth, and as technologies are developed to enable and ease delivery of people and cargo into space, there will be a new battle for control of the resources space provides. Like it or not, as Shanahan said, space has become the next battleground for the next generation of warfighter.


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