America's Lead in Space Exploration Is Not Guaranteed
The United States has long been a dominant presence in outer space exploration. Even after winning the Cold War-era space race, the U.S. still maintains the largest number of satellites in orbit. However, the rise of other spacefaring nation-states and the shift towards other priorities has led to concern that the U.S. is losing its edge.
Policymakers are pushing the Department of Defense to revamp its systems and policies, with an eye towards commercial space companies. Yet the world of space has changed more than some realize. To compete in the new space age, the United States will have to not only change how it defends its space assets and who launches them, but how it regulates space business.
The rise of private launch companies has been most evident in the United States, in part because of the retirement of NASA’s shuttle program in 2011. Since then, the United States has had to rely on private companies to launch supplies to the International Space Station and is working to rebuild manned capacity through similar private sector channels. The United States is not alone in this pursuit. In Europe, space companies are also starting to directly confront the commercial threat of rising American launchers.
In late June, Airbus Group and Safran finalized a deal to merge their space launching endeavors. The main point of the merger: to directly compete with low-cost rival Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX). The two European companies, worried that SpaceX would soak up the civilian markets, pursued this deal in an effort to produce a competitive launcher for the civil space market. This is of particular note because, according to an unnamed analyst, the resulting merger may place civil space needs above the needs of European governments. The merger shows that European launchers view the commercial market as increasingly important. It also indicates that wary European regulators will tolerate such a merger to ensure a competitive European launcher.
This rise of international competitors increases the urgency of needed reforms to our domestic export regulatory system. Otherwise, America stands to lose out on a considerable market share of the international commercial space sector. For example, Arianespace, a French firm, outperformed SpaceX in commercial launch contracts awarded in 2015.
Part of the difficulty in American space companies winning contracts abroad has been blamed on the complex rules around the exports of technologies involved in launches. Unlike competitors abroad, U.S. space companies have to hire only U.S. citizens to comply with regulations. There are some good reasons for some of the export controls, particularly about possible military use for dual-use technologies. But the government has acknowledged that it could make it easier for space companies to do business, and that reforms are both needed and doable. Security concerns have been incorporated into current efforts to improve the control system. These recent attempts to reform export rules, however, have made the export process even more confusing for some contractors.
That reform process is ongoing, but could be improved. The rest of the world is not standing still in their pursuit of growing space capabilities. The United States has treated space as its final frontier, in which Americans have a manifest destiny to conquer. But space is not the 18th century West. If American companies cannot compete on a level playing field with global rivals, the United States may see an increasingly fragile superiority in space growing even weaker.