Should space be considered “critical infrastructure”?

Banner for this week in space

Banner for this week in space

Space touches everything we do, and not just physically. Modern transportation, communication and defense systems all depend on the ability of governments and private entities to operate safely miles above the earth’s surface. Thousands of satellites operated by dozens of countries and private entities now share the skies miles above the Earth, and more objects were put into orbit in the first half of 2022 alone than in the first fifty years of the space age combined.

With so many potentially conflicting national interests involved, the growth of the global space ecosystem is exciting but not without its risks. This is where the Space Foundation comes into play.

Since 1983, the non-profit Space Foundation has served as an intermediary for governments, the military, industry and the academic community from its headquarters in Colorado Springs, Colo. — conveniently located a short distance from the US Space Command and more recently home to the US Space Force. Beginning Monday, the Foundation will host 13,000 space professionals for its annual Space Symposium for what could be the largest gathering in space industry history.

Yahoo News met with Space Foundation CEO Tom Zelibor, a former Navy rear admiral and naval aviator, to discuss his hopes for the year ahead in space.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

First of all, what is the Space Foundation and what do you do?

Many people misunderstand what our role is. The Space Foundation doesn’t go into specific investments or number of launches or numbers of satellites and all that. It really started as an opportunity to connect government, military, industry and the world of education in one forum where people can discuss these hot topics when it comes to space.

That’s why we do the Space Symposium. The very first was in 1984. There were 200 people, some exhibitors, and it was all done in a very small room. Now it’s huge: 13,000 attendees, over 230 exhibitors, and all the high-ranking military and government leaders on the way. We are a neutral player and we don’t pick the winners, but we bring together all the politicians and government people. This is one side of the business.

The other side is just as important and is more suited to our nonprofit side. The industry is growing so rapidly that we know the number one problem facing the global space ecosystem is an educated workforce. The big players, all the major industry players in the space economy, will win these big contracts, but they don’t have the people to necessarily execute them. So what happens? They could be stealing from someone across the street – and then that company across the street gets a big contract and they steal back.

So my message is always to address the root cause and the root cause for me is starting at a very early age and getting kids excited about STEM education. We start in kindergarten and work our way through entrepreneurship. You can’t just hope to catch someone when they’re in college; you have to start at an early age and that’s what we do.

In your annual State of Space keynote in March, you called on the US government to add space to the list of 16 “critical infrastructure sectors” identified by the Department of Homeland Security. What would it be for?

It would force whoever the administration and Congress are to back the space from a financial perspective. I think there needs to be a much greater recognition of the criticality it brings not only to our national security but also to our economic security.

Space is traditionally a shared area, right? So our adversaries are up there, we’re up there, and as more players get into it, there’s offensive capabilities, there can be intelligence capabilities, and those types of assets are putting a lot more pressure on the space realm.

Critical infrastructure sectors recognized by the US government.

Critical infrastructure sectors recognized by the US government. (Illustration/US Department of Homeland Security)

Everyone expects there to be room for them. Everyone has [a cellphone] in your pocket. Well, you know, 90% of that phone is useless if you don’t have space technologies attached to it. So I’ve been relentless in saying that the government and Congress must declare that space is critical infrastructure. It may no longer fit into that nice graph, but the one thing that towers over most of that graph is space.

I don’t buy it because the space is one of those 16 areas that someone will pay attention to. I feel it needs singular attention and the recognition that is pervasive in all of them.

What does the United States risk losing by not treating space as critical infrastructure?

I think we can potentially lose the competitive edge. I’m a red-blooded American at heart and I don’t like to be second place in anything. The Chinese and the Russians and others are trying to gain dominance in that domain and I think we are going to lose in every one of those space-dependent critical infrastructure areas.

The entire global space economy according to our last annual report amounted to $469 billion annually. Based on the growth we’re seeing, this could easily be a trillion-dollar market by the end of the decade. Look at people like Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk and Sir Richard [Branson] – there are billionaires who put billions into it and know what is happening, they see it.

In 2022, the world has launched more orbital spacecraft than in the first 52 years of the space age. If you look at 2023, it will be even bigger. This presents huge challenges: who will be the [Federal Aviation Administration] of space? How are we going to deal with all the orbital debris? How are we going to keep the lines of communication open and ensure national security when things are way above all these countries?

That’s why I think it’s critical infrastructure, and I just don’t understand why it’s not recognized like this. It acknowledges that there are threats to it, but if you make it critical infrastructure, it forces the government to really pay attention to how financial investments go into it.

You mentioned investments. The combined proposed budgets for NASA and the Space Force for 2024 exceed $60 billion. What do you say to people who might say, “WELLwe have many problems on earth, let us worry about those”?

I immediately had a flashback when you asked that question. Two years ago I was asked to give a speech in front of all these senior directors or CEOs of over 100 nonprofits in the United States. They didn’t necessarily have anything to do with space — in fact, most of them didn’t. I was talking about all the investment in space and space research and space technologies and everything in between. And this guy up front was just squirming the whole time I was talking. I knew he was annoyed and so as soon as I finished my talk, I immediately called him and said, “Sir, you know, it’s clear what I’m saying is really bothering you. You know, let’s talk about it. What is it that you don’t like?”

And he immediately launched into: “How can we justify spending billions and billions of dollars on space exploration and space technology when we have millions of starving children here on Earth?”

So, I quickly understood what his nonprofit did for a living, but it was also a great setup. The side of space awareness that people don’t get is that most of the technologies we have to develop to be in austere environments in space absolutely benefit us on Earth. And so my answer was, “Do you think that when we go back to the moon and we want to support life there, we might need things like how water is created, how food is grown, in very harsh and austere environments? “

And I said, “If we do that, do you think it might benefit starving children in Africa, for example?”

We had a grown-up, mature conversation about it and you could see him just sit back and say, “I’ve never thought of it that way.” But the message to me was that we need to do a better job on the awareness side of space because people will see dollar signs but they won’t equate it to what it does for us on Earth and in the world.

What are you most excited about about our future in space?

Back to the moon. If we go there and really try to stay and sustain life on the moon, that’s great, but I don’t want us to get stuck there. Next is to get to Mars. And there’s going to be so many technologies and things that come out of these two efforts that I think will definitely benefit us here. We have a real opportunity with those and I just wish there was an acknowledgment that without space our lives become very, very difficult. And I think the best way to acknowledge that is to make sure that space is a self-contained critical infrastructure that government pays attention to.

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