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In the year following President Kennedy’s call for the historic investment of “scientific and technical manpower, materiel, and facilities” for a manned mission to the moon, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce presented its “Great Living American Award” to the seven original American astronauts: Gordon Cooper; John Glenn; Gus Grissom; Alan Shepard; Scott Carpenter; Wally Schirra; and Deke Slayton. This pre-silicon-chip snapshot captured a moment of national commitment to extend the frontier of knowledge beyond Earth. While esoteric to the daily lives of most Americans in 1962, the notion of space exploration and discovery nonetheless became a national preoccupation.
A half century later, the U.S. economy and society at large is heavily dependent on space-based technology. From GPS systems underpinning commercial aviation and maritime navigation to satellites linking personal and business communication devices, applications relying on space-based technology is ubiquitous. Space technology today is analogous to 19th century sea power when Alfred Thayer Mahan asserted its indispensable value to a nation’s economic growth. Fittingly, the National Space Council recently declared that unfettered access and freedom of operation in space is henceforth considered a vital national interest for U.S. security and economic prosperity.
As the scale and scope of space commerce continues to unfold, the near-term use of space as an operating domain for civil and military transit of cargo, on-orbit satellite servicing, and even tourism already have outpaced efforts to develop and implement government processes to address these new activities. Because a robust and competitive commercial space sector will depend on an efficient regulatory regime, the U.S. Chamber has expanded and renamed its acquisition policy forum as the “Procurement and Space Industry Council” to help facilitate dialogue and engagement among industry and relevant oversight agencies.
With the size of the space industry projected to reach nearly $3 trillion in 30 years, it can be well-argued that the space revolution has yet to begin in earnest. While the lion share of commercial space activity today is limited to augmenting ground-based information technology and telecommunications functions, the next industrial phase will be decidedly different, potentially shifting into new product development and full-scale manufacturing in low-Earth orbit.
Last summer, in his address to the U.S. Chamber’s Procurement Council, then-Major General David Thompson, Vice Commander of Air Force Space Command, observed there are “commercial space capabilities today that… outpace the U.S. Air Force.” Thompson further cautioned regarding the pace of U.S. government-financed development, “Our adversaries operate on cycles that are at least twice as fast.”
The acquisition of privately developed technology has never been federal agencies’ strong suit, whether civilian or military. Rather, NASA and the Department of Defense (DOD) achieved their greatest program innovation during an era of robust Cold War funding allocated across a range of federally supported research centers. Over the succeeding years, as agency budgets declined in real terms and commercial independent R&D investment grew, NASA and DOD increasingly relied on the private sector as never before.
Since its founding in 1912, the U.S. Chamber has witnessed the transformation of every industrial sector in the economy and has continually reorganized itself to represent the interests of American business before all branches of the federal government. Robust public and private sector leadership will be necessary to ensure the safety, stability, and sustainability of current and future space operations. As it has for over a century, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce will endeavor to ensure the success of this critical emerging sector.