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Space war could come before Trump’s ‘space force’

By Bryan Bender and Jacqueline Klimas

With Brianna Gurciullo, Adrienne Hurst and Aubree Eliza Weaver

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READY FOR LIFTOFF: This year has already been huge for the space world, which is buzzing with more excitement and ambition than it’s seen since its Apollo-era heyday — with billionaires launching roadsters toward Mars, planners envisioning bases on the moon and factories in low-Earth orbit, and nations facing the specter of real-life space wars.

It’s the perfect time, in fact, to launch a newsletter bringing you the latest news and intel about this fast-developing realm. Because more than ever, space is the place.

Just consider what’s already on the horizon:

  • Congress gave NASA more than a billion-dollar boost to its budget, while the Air Force’s space programs are seeing an even bigger windfall from the recently approved spending deal.
  • Reusable space rockets, a potential game-changer in cutting the costs of future missions, made a stunning display with the maiden voyage of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy.
  • India plans to send an orbiter, lander and rover to the moon using the autonomous Chandrayaan-2. NASA next month plans to launch its Insight Mars Lander, the first mission to explore deep interior beneath Mars’ surface. And flight tests are coming for two spacecraft designed to carry private astronauts into orbit — Boeing’s Starliner and a crewed version of SpaceX’s Dragon, which this week was the first private spacecraft to deliver cargo to the International Space Station.
  • The newly revived U.S. National Space Council, marking its first six months, has set a March 2019 deadline for DOT to improve its launch licensing requirements and will offer Congress a proposal by July 1 for how the Commerce Department will oversee commercial space priorities.

** A message from The Boeing Company: The future of human space flight is here. Developed in collaboration with NASA, Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner is a next-generation space capsule that will carry astronauts, scientists, researchers, educators and cargo to and from low-earth orbit destinations, like the International Space Station (ISS). Discover more about CST-100 Starliner. http://www.boeing.com/space/starliner/ **

And that’s just a start. Let’s blast off!

READY FOR SPACE WAR? Our first deep space journey is into growing efforts by the Pentagon to prepare for “offensive defense” in orbit, responding to worries that the U.S. is losing its military edge there to nations like Russia and China. The developments are setting off alarms about a new “Cold War-type arms race,” or even a shooting war that “would be catastrophic for all players,” in the words of the Center for Ethics and Rule of Law at the University of Pennsylvania. The center is convening an invitation-only conference on the subject today that includes a who’s who of leading government, industry and academic experts.

“We are now approaching a point where ‘Star Wars’ in not just a movie,” Steve Isakowitz, CEO of The Aerospace Corp., the nonprofit government research and development center established at the dawn of the space era, tells POLITICO in an exclusive interview for our space launch.

WELCOME TO POLITICO SPACE, our new weekly briefing on the policies and personalities shaping the new space age in Washington and beyond. We will bring you interviews with leading figures in government and industry, a jump on key developments and documents, and a portal for deeper reporting on the politics, possibilities and risks of the space race. Email us at bbender@politico.com or jklimas@politico.com with tips, pitches, and feedback, and find us on Twitter at @bryandbender and @jacqklimas. Check out POLITICO’s new space policy page here.

Don’t miss our space launch event on April 12, featuring Scott Pace, executive secretary of the National Space Council. We’ll discuss the strategic priorities of the Trump administration and the aerospace industry in the second Space Age. RSVP for POLITICO Space: The Launch EventThurs., April 12, at the St. Regis – Doors open 9:30 a.m.

IS THE U.S. PREPARED FOR WARP SPEED? That’s the big question The Aerospace Corp. is tasked with trying to answer. The organization sits at what Isakowitz calls “the crossroads” of the space renaissance, advising the military, spy agencies, NASA and government contractors while serving as a go-between with newer commercial ventures. Isakowitz, a former NASA and White House budget official who helped stand up Virgin Galactic, outlined for us some of the major challenges the think tank is grappling with:

— ‘Can we do it all at once?” A major focus of the analysis is assessing whether the military’s plans for new rockets, satellite constellations and other space-based projects are even realistic after decades of “drought.” Isakowitz asks: “Do we have the workforce in place? Can we do it all at once? Can we do it affordably?” Congress has told the Air Force to answer those questions in reports due this summer.

Time is not on the side of the U.S. “It can take as much as 10 years or more to build a new spacecraft and get it deployed,” Isakowitz says. “Our adversaries are doing it much faster and catching up. How can we do it not in 10 years but seven, five, three years?”

Failure is an option, he says, urging the government to depart from the risk-averse culture of recent decades. “If you look at the ’50s and ’60s, they blew up rockets and satellites all the time and they learned from it,” Isakowitz notes, while today, “God be with you if something fails.” One solution: Make a distinction between experiments “where it’s OK to fail” versus more mission-critical projects where success is essential, such as multibillion-dollar satellites that provide intelligence to the battlefield. “You can’t treat them all the same.”

Isakowitz also discussed new ways the government is thinking about how to deter a war in space; the growing scourge of orbital debris; and how his organization recently assisted a pair of satellite competitors to identify a common system failure. Read more from your POLITICO Space co-hosts here.

THE AIR FORCE IS AT THE CENTER OF THE STORM: The service will be announcing changes in the coming months on how its Space and Missile Systems Center handles procurement, an effort in the works since December, Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson tells POLITICO Space. The Pentagon has told Congress in an interim report that the Air Force’s current approach “creates natural barriers to developing alternative ideas” and called on officials to “re-architect” the center so that different mission areas work together.

Wilson also stressed the need for greater tolerance among political leaders for system failures to carry out the nation’s space vision. “I think Congress is willing to move that way because they see the same threat we do,” she said. “We can’t plan 10- or 15-year programs and expect to be able to meet a rapidly innovating adversary, and China is a rapidly innovating adversary.” Read the full transcript of our discussion with Wilson here:

SPACE CORPS CAN WAIT, ROGERS SAYS: Momentum has been building for splitting off a stand-alone branch of the military focused solely on space, as a way to refocus acquisition and prepare for growing military competition in orbit. The proposal has gotten a boost in recent weeks from President Donald Trump, who has called for establishing a “space force” despite strong resistance from the Pentagon and the Air Force.

But one of the idea’s biggest supporters — the Alabama Republican who chairs the Strategic Forces panel on the House Armed Services Committee — tells POLITICO he is standing down for now. Rep. Mike Rogers won’t push to include a space corps in the fiscal year 2019 National Defense Authorization Act, as he tried unsuccessfully last year. Instead, he’ll wait for a Pentagon study on space organization to be completed later this year, followed by “more hearings on it, more public discussions about the threat, about what is inadequate about the current structure … It’s going to be an educational year.”

The Pentagon’s report will lay the groundwork so that “when we come back for the 2020 NDAA, we start working to put that in place,” Rogers said.

How about a Space Coast Guard? Maybe creating a military space force is the wrong way to think about it, says John Vedda, a senior policy analyst at the Center for Space Policy and Strategy. With plans for space tourism, private space stations and lunar bases to support deep-space missions, perhaps the answer is more of a law enforcement-like organization to police the rules of the road, ensure freedom of operations or rescue astronauts and wayward satellites. “I would think it is most likely to be an international Space Coast Guard,” he says.

WEEKLY MILESTONE: I think we can now say with certainty that the upstart status of Elon Musk’s SpaceX is fading at light speed. With two launches in four days, the company has now conducted an average of one space launch every 13 days in 2018 — and is well on its way to achieving COO Gwynne Shotwell’s goal set last year to “increase our cadence next year about 50 percent” and “probably level out” at between 30 and 40 launches per year. Two more launches are planned this month: one for a NASA planet survey mission and another to place a communications satellite in orbit for Bangladesh. The company has also reused 11 of its Falcon 9 first stage rockets over the past year.

TOP DOC SATELLITES TO THE RESCUE: Communications satellites provided the only way for emergency responders in Puerto Rico to communicate amid the devastation that Hurricane Maria left last year, says a new white paper being released later today by satellite communications company Hughes. The company’s systems facilitated hurricane relief efforts after that disaster and in Texas and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

The paper, being circulated on Capitol Hill, calls for using satellite backups to ensure that services like 911 calls can continue even when ground infrastructure is destroyed. “While there is no magic button to control climate patterns, government agencies and communities can bolster their ability to recover faster when extreme weather inevitably strikes,” says the paper, shared in advance with POLITICO. “That requires federal, state, and local governments to include path diversity as part of their standards and best practices for critical sites, and to explore the adoption of such requirements in annual budget criteria.”

HACKING SATELLITES? The Institute for Critical Infrastructure Technology this month will launch a center focused on cyber threats to U.S. satellites and other technology in space. “Warfare in space is not kinetic. It is a cyber conflict centered on the control, disruption, theft and manipulation of information,” the institute argued in a blog post announcing the formation of its Center for Space Warfare Studies. But most technologies “were designed considering only their functionality, not security,” and “cyber resiliency was delegated to a lingering afterthought compared to physical durability.” If a cyberattack happens, “there is little the United States or other nations can do to mitigate or directly respond to the impact because the few laws that exist concerning threats in space predominantly pertain to kinetic threats from known adversaries.” Relatedly, David Fidler at the Council on Foreign Relations has a report urging the National Space Council to make recommendations related to cybersecurity.

BUDGET BONANZA-IN-BRIEF: The ink is just dry on the massive federal spending bill approved in March. In case you missed them, Jacqueline and Brianna pored over the details for some highlights on the space front:

  • NASA did especially well, getting $ 20.7 billion in fiscal 2018, or more than $ 1 billion over the previous year. About $ 4.8 billion of that will go to exploration programs, including more than $ 2 billion for the Space Launch System launch vehicle, being built by Boeing, Lockheed, Orbital ATK and Aerojet Rocketdyne, and $ 1.35 billion for the Orion crew vehicle being built by Lockheed Martin and Airbus, that could someday bring Americans to deep space and Mars.
  • The Air Force received more than $ 3.5 billion for space procurement, including about $ 2.3 million in special war funding to support space assets critical to overseas military operations.
  • Trump’s newly revived National Space Council secured $ 2 million, and will be allowed to accept personnel detailed from other federal agencies. At the FAA, commercial space transportation operations got $ 22.6 million, a $ 2.8 million bump.

FEELING SUPERSONIC: Lockheed Martin this week landed a $ 247.5 million contract to assemble a plane that travels faster than sound without producing a loud sonic boom, NASA announced. There’s no prescription for how the technology could be used once proven, but Lockheed and NASA say it could lay the foundations for commercial supersonic passenger and cargo flights over land. The maiden test flight of the yet-to-be-constructed, manned aircraft is expected in 2021. “We’ll fly it over select U.S. cities and ask the people living and working in those communities to tell us what they heard, if anything,” Jaiwon Shin, associate administrator for aeronautics at NASA, said at a news conference Tuesday.

The specs: Length: 94 feet. Wingspan: 29.5 feet. Cruising altitude: 55,000 feet. Top speed: 990 mph. The aircraft has “a brand new shape,” but “everything else within the airplane is existing commercially off the shelf or salvaged from other aircraft,” Lockheed Martin’s Peter Iosifidis said. Check out a pic of a model.

APOLLO ASTRONAUT GENE CERNAN’S MESSAGE FROM BEYOND: Of the dozen men who walked on the moon, retired Navy Capt. Eugene Cernan was the last, as commander of Apollo 17 in 1972. And the final frontier was much on his mind when he passed away last year at age 82, according to an unpublished essay shared with POLITICO.

“Oh, I’ve been there [on the moon] alright and know that my last footprints along with Tracy’s initials will be there forever, however long forever is,” Cernan wrote. “But it is not the past that any longer challenges me, but rather the future. We have again reached a challenge in human history. The Moon, Mars and beyond – they are calling. The technology and systems to again reach for the stars are now within our reach. The benefits are there for us to claim. However, it will take the will of the American people, a sustained political commitment, and once again a leader with foresight and vision.”

Read the full piece – and his plug for NASA’s Space Launch System and Orion space capsule here, thanks to the Cernan family and the Coalition for Deep Space Exploration.

FROM THE BLACK HOLE: Curious about what classified or restricted technical reports NASA has stashed away from decades past? Thanks to our friends at governmentattic.org, space geeks can feast on nearly 5,000 pages of listings before 1980. Now, which ones to FOIA for full copies?

FROM THE WAYBACK MACHINE: Elon Musk wasn’t the first to conceive of “parkin’ cars” in space.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity; and I’m not sure about the universe.” — Albert Einstein


— Neil deGrasse Tyson talks Trump, climate change, and whether Rep. Jim Bridenstine’s troubled nomination to run NASA is salvageable.

— Meet the guy who helped save the Apollo program when it was in mortal danger.

— NASA resumes its search for alien life.

— The “first space ace” who hit the first ‘outside-the-atmosphere bullseye,” in 1985.

— A historic rocket factory in Utah is fighting for its piece of the new space economy.

— Astrophysicist Yousaf Butt talks about what it will take to avoid collisions in space.


–It’s party time! Next week is the annual Yuri’s Night, “a global celebration of humanity’s achievements in space,” honoring Yuri Gagarin, the Soviet cosmonaut who became the first person in space, on April 12, 1961. Find some festivities near you, even if you are in Antarctica.

The National Air and Space Museum hosts a space policy and history forum on “Open Data in the ‘New Space’ Environment” on Monday, April 23.

— What could be better than beer and a bull session with NASA scientists about how artificial intelligence can help uncover the fate of galaxies? It’s on tap here in DC later this month.

See you next week!

** A message from The Boeing Company: As Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg said at a National Space Council meeting, “Our CST-100 Starliner—launched on the 100 percent mission successful United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket—will return American astronauts to space on an American-built capsule.” As the first and only reusable, human-rated space capsule, Starliner is returning space capability to America through innovation like never before. Inside the capsule, WiFi will assist with crew communication and autonomous docking with the ISS. On the outside, Starliner is designed with a parachute and airbag system that enables reusability, as well as land-based returns rather than water—a first for an American-built space capsule. Discover more about Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner— launching in 2018. http://www.boeing.com/space/starliner/ **

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