From a winning combination of inexpensive launch, blindingly fast commercial processors and AI-enabling algorithms, an investment thesis emerged to leverage the strengths of the past to empower the future of space innovation. Newly minted billionaires from the tech sector were toasting their triumphs, yet still young and eager enough to challenge themselves again to remake the world. In other words, to revolutionize the last vestiges of the Cold War space economy to deliver not only extraordinary performance to the warfighter, but also value back to the taxpayer.
A decade later, thanks to an investor-friendly monetary policy that has supercharged venture and private investors, dozens of new commercial space companies have now built eye watering capabilities that can do exactly that. Billions of dollars have flowed in since, and brilliant entrepreneurs have successfully entered nearly every segment of the space business.
Over the years, the government has smartly stayed mostly out of the way, choosing to neither help nor stymy progress. Over the years government leaders emphasized to me, “If these founders can build successful companies from their creations, we will be ready to buy when they are ready to sell.”
Today, scores of these companies with commercially developed products and services are ready to sell: mostly by enhancing and, in some cases, replacing antiquated government systems. Many of them, like Hawkeye360 and BlackSky, are now battle-tested in the Ukraine war, indisputably proving their value and ability to persevere alongside their government designed (and very expensive) counterparts.
These trees planted years ago have reached a young maturity; the first real fruit is hanging on the branches, ready to be picked and eaten. But to ensure a robust 21st century American space sector, this same metaphorical fruit must be picked for more to come.
To enable and endorse the burgeoning commercial space economy, the U.S. government must declassify all current space missions currently in operation before 2000 and privatize all future space system research and development for these missions within the year. It is only by buying commercially available off-the-shelf (COTS) technologies and services our government can supplement its existing, aging systems performing these routine missions in an effective manner competitive to that of our adversaries.
Many of these commercial space companies, in a final push to complete financing, have already taken themselves public through some variation of an IPO. Unfortunately, not long after their stock exchange listing was complete, many of these same companies took a nosedive in their valuations for one simple reason: their performance (i.e., balance sheet) is not meeting investor expectations.
Most of these expectations were largely based on the original investment thesis that our government would smartly evolve to a commercial data services model, much like tech had transformed private enterprise in the previous 20 years. What they didn’t foresee was the Pentagon’s policy bureaucracy paradox: the U.S. military can be extraordinarily quick to react in a crisis but is impossibly slow to evolve and adapt. By many industry analysts’ predictions, these publicly traded companies have about a year to either make it or file Chapter 11.
Whether these Pentagon leaders realize it or not, the decision to pick this fruit will determine space industrial policy for decades into the future. Choosing the right path validates the thesis, though it does not mean all these new companies will be successful either. If what they are offering is not useful to meet U.S. military and civil space needs, they should not be kept on financial life support. Our government can send clear yes or no signals to commercial products and services – a contract award communicates “yes,” while a strong “no” means it won’t buy the product or service in the first place.
Fully transparent, competitive acquisition decisions in a privatized marketplace are the only answer for success in a liberal democracy. It is what investors and engineers alike clamor for because it rewards success and ensures industry can actually help lead innovation instead of follow last century’s vision.
The NRO recently made a big announcement of contract awards for commercial imaging business. While it made a splash in the trade journals, it reflected virtually no change in the winners’ market cap. Why? It’s anticlimactic – an interesting but small down payment, and not enough to convince shareholders that the vision they were sold is going to be realized.
If we don’t lead with a commercial first approach for products and service, we will perpetuate last century’s Stalinist policy of government-designed systems requiring decades to get to orbit while draining billions from public coffers in cost-plus contracts. Sizeable private capital investments, which eclipse government funding ten-fold, will recede back to earlier levels, and the innovative minds currently captured by the lure and excitement of space will revert their preference back to big tech roles.
With less than a year of operating capital available, our government must change course now or these companies’ bankruptcies will mean an early termination to American leadership in the second Space Race. If we do not change course, China and Russia will surpass us and rule the heavens in the same manner they rule their people: through autocratic government. If we do not declassify and privatize, our competitors, unburdened by the same institutional inertia as our government, will eclipse America’s progress and edge ahead to win the new space race.
Should we decide to harvest the fruit, we must make real change. A declarative change in policy is essential; a minor bump in existing low-level funding with promises for more budget changes in 2027 is not enough. If we do not field the best of these COTS technologies, the proverbial fruit will fall to the ground and rot, and we will cede leadership of the new generation of space tech to our economic competitors.
We have sown the right seeds by investing in our best and brightest engineers; now we must reap the harvest ahead of the Winter and put our innovative, commercially available technology to the test in the Final Frontier.