The space industry, like most others, is roaring back after a year on simmer waiting to wake up from this nightmare called COVID. Attendance at the 36th Space Symposium last week was close to all-time full capacity, and relationships among colleagues rekindled immediately, after only an awkward first sentence or two. After decades of Space Symposiums, industry executives know that it is not what is said on stage that’s the most telling – it’s the meetings in business suites, between events and over drinks at informal happy hours that really inform the wheels of progress.
The space industry has largely sidestepped the partisan divide that too often grips nearly every other aspect of American life. As a domain, space inspires the artists while challenging the engineers; touches the spiritual while asking the hardest questions of the most brilliant scientists. Spectacular launches make us all stand and cheer as one, just as its disasters make us collectively recoil in horror. Even the International Space Station, a project built by rivalrous space-faring nations, has a motto among its astronauts – “odna komanda”, Russian for “one team.”
Perhaps because of that, the backroom banter at every Symposium becomes the zeitgeist. Sometimes the spirit comes directly from the intended theme of the conference organizers, other times it is in complete contradiction to it. Oftentimes, the chat riffs off a particularly poignant keynote speaker, or takes on a mocking tone if one is remarkably out of touch. Regardless, the banter that hangs in the air of every meeting and speaker cements an unspoken motif that becomes the main takeaway for that year. In 2021, the idea that hung over every session was clear: we’re just not moving fast enough. We are talking about space more than ever, making more announcements and spending more money at record speed. Yet, we seem to be standing still compared to our adversaries, and people are worried of the consequences of talking the talk but not walking the walk.
More than any other year, this Space Symposium was riddled with announcements of new names for the same old commands, new emblems and logos, appointees, and “fresh” initiatives from a new administration. With that being said, it all feels more like an echo than an advance, and the government seems to be getting slower and slower at getting real things done. The worry is palpable — it’s been almost two years since the Space Force was created, and very little appears to have changed to signal an advance on the status quo.
In stark contrast from the fast-paced commercial space world, the military space side of things appears largely unchanged from what was set in motion decades ago. It has been well over a decade since Congress first called for a separate service, and two since the former president signed it into action. Behind closed doors, people are nervously voicing that the annual grandstanding on stage has shifted too much towards vainglory, rather than progress against staggering challenges.
Senior government leaders lament the same to me one-on-one. Will the Space Force find its mojo the way the Air Force did, immediately following its creation in 1947? Now that the guardians are in their garrisons, will we start to see the fruit of all the stand-up committees and task forces, or have we already tapped out?
Even from our own media, it is abundantly clear that China is delivering on the deadlines it set years ago. Much like its tech, drone, and cellular industries, China’s space industry has gone from non-existent to world-leading in the blink of an eye. Veterans are worried we may have already lost because we seem unable to get out of our own way. Too much bickering, excessive litigation, and not enough speed is a recipe for losing to China.
There are exceptions, of course, like the Pentagon’s Space Development Agency (SDA). With the new announcement that the SDA will be folded into the Space Force post haste, the backroom buzz is that one of the few candles lit against the darkness might get extinguished by the space leviathan now known as Space Systems Command. Many openly question whether the glacial pace to declassify has less to do with protecting secrets and more to do with protecting bureaucracies.
Is it possible that this new generation of leaders can keep America in the lead? Can they figure out how to right the ship of state? Will they have the courage to risk personal career advancement to speak truth to power and demand action?
We all hope so, because someday the history of the 21st century will be written, and space will be the domain into which it is woven. The airplane and aviation defined the 20th century, much like sea power defined the 19th century. The 21st will be defined by human’s endeavor to explore, use, and even colonize the heavens. Let’s hope that the backroom hum that worries of our impending defeat will kickstart our leadership into making quick and decisive actions to set us on a path for victory.