Why Hybrid Systems Will Enable The United States’ Space Future

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Imagine for a moment it is ten years into the future. As you might expect, tremendous advances have been made in the space industry. Though not colonized yet, the moon is the subject of a mad race to claim parts of it as sovereign territory. The United States has the first permanent manned research facility on the moon to probe further into the cosmos. Telescopes 10 times the diameter of the James Webb Space Telescope are erected on the moon’s surface, capable of viewing even the earliest days of the universe as they unfolded. A nearby dedicated earth defense system, unencumbered by atmosphere, is busy mapping the solar system of asteroids, characterizing them as either friend or foe and engaging any that might pose a hazard to Earth.

Meanwhile, Elon Musk’s space launches relying on a completely reusable Falcon rocket have become so routine that even an occasional launch anomaly is not newsworthy. Tens of thousands of autonomous small satellites exist in low earth orbit, owned by hundreds of different companies and countries routinely generating and communicating data to improve the lives of all living things on the planet. These sound like drastic changes from now but is that how we’ll see it in 2029?

This future, or something very similar to it, will come to pass if governments around the world, led by the U.S., enact policies and promote a pro-growth, market-driven space economy. Defining policies that promote commercial space companies and government contractors working together towards integrated or hybrid space architectures is an essential near-term pivot in national strategy. And such a pivot, already underway in certain areas, is indisputably necessary for extending the American free-market success story and realizing any 2029 dream.

In fact, these early days of commercial space are eerily similar to the 20th century’s acceleration of globalization, supercharged by the vast economic ecosystem of airplanes, airlines and airports transporting people and goods around the world. Aviation Benefits Beyond Borders reports that today, this contributes to an extra $2.7 trillion of annual global economic benefit, with 10.4 million direct jobs and continued high growth projected for at least the next 20 years. Perhaps not coincidently, CNBC reports that $2.7 trillion is precisely where some of the more optimistic forecasters like Merrill Lynch see the space economy in the next 30 years.

Hybrid space architecture is the term now gaining traction within the most senior government circles, detailing how they plan to promote and leverage this current economic leviathan. Broadly speaking, this hybrid approach will soon be how both the old and new space industries will operate as an integrated whole to support military, civil and intelligence needs. As reported by Space News, General Jay Raymond, the commander of the reconstituted U.S. Space Command, says, “I think you’ll see a hybrid architecture in the future… so that [we] don’t have a vulnerability.”

Clearly, NOAA’s new Deputy Associate Administrator in charge of such matters, Dr. Karen St. Germain, is already planning exactly along the same lines too. Her teams have begun a complete overhaul of how NOAA will provision weather data for the U.S. and by extension, most of the world. With a clear endorsement of the architecture she developed in her previous position, she now has the authority to execute those plans and has wasted no time moving forward quickly. Her BAA announcement has sent a clear message to both sides of the hybrid architecture that during her tenure, it will not be business as usual in the old traditional NOAA way.

There is not a lot of detail yet as to what precisely constitutes these hybrid space architectures or how they will work, but it is abundantly clear why they are necessary. With near parity in space competence and capability arising quickly worldwide, our government must no longer compete against, but instead harvest the innovations from the new commercial space sector. By integrating small, commercial space technologies, we can accomplish this and provide strength in numbers by mitigating vulnerabilities inherent in relying on a very small number of very expensive systems.

Hybrid space architectures will allow the government to operate and innovate faster by leveraging quickly developed tech, freeing up resources to devote to government only technologies. Eventually, some missions currently performed expensively from government aircraft will be able to migrate into this hybrid space, saving millions more in taxpayer dollars. By integrating low-cost unclassified small satellite tech into government functions, data sharing across US agencies and international partners will greatly improve. Finally, it will ensure the U.S. space economy continues to lead the world, providing jobs and fueling inspiration for generations to follow.

From satellite systems, ground relay stations, data exploitation and cybersecurity to policy resolution and advocacy, a whole-government approach will be required. We must consider how U.S. companies ought to be included within this new national infrastructure, much like our  airlines and aircraft manufacturers that are in existence today. Supply chain security through prioritized domestic sourcing helps to ensure a national capability that the U.S. government can rely on to be the most operationally responsive in times of war, enabling this capability to be a military, economic and diplomatic force multiplier. Also, we must manage technical risk in a more cost-efficient way, by distributing it across hundreds of commercial companies instead of putting our complete faith in only a handful.

Now is the time for our government to wholeheartedly embrace the next big pivot in the U.S. space program evolution, as some senior leaders across government already are doing. How this will be accomplished in strategy, operations and engineering is unwritten, though there are plenty of military and civilian leaders already hard at work figuring it out. For them to evolve effectively, every aspect of their hybrid strategy will be planned and executed with more forethought than ever before. In so doing, our 2029 space odyssey could very well surpass even our more imaginative predictions. Hang onto your hats because as Yogi Berra used to say, “the future ain’t what it used to be!”

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