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Opinion | To lead in space, America must lead in space collaboration

Strategies that earned the U.S. space preeminence in the 20th century won’t keep us ahead in this century. We need new methods to achieve this. At a high level, we recommend an emphasis on stronger collaboration across the space enterprise to realize this potential and address those challenges.

Streamline government collaboration

As commercial space efforts expand and diversify, government must ensure safe and responsible behavior in space. Several federal agencies exert some space policy jurisdiction, but responsibility remains fuzzy on emerging regulatory issues, such as protecting our satellites, ensuring spaceflight safety, regulating emergent space business applications and preserving our world and worlds we explore in the future.

The U.S. should establish a national approach to space safety with clear lanes of authority and technically informed regulations. We must especially lead in developing space traffic management safety norms and standards for space operators to mitigate the growing risks of orbital debris.

To promote innovation, the U.S. government must also exchange traditionally siloed approaches for greater agency interdependence. The current National Space Strategy advocates a “whole-of-government” approach with agencies working to maximize resources under a shared mission. Translating this policy commitment into practical reality will give the U.S. government and private industry a real edge in fielding advanced space capabilities.

Strengthen defense space partnerships

Streamlined U.S. jurisdiction on space issues may strengthen defense space partnerships — a critical priority in the Pentagon’s Defense Space Strategy as Russia and China remain formidable threats. The U.S. and its close partners comprise 11 of the world’s 15 largest space budgets while operating two-thirds of all active, orbiting satellites. However, with multiple U.S. agencies working on defense space, some allies are expressing frustration that their space communities don’t have a clear path to collaborating or know with whom to engage, while information classification frequently stymies collaboration.

U.S. leaders should consider involving more, and new, partners in space exercises, lowering classification levels and improving information sharing with allies. Strengthening defense space partnerships will require higher tolerance for risk and deviations from traditional practices. It is encouraging that key U.S. defense leaders want to address these barriers.

Deepen private space partnerships

The U.S. government is no longer the sole driver for space innovation. It increasingly recognizes the advantages of relying on the private space sector while focusing its own attention on fostering a healthy market. The U.S. government should prioritize commercial capabilities and contracted services, even if key capabilities may remain government-owned and operated. Continued research and development will keep the U.S. at the forefront of space activities, promote domestic businesses and encourage new innovators to enter the market.

Private space activity also presents emerging issues for which rigid regulatory frameworks may be ineffective. Space investors and innovators seek a balance between regulatory flexibility to accommodate new ideas and reasonable levels of certainty that allow for longer-term investment planning and space sustainability. Striking this balance is a priority.

Preserve investment in space

Finally, leaders should recognize how frequent policy shifts can compromise major NASA and national security space missions, which take many years to deliver the game-changing projects that draw people to space and make a difference for the nation and the world. Major shifts should be made only with serious deliberation.

Partnerships between the federal government, the private sector and the international space community have delivered significant return on investment to the American public. This collaboration can take us to amazing places — in space and here on Earth. We must accelerate and gain momentum to maintain global leadership in space.

Steve Isakowitz is president and CEO of The Aerospace Corporation, which operates a federally funded research and development center for the U.S. space enterprise. He previously served as president of Virgin Galactic and as space programs branch chief at the White House Office of Management and Budget.

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