When NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley returned safely to Earth last weekend, the US regained something we’d lost for almost a decade: the ability to safely shuttle American astronauts to and from space on American spacecraft. This achievement reverberates far beyond just the success of their mission or the elation of space nerds everywhere. We witnessed the first commercial spacecraft in history carrying humans into orbit. As an early investor in SpaceX, the company that ran this mission, I am especially proud.
This success also carries large, positive implications for US national security. First, it minimizes our dependence on Russia, a nation that has publicly worked to undermine U.S. democracy and interests across the world in recent years. Since NASA discontinued its Space Shuttle program in 2011, the US had no choice but to rely on Russian Soyuz rockets for human space access. In 2014, as NASA astronauts Michael Hopkins and Steve Mastracchio were working aboard the International Space Station, expecting Russia to soon deliver them back to Earth, the Russian military invaded Crimea in the sovereign nation of Ukraine. Because of our dependency on Russia for human space access, in situations like that U.S. leaders may feel forced to blunt their reaction against Russian adversarial behavior in order to ensure the wellbeing of our astronauts.
Second, the use of commercial space vehicles allows the US to reclaim not only human space access but broader space access at a fraction of the cost of our adversaries. SpaceX now handles about two-thirds of NASA’s launches for as little as $62 million per launch, which averages about $2,000/kg, compared to the previous cost when using the Space Shuttle of approximately $25,000/kg. And these are the costs benefits before we calculate the benefits of the reusability of the booster rocket, which will almost certainly save NASA and other users even more money. And now the company is developing a heavy-lift rocket called Starship, which could cheaply put large objects like telescopes into orbit and enable heavy science experimentation capabilities to be launched to the moon, for an expected low cost of $2 million a launch, or $10/kg.
SpaceX’s Falcon 9 vehicle, which launched astronauts Behken and Hurley into space, and Falcon Heavy are the only orbital rockets in the world capable of recovery and reflight. America’s leadership in low-cost, rapid access to space will increase our nation’s advantages over our economic competitors and at times, adversaries. It will enable new national defense space architectures that could not be effective without it.
This is also critical for a third reason: to counter against a fast-rising China. On June 23rd, China launched the final satellite of its BeiDou Positioning and Navigation System (BDS), which offers China augmented precision navigation and timing (PNT) for its military space forces. A week after this Chinese launch, on June 30th, Falcon 9 launched the U.S. Air Force’s third-generation navigation satellite for our Global Positioning System (GPS), which will help enable higher power signals, more resilient to jamming. And the exact same Falcon 9 booster that launched Behnken and Hurley was already reflown on July 20 to deploy the first dedicated military satellite of South Korea, a US ally under the 1953 Mutual Defense Treaty.
In addition to launching more satellites, China and Russia are also developing anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons that pose serious and real risks to U.S. assets. Current U.S. surveillance satellites are imperative for defending our oceans and critical trade routes, in addition to supporting our warfighting capabilities. The Space Development Agency (SDA) has proposed that the United States begin deploying constellations of low-cost satellites as a way to limit our dependency on large multibillion-dollar satellites that are vulnerable to anti-satellite weapons.
The success of our future national defense space architecture relies heavily on our ability to ensure rapid access to low-cost launch services (as well as a ready supply of low-cost replacement satellites, which are also in prospect) because if our enemies know that the U.S. can replenish those assets quickly, the cost equation on using anti-satellite weapons changes dramatically and would greatly diminish the effectiveness of using them. The rapid re-use of the booster that launched Behnken and Hurley shows that SpaceX can greatly reduce turnaround times between launches. The time could be reduced further, from weeks to days, taking us one step further toward true low-cost and rapid access to space. To deal with potential attacks from China, Russia, or others in coming decades and achieve this objective, America will need to deepen its partnership with more nimble American private space companies.
There are plenty of reasons to want access to space to become more inexpensive. Stephen Hawking reminded us that “we have to visit other worlds ourselves” to ensure the future of humanity. But national security also greatly benefits from the continued advancement of our human spaceflight program. The U.S. commercial space industry has become a critical part of building back our National Defense Space Architecture, an ambitious mission that will become more critical toward securing Americans safety as allies and adversaries alike continue to build their presence in space.
Laetitia Garriott de Cayeux is co-founder and CEO of Global Space Ventures and an early investor in SpaceX. She is also a member of the Truman National Security Project and the Council on Foreign Relations.