The days of nations being the only actors braving the final frontier are long gone. In the modern day, it is no longer NASA against the Soviets racing to the moon or trying to be the first to put a dog in orbit. Now, the leading forces in space exploration are private companies seeking to make a profit off the great beyond. The companies making significant progress in this area are overwhelmingly American and already make up an industry worth almost $500 billion.
As they begin to overtake NASA and other government agencies, private space companies have taken an increasingly crucial role in public infrastructure that supports key parts of society. The relationship our federal government has with this industry can now only be described as 100% dependent on them. In terms of innovation, they are simply unmatched on a global scale, but this is not without some drawbacks. These companies can be hard to regulate, have security liabilities and ultimately work for themselves alone. Although it seems that private aerospace companies are here to stay as one of America’s new national resources, Americans still ought to be very concerned about the nature of our government’s newest business partners.
Recently, on Aug. 18 the National Counterintelligence and Security Center (NCSC), FBI and Air Force issued a joint memo warning these private aerospace companies about security threats from Foreign Intelligence Entities (FIEs). This memo detailed the delicate position of these companies in our infrastructure, explaining how FIEs view them as “potential threats as well as valuable opportunities”. For example, it lists the impacts of FIE exploitation as being able to affect areas like emergency services, telecommunications, energy
, and much more. Many sources suggest that, should it ever arise, attacking space assets is likely to be among the first , critical moves of any new conflict.
Current events only further demonstrate the importance of these companies. Look at the Russian invasion of Ukraine. As of today, Elon Musk’s SpaceX has upwards of 4500 satellites in the night sky, more than half of the current total. The Starlink system is one of the only ways to get an internet connection in war zones like Ukraine. According to Ukrainian digital minister Mykhailo Fedorov, “Starlink is indeed the blood of our entire communication infrastructure now”. This service has twisted into a sword hanging over Ukrainian heads, with the only thing stopping its fall being the narcissistic, childish
, and crazy personality of Musk. At multiple points throughout the war, he restricted access to the service for personal, petty reasons, and he even threatened to shut off the service entirely after a Twitter argument with a Ukrainian ambassador. No one can control him, and he has enough power to shift the course of entire wars by himself. Although this exact example may not extend to similar companies, the point remains. The profit incentive is not enough security for the American people and these companies are too independent to be placed at the center of so much of our nation’s core infrastructure.
One of the other main concerns regarding the advent of the private sector is the problem of security and foreign threats. Since 2017, there have been various cyber and physical attacks from Russian and Chinese actors on our space industry. Cybersecurity experts have stated that these efforts have been increasing recently. A key part of the danger presented by these attacks is the wide range of security put in place by all the different companies in contract with the U.S. government. There is no standardization in this field when it comes to security requirements, and the policy shifts frequently while still being too outdated to be effective. One high-ranking private sector official even went so far as to claim that taxpayer-funded investment in NASA and partner companies was “subsidizing Chinese R&D” due to weak security standards
The usage of private companies for innovation and development in our most crucial industries is the common American way. Raytheon, Boeing, Microsoft and so many other companies in equally important fields have made themselves integral to our government’s function. Right now, it seems SpaceX and Blue Origin may end up joining that exclusive list. Although they are most likely here to stay, the American government must continue to revise this relationship and ensure national security in the private aerospace industry.