As space becomes more congested and competitive, the U.S. government is seeking new ways of managing the traffic. Colorado Springs leaders believe they have the solution.
An ongoing NASA study could lead to economic development opportunities in Colorado Springs — and local leaders are losing no time in promoting the city as the next center for tracking orbital and space travel.
The boom in space traffic — satellite launches, ever-growing tourism opportunities, even the ability to send terrestrial packages more quickly by using low-Earth orbit — means that the Department of Defense is kept increasingly busy aiding commercial groups and foreign countries with their launch schedules. And as the spaceport at Colorado’s Front Range Airport and other spaceports across the nation start operations in coming years, the space above the Earth will grow increasingly congested and competitive.
That’s where the NASA study comes in. Currently, the Air Force is responsible for tracking the 21,000 objects in space — which includes 1,300 operational satellites and a lot of space junk — as well as for providing the best launch routes and best locations, then monitoring satellites from their launches to their orbits.
“We do it for everyone,” said Capt. Nick Mercurio, public affairs director for the 14th Air Force and the Joint Functional Component Command for Space at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. “And we do it because all nations benefit from safe, secure space operations. We have equities to maintain for the future — and we want to promote transparency in space.”
The military also is interested in who is launching which satellites and when. The Pentagon wants to know when launches occur — and if rockets will return to Earth.
“It’s vital to national defense,” Mercurio said. “Space as a DoD mission won’t go away. Space underpins everything we do. The change will be in traffic management, not in space situational awareness.”
The problem: While the DoD has a vested interest in maintaining space situational awareness, it wants another group to take on monitoring space and orbital travel.
The promise of manned space flight by commercial groups has many wondering: How do you manage all that traffic and coordinate the takeoff and landing with civilian air space? Who’s going to be responsible for it? The DoD says it no longer wants the job.
Andy Merritt, chief defense officer for the Colorado Springs Regional Business Alliance, believes he has the answer. In fact, the city’s been working on the solution for a couple of years, he said.
“We can do it from Colorado Springs,” Merritt said. “If it’s a governmental agency, it should be placed here. If it’s given over to the commercial side, it makes sense for the company to be here.”
That’s because the Air Force Space Command headquarters are located in Colorado Springs at Peterson Air Force Base, as are U.S. Northern Command, U.S. North American Aerospace Defense Command, a constellation of satellite maintenance and control companies and hundreds of retiring military with the right expertise.
“Right now, there are questions about who is directly responsible to make sure these commercial entities take off and land safely,” Merritt said. “Who is responsible for tracking the launches to make sure that they are not a threat to national security?”
The answer is still being studied at NASA, but Merritt believes there is opportunity for Colorado Springs.
“If it’s here, we already have the companies, the workforce,” he said. “We have people who understand the problem and who already talk to each other. This could be a real benefit to the Springs. It could create new jobs and develop a sector that is already very strong in Colorado Springs.”
Fred Slane, executive director of the nonprofit Space Infrastructure Foundation, also located in Colorado Springs, agrees.
“What other state — what other city — can do this?” Slane asked. “I’d argue that if another city tried it, they’d have to come here to get the expertise.”
Slane, a retired Air Force officer, started the foundation with the goal of standardizing space infrastructure across the industry. His group meets with other similar organizations around the world — and was successful in developing the industry standards for cube satellites. From an infrastructure standpoint, it also makes sense to standardize space traffic management.
“When we have commercial travel, the FAA handles it,” Slane said. “They’re responsible for making sure flights get where they’re going, that the airspace doesn’t become congested. No one is really responsible for low-Earth orbit — it belongs to everyone. But someone needs to be responsible for the takeoff and landing, to make sure it’s safe, but to also make sure that national security is taken into account.”
Slane is part of a group working to raise awareness at NASA, in Congress and with the Federal Aviation Administration that the Springs should be considered when discussing space and orbital traffic management.
“I’m the chief cook and bottle-washer,” he said. “We’re really making the case that the center of space travel should be in Colorado Springs.”
The military has spent decades watching for a nuclear launch from Russia aimed for the United States, developing generations of engineers who know exactly what to look for — and the technology necessary to be successful.
“NORAD’s been here for 50 years,” he said. “We have the capability to learn more. Now we need the nation to move to create the right framework as space travel blossoms.
“We need a springboard for the center, and we need the legislation that will support such a center.”
Colorado is the second-largest space state — something that often goes unnoticed, he said.
“Space engineers aren’t really known for talking about what they do,” Slane said. “The marketing side of things — that’s not what they’re interested in. They’re interested in the work. So that means other people have to take on that role and promote the state’s industry to the right people.”
What are the next steps? As Elon Musk’s SpaceX successfully launched a rocket that re-entered Earth’s orbit and landed upright, the future of space travel and tourism is growing nearer, Merritt said. The time is right to step up efforts to promote the Springs.
“We have our federal lobbyist working on it,” he said. “And we’re keeping an eye on space legislation introduced last week at the Space Symposium. We’re working with our congressional delegation. I’d argue that we’re ahead of almost every other city on this.”
But which companies could handle the mission?
“Braxton Technologies comes to mind,” Merritt said. “Also, the major corporations like Boeing and Lockheed already have a presence here. I don’t think it’s a matter of finding expertise; that already exists. It’s just a matter of letting people know it exists.”
And it’s just in time.
Last week, Republican Congressman Jim Bridenstine of Oklahoma unveiled the American Space Reconnaissance Act at the Space Symposium, providing key legislation toward the move to allow other groups outside the DoD to track space traffic.
“America has long dominated the ‘ultimate high ground’ of space,” Bridenstine said in a press release announcing the legislation.
“However, space is becoming more congested, contested and competitive. Even so, private companies are developing revolutionary technologies — from reusable rockets to asteroid mining and human space habitats. The American Space Reconnaissance Act makes comprehensive and bold policy advances and reforms necessary to ensure American leadership in space.”
Among other things, the bill provides a framework for commercial entities to play a greater role in space travel.
It provides funding for the FAA office of commercial space transportation and clarifies the legal framework for nontraditional activities. It builds a civilian and commercial capacity to provide robust space situational awareness, “moving toward granting authority for space traffic management,” and it aids commercial launches through a tax credit for American companies building rockets to take cargo to the International Space Station.
As NASA finishes its study of the problem — due at the end of November — the legislation sets the first step in moving responsibility for space traffic from the Department of Defense, Slane said.
“The congressman said last week it was unlikely to pass in its current form,” he said. “But we believe that it will at least start the discussion.”
Merritt said the RBA has reached out to Bridenstine’s office, hoping to let him know of the expertise that exists in the Springs.
“We’re trying to reach him now,” he said. “And when we’re in Washington [D.C.] in the fall, this will be on our agenda to talk to the Pentagon and NASA about.”
Springs officials believe they’ve laid the groundwork for the future. After NASA’s response in November, it will be time to move quickly, Merritt said.
“That was an important first step,” he said. “People have talked about this for years, about how to manage all the traffic — and potential traffic. The study is the first step that Congress has made to show it’s interested in doing something differently.”
The study and the new legislation mean that the Springs will step up its lobbying efforts, Merritt said.
“We’re ahead on this; our argument is very clear. We’re really the best place for space traffic management, whatever form it takes in the future,” Merritt said.
“And that’s good news for Colorado Springs.”