First, in case you didn’t see it, I wrote an analysis of SpaceX’s Starship launch cadence goal for Astralytical. There are some aspects of that goal that some might find surprising, the biggest challenge having nothing to do with SpaceX. Second, I know the following article, full of follow-ups to my other articles, is slightly different and not an analysis, running the risk of being in my own echo chamber. Nevertheless, I feel these musings are worthwhile, and I hope you do too.
This week I’m providing a couple of follow-ups to two articles. The first references last week’s article, “Arianespace: The Only Fish in the Pond (and Keeping It That Way).” The second is the follow-up to “Imbalance of Space Power: Russia and Ukraine.”
Needling With a Thread
Space economist Pierre Lionnet discussed last week’s article in a Twitter thread this weekend. Pierre started the thread the way he usually does:
FYI, Pierre and I know each other and are comfortable in our conversations. Pierre has a realistic perspective of the space industry. He isn’t afraid to call out the truckloads of exaggerated optimism created as some folks (within and without the industry) shovel more into them. His thread is an informative discussion with good data.
Pierre is correct at the beginning of the thread: I am biased. I am biased in how I believe markets work and what companies must do to be competitive. However, I am also biased in a way that may surprise some folks: I want Arianespace to become competitive. I’m frustrated by the company’s political games, excuses, and slow progress with Ariane 6 while making European space suffer.
I’m sure my frustration with Arianespace came through in last week’s article. That was on purpose. As I’ve noted before, I want Arianespace to become competitive. It needs to be the company that SpaceX must watch closely and constantly. Why Arianespace and not ULA? ULA would be great, too, but Arianespace isn’t beholden to U.S. restrictions. Arianespace doesn’t rely on NASA and the DoD for its bread and butter (although ESA and the EU seem the equivalent). Arianespace once dominated the commercial launch market.
The company also has a person at the helm, Stephane Israël, who is aggressive, at least in his interviews and demeanor. His attitude, if authentic, could energize Arianespace to compete instead of promoting the kind of confusion I addressed last week. I suspect he repeats his current talking points because he must. But that’s all that is: a suspicion. All of the above falls in the “wishes and buts” category.
Taking Sides is Boring, the Competition Itself is the Spectacle
To be clear, I’m not pro-SpaceX or Arianespace; I’m pro-competition. There’s nothing more exciting and satisfying in any industry than watching their versions of Godzilla and Mecha-Godzilla fighting it out. If the current market situation with SpaceX were a kaiju movie, it would follow Godzilla around as it wanders the landscape already littered with the bodies of Mothra (ULA) and Ghidora (Arianespace). There are new, immature, and decidedly non-threatening monsters, such as Gamera (Blue Origin), in the background, watching as Godzilla (SpaceX) wanders aimlessly. In other words, it’s very dull.
Sadly, the current state of the global launch industry translates to it being noncompetitive, as noted a few times before. Pierre makes good points in the thread, but despite them and the road leading to Europe’s predicament, the current situation isn’t good for Europe. Between ESA and the EU, there’s a gaggle of 27+ member states (and their resources, theoretically) that somehow has no European rockets for new, ex-Soyuz, or ex-Vega customers as ArianeGroup fumbles with Ariane 6.
Then there’s the problem that even European auditors challenge the notion that Ariane 6-–a new, yet-to-be-launched rocket—is noncompetitive right out the gate. That Israël appears to be stepping back from that system appears to confirm that observation. Worse, there doesn’t appear to be a viable European alternative, one of the big problems with choosing just a single system (and that system isn’t operational).
That should infuriate the member states and cause them to ask questions about how they got there. Maybe they’ll even learn something.
Following up on “Imbalance of Space Power.” I have a few other, admittedly darker, thoughts about space technology and Ukraine. While the following concerns commercial space, it also delves into a topic I know little about. I’ve been working on another project that started me thinking about other consequences of the commercial space infrastructure Ukraine is using against Russia. Ukraine’s space power is non-existent when compared to that of Russia. That power disparity encouraged Ukraine’s military to resort to conducting a form of space asymmetric warfare using commercial space technology. Guess what other groups are known for conducting asymmetric warfare?
If you answered “terrorists,” there’s a gold star in your future.
The observation about asymmetric warfare and terrorists isn’t intended to frighten the wits out of readers. Frankly, there are other technologies that have been in use longer that I haven’t seen leveraged by those groups, yet. However, appealing to the population’s lizard-brain is what certain U.S. generals attempted to do years ago when voicing concerns about the easy availability of commercial satellite imagery. Using their logic, increasing the availability of more space technology and services could lead to worse consequences. I have yet to see any U.S. general publicly fret about the easy availability of the combination of commercial space services that will make their jobs harder.
The broadband satellite plans of Amazon, the imagery and internet of things communications constellation plans from small companies worldwide, will make their jobs much, much more complex. But since those generals and their subordinates are habitual users of these technologies (because, that’s where the money is going to…right?), they should already understand some of the subtler aspects of using space technology.
While technology is meant to make life easier for people, all of it, including commercial space technology, can be used differently (such as aiding artillery strikes) than intended. Or as intended. Space technology is designed to be leveraged, theoretically using the knowledge gained from intelligence satellites and space communications networks working with ground systems to make up for a deficiency, such as not having a huge standing army or air force.
However, the space technology that helps Ukraine’s communications, battlefield awareness, and precision targeting works equally well for smaller, less organized, and meagerly financed terrorist groups. I won’t pretend to know how terrorist groups will exploit increased access to different space technologies and services as they gain familiarity with it. It’s doubtful they will use space technology the way Ukraine uses it, such as for quick and accurate artillery strikes, but on U.S. soil.
There’s No Defense with a Good Offense (Overseas)
Answering the challenge is complicated because terrorists would probably conduct their campaigns on U.S. soil. It is unlikely that U.S. residents will have their access to space technologies shut off during an attack, which may represent a different scenario than what U.S. military commanders and troops train for. They generally train to be in areas where they can counter an adversary’s space services without worrying about harming U.S. citizens. In that instance, terrorist groups on U.S. soil using those space services already have a battlefield leaning in their favor.
The U.S. military might hesitate to use the same counters used in Afghanistan or elsewhere. Much of the services used in the U.S. are not just useful, but critical. The technology U.S. residents rely on will always be available, reliable, and inexpensive. The cherry on top for terrorist groups is that U.S. companies provide those services and technologies.
I’m definitely oversimplifying the prospect of this dark side of space. I might be crediting space technology more than is realistic, as there are more ubiquitous and simpler technologies available. While Ukraine gives us a glimpse of how nations can use commercial space services in surprising ways, it also hints at how other groups can use them in surprising, nasty ways. That’s not technology’s or those companies’ fault, but it’s a challenge that the U.S. government probably should become familiar with (I suspect it at least knows about the problem). It’s not an insurmountable challenge, but it is a complex one.