Emperor’s new clothes

For centuries now, children all over the world have enjoyed the story of Hans Christian Andersen – Emperor’s new clothes. As with most superstitions, there is an important lesson behind simple humor: it warns against groupthink and vanity, and indicates how far someone will go to avoid being judged.

Much like the emperor roaming the city without clothes, today’s government leaders are pacified to complacency by an echo chamber of their own making. Comments last week by Defense Secretary Austin at the Reagan Defense Forum that he was not interested in the growing competition with China led many of us to believe that, too, it might be wise to check the mirror before walking into town. Those who sit next to him in silent agreement imitate the footnote in a children’s tale and go along with the trick, no longer able to see the truth for themselves.

Austin’s comments are proof that we are blind to our own blatant weakness. China may not reach “10 feet” yet — but its own commercial space industry will be in a few years. Over the past decade, China has continued to advance in technology, at a pace not seen since the Apollo projects, while the US government has made almost no progress to take the lead in the space race.

China is publicly updating the world about its commercial space ambitions, which its government supports wholeheartedly and with the backing of its entire economy. The general spread in Wuhan last week at the China Commercial Space Forum suggests that China is submitting orbit plans it announced just a few years ago. China has now deployed its most advanced space launch systems to date, requiring the Space Force to draft a whole new naming agreement to even describe it. Our eastern “speed challenge” now threatens future space stability by launching a record number of satellites into orbit, building new laboratories in manned orbit, and even earning “Olympic medals” from our intelligence agency.

In the meantime, the US Space Command is still interested in solving the problem – delving into the depth of “analysis paralysis” and thought experiments, that is, but not actually deploying the systems necessary to restore our advantage. US space ambitions have become burdened with repeated studies and analyses, fueled by the notion that unbiased and objective analysis of threats, technology, markets, and employment will eventually help us win the space race of this century.

While there is certainly an advantage in scanning the field before shipping in the first place, America will soon be further away from China if it does not speed up the pace of its technology. Indeed, had SpaceX not won its legal battles against the government, America’s last new operating system launch would be decades old. Instead of sitting in rooms and teaching actions to take, we should buy and launch our own systems and services.

Not only the emperor’s fault. Instead, American consulting, think tanks, lobbies, and employees of all kinds have reinforced the need for this endless analysis, repeated for years and isolated from challenge. These so-called “bandits” are no better than the emperor’s retinue, who enable the status quo for fear of being seen as fools and excluded from the loop.

In an effort to beat noise like a boisterous child, commercial space companies are increasing their role in the space industry. New-generation commercial space companies number only hundreds in the United States alone, and most are made up of a diverse mix of brilliant millennials and their generational predecessors who left the traditional space model for greener pastures. They are virtually shouting the obvious: Building and launching American-made satellites, sensors, transmitters, and communications systems is the only way to secure a sustainable commercial space economy for the United States.

Any mission that can be achieved, at least in part, with commercial space systems from US companies—either as a service or off-the-shelf system—must be immediately privatized and made room to allow the commercial market to respond. Admittedly, government investment is necessary for capabilities that do not have a commercial equivalent, such as hypersonic missiles. However, for just about everything else, even a tepid attempt by government venture capital to buy in, launch and operate will make the necessary difference to reclaim our advantage.

Just as the emperor’s courtiers and admirers were either too foolish or too afraid to advise otherwise, we plunge into a paralysis of analysis, backed by a bureaucracy that has lost the will to achieve real goals. Meanwhile, the newcomers are shouting at us to wake up, because China won’t wait for us to catch up. The organizations that paved the way for today’s space industry must retool to advance at a competitive pace for our adversaries. Only by partnering with the commercial industry to deliver systems in orbit, not more paperwork to Congress, can the United States succeed.

If he hasn’t heard of it yet, the proverbial emperor needs to know the truth: Our commercial space industry is still not backed by the policies needed to win this century’s space race. If we don’t get rid of the Stalinist mentality of the past and encourage private enterprises to innovate and lead the world, we will soon be no better than Anderson’s Tale Emperor, declaring the rest of the world a fool when the joke is upon us. .


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