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‘This Is Our Sputnik Moment:’ Rep. Bridenstine Offers Sweeping Space Bill

Posted by Colin Clark on

Rep. Jim Bridenstine

COLORADO SPRINGS: Declaring the words in the headline, a junior congressman from Oklahoma who has stepped into a void of space leadership in the House, Rep. James Bridenstine, boldly told a jaded audience of senior space officials, diplomats, enthusiasts and the aerospace industry today that America “must forever be the preeminent spacefaring nation.”

Bridenstine unveiled his American Space Renaissance Act, a comprehensive bill that is almost certain never to see the light of day in its entirety, but may help reshape the conversation on Capitol Hill.

“I want to start new conversations between Congress, executive branch agencies, industry, the space policy community, and other stakeholders and keep old ones going. The importance of space is often lost on the general public, and as a result, on Congress as well,” the former F-18 pilot said. “This must change. Space is too important.”

Cleverly, the congressman has broken the bill into separate sections dealing with national security, commercial and civil space, giving them all a chance to survive as stand-alone bills or as amendments to other legislation (such as the must-pass annual National Defense Authorization Act). But in crafting a compelling speech and delivering it before a friendly — if jaded — audience, Bridenstine positions himself as a new center of gravity on space issues on Capitol Hill.

To our readers there are three main areas of interest, beyond the broad and pretty exciting appeal to restart America’s space efforts and to get Congress to act on a broader and more vigorous front than its current fractured and often conflicted fashion on space issues.

The first national security issue he targets is hosted payloads, those always promising efforts which have never really caught on, certainly not to the extent that some major aerospace companies have hoped for.

“My bill requires DOD to leverage hosted payloads to the extent practical, consider hosted payloads during Analysis of Alternatives studies, and promulgate criteria and standards for new entrants to qualify for HoPS,” the congressman said. HoPS (Hosted Payload Solutions) is a contracting vehicle to allow the deals.

More broadly, Bridenstine’s bill pushes the Pentagon to avail itself of more commercially available sources for weather data and satellite communications.

“The Department buys COMSATCOM in the most inefficient way possible – spot market leases using supplemental war funds,’ he notes, raising another issue which the Pentagon has long grappled with and wandered around on. “The Wideband SATCOM AoA [Analysis of Alternatives] represents a good opportunity to get commercial systems deliberately planned into a future architecture.” His bill “requires” the Pentagon “provide detailed assumptions behind any MILSATCOM vs. COMSATCOM cost estimates” to help force the choice in the most efficient direction.

In his bill, he includes language about the NRO and NGA, pressing NGA to accelerate work on a commercial Geoint strategy. The bill should be posted later today and I’ll try to remember to include a link to it here.

Much of the speech deals with commercial and civil space, something about which most of our readers may not care much, so I’ll leave those portions for you to read. The speech in its entirety can be found below.

Note: This story was written based on the written text of Bridenstine’s speech. I was en route to Colorado Springs on a plane with Deputy Defense Bob Work when it was delivered. The speech is worth reading in its entirety. Here it is as prepared for delivery.

On October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union launched a shiny sphere 23 inches wide into orbit.  Sputnik harmlessly transmitted radio pulses, but it called into question the technological prowess of the United States of America and our competing political and economic systems. We responded overwhelmingly. In 1962, President Kennedy announced from Rice University (my alma mater) that we were sending Americans to the moon.

Around the world, free people and representative governments aligned. The American spirit led.  On July 20, 1969, the free world won the space race when an American flag was planted on the moon.

Space represents what is exceptional about the United States of America. We are characterized by a spirit of adventure, risk, and entrepreneurialism. When our national security is threatened, we respond. When challenges seem overwhelming, we strive. When we experience a setback, we double our resolve. It is who we are.

This exceptionalism is not genetic. It is born of a competitive, free enterprise, merit-driven culture.  Today, American entrepreneurs have revolutionized access and operations in space, transforming how we communicate, navigate, produce food and energy, conduct banking, predict weather, perform disaster relief, provide security, and so much more.

Unfortunately, these breakthrough socioeconomic gains from space technologies are no longer assured. The potential enemies of the United States are moving rapidly to deny the use of space even if it means denying future generations access to this critically important resource.

Another threat to space is the growing population of space debris, which requires responsible governance. Cementing American leadership in military, civil, and commercial space will ensure the sustainability and responsible use of space.

This is our Sputnik moment.  America must forever be the preeminent spacefaring nation.  It is time for the American Space Renaissance Act.

The nature of the space environment has evolved, generating new issues and challenges. Space has quickly moved from a relatively benign arena to a congested, contested, and competitive domain. This audience is well aware of the increasing threats to United States, allied, and commercial space systems generated by near-peer capabilities and the proliferation of space technologies to less sophisticated space actors.

We have also witnessed massive growth in civil space and commercial space activities.  In many respects, the evolving space domain mirrors the changes previously experienced in air domain.

Congressional engagement was appropriate as the skies became more crowded, militarily contested, and commercially viable. As the air domain matured, Congress was right to ask and help think through the answers to tough questions, such as:

  • Is the military organized, trained, and equipped to deter conflict and prevail when conflict extends into the air domain?
  • Is the national security community operating under the right policies and doctrines in the air domain?
  • What is the role of civil agencies in the air domain?
  • How should air traffic be monitored and managed?
  • How can we spur the development of commercial aviation?
  • How can we integrate commercial aviation technologies and services into civil and military applications?

Answering those same questions for the space domain requires Congressional involvement.

Ensuring America is the preeminent space faring nation requires a holistic approach to the American space enterprise. National security, civil, and commercial space entities sometimes develop synergistic technologies that go underutilized by the other space components. In other cases, there are duplicative efforts. Congressional oversight is often limited based on committee jurisdictions and Member committee assignments.

The American Space Renaissance Act considers space comprehensively. It will serve as a repository for the best space reform ideas. This is a living document which I intend to update every session of each Congress. I want to start new conversations between Congress, executive branch agencies, industry, the space policy community, and other stakeholders and keep old ones going. The importance of space is often lost on the general public, and as a result, on Congress as well. This must change. Space is too important.

As this bill has been crafted, I’ve witnessed firsthand how these multi-stakeholder discussions have sharpened thinking and generated new ideas.  To be clear, this bill is not an amalgamation of least-common-denominator ideas.  We have included some bold reforms which will not please everybody. But these are the things we need to be talking about.

I want to take provisions from the bill and insert them into other legislation such as the National Defense Authorization Act, FAA Reauthorization, NASA Reauthorization, NOAA Reauthorization, future commercial space bills, and appropriations bills. This bill is not likely to pass in its entirety, but many of the policies can be enacted into law using various legislative vehicles. Some of the more bold reforms within this bill may first require a study or a pilot program to develop consensus in Congress and among stakeholders.

The bill is broken into three titles: National Security, Civil, and Commercial.

National Security

As a Navy pilot, I flew combat in Iraq and Afghanistan on active duty, and counter drug missions later in the Reserves. I witnessed firsthand both the unique advantages provided by our space capabilities but also the unsettling dependence and increasing vulnerability of these systems (particularly on-orbit assets).

The American military faces the paradox that the effects and information delivered by and through space capabilities are simultaneously a strategic advantage and an Achilles Heel.

Fielded in eras of relative sanctuary, generally speaking today’s space architectures are too vulnerable, stove-piped, and costly. The next generation space architectures must be more resilient, integrated, and affordable.

Ultimately, we must shift the paradigm from relying primarily on government-procured, owned, and operated, billion dollar Battlestar Galactica satellites, to a new paradigm in which government buys data and services delivered by the private sector and deliberately plans commercial capabilities into national security architectures.

Of course, there are some missions such as nuclear command and control and missile warning for which no commercial market exists.  Yet, even these military-unique systems can benefit from reform proposals included in my bill, such as expanded use of hosted payloads.

Develop More Resilient Architectures

Resilience is not only a function of the relative “hardening” or “security” of a system. We can also increase the resilience of constellations through proliferated architectures which present an overwhelming number of targets for an adversary and backups for the warfighter. Proliferation deters by dissuading attacks in the first place.

Hosted payloads are one option to enhance resiliency by leveraging global commercial architectures. The Hosted Payload Solutions, or HoPS, program offers DOD a contracting mechanism to execute these arrangements.

  • My bill requires DOD to leverage hosted payloads to the extent practical, consider hosted payloads during Analysis of Alternatives studies, and promulgate criteria and standards for new entrants to qualify for HoPS.

Rapid reconstitution can also enhance resilience. Reducing the size and weight of buses and payloads is helpful in terms of shortening the production timeline. We are beginning to see the proliferation of large constellations of small satellites.

However, launch availability is still the long pole in the tent. The DOD should encourage the growth of the small launch vehicle services market; these kinds of launch vehicles can be produced faster and cheaper relative to traditional rockets.

An army of small vehicles on standby could offer options to both rapidly populate architectures and reconstitute them if on-orbit assets are damaged or destroyed.

  • The American Space Renaissance Act begins a pilot program within DOD mirroring NASA’s Venture Class Launch Services program. It requires DOD to award no less than four VCLS-type contracts to help stimulate the growth of this space sector.

Integrate the National Security Space Enterprise

Given today’s operating environment, the DOD is understandably sometimes reluctant to fully embrace commercial systems that lack certain protection capabilities. Yet, this presents a Catch-22 to industry. Without a commitment from the DOD to utilize them, how can industry justify making additional investments in protection when their customer base is primarily non-government?

  • My bill requires DOD to provide a comprehensive assessment of desirable protection capabilities which would allow commercial systems to better integrate with DOD architectures.

Integration also means deliberately planning for commercial systems during architecture development. Satellite communications is a prime example. Overwhelmed during the height of Iraq and Afghanistan, DOD increasingly utilized commercial SATCOM to meet surging demand. The growth of ISR requirements suggests that SATCOM demand will continue to increase for the foreseeable future. The Department buys COMSATCOM in the most inefficient way possible – spot market leases using supplemental war funds. The Wideband SATCOM AoA represents a good opportunity to get commercial systems deliberately planned into a future architecture. There is no reason for the WGS Follow-On to do business-as-usual.

  • My bill requires the Wideband AoA to provide full consideration to COMSATCOM capabilities, business models, and technology insertion plans. It also requires DOD to provide detailed assumptions behind any MILSATCOM vs. COMSATCOM cost estimates.  It also has GAO review the AoA to ensure that the Department truly opens the aperture and provides realistic cost comparisons.  In my estimation, Congress must become increasingly involved in the earliest stages of space acquisition to ensure that commercial options are given the fullest consideration.

Sticking with SATCOM for a moment, one way to better integrate MILSATCOM and COMSATCOM architectures is through implementing multiband terminals. Multiband terminals allow warfighters to access various SATCOM systems:  C-band, X-band, Ka-band, Ku-band, or any other band.  The objective is to increase options and flexibility for Combatant Commanders and maximize utilization of our terrestrial assets.

  • The American Space Renaissance Act requires all future SATCOM terminals to be multiband terminals; any exceptions would be case-by-case and require senior leader certification. It also requires a plan to migrate legacy terminals to multiband.

Integration encompasses more than just better integrating commercial into legacy systems and new architectures. We also need more integration among dedicated DOD systems across mission areas.  Stovepiped ground architectures prevent timely data and information sharing and drain manpower and sustainment resources to service siloed, custom-built ground segments.

  • My bill requires DOD to develop and implement a strategy which makes ground segments more interoperable. Interoperability will facilitate automated sharing of information between systems and across networks, which can present a common operating picture for space.  It requires full funding for the Air Force’s proposed Enterprise Ground Services new start.  EGS will deploy common systems across protected communications, missile warning, GPS, and weather systems, the first step in creating enterprise-level rapid information sharing.

Leverage Commercial Solutions

In addition to resilience and integration, the American Space Renaissance Act pushes affordability through leveraging commercial solutions.  To reiterate, the costs of space systems are primarily driven by following the legacy paradigm of government-procured, owned, operated, and sustained stove-piped systems.  Congress can help marginally reduce the cost of traditionally procured space systems by continuing to reform defense acquisition and ensuring robust competition.

However, it seems that leveraging commercial is the only way to get dramatic affordability gains.  Where possible, we should change the paradigm to buy data and services.  DOD should not be the anchor tenant, but instead it must rapidly develop and promulgate standards, and test and evaluate commercial offerings.

Nascent commercial weather satellites have the capacity to generate more data and sometimes better data for the American weather enterprise. We know there are several companies pursuing technologies such as GPS radio occultation and hyperspectral imaging that have applications which could improve weather forecasts. On the civil side, I have encouraged NOAA to begin utilizing these options, which are already launching to serve industries ranging from agriculture, to transportation, to energy, and insurance. The DOD should also leverage this burgeoning industry to augment existing sources and incorporate them in models and products for the warfighter.  Similar to imagery, over time DOD could increasingly use commercial to meet requirements (in addition to augmentation).

  • My bill includes a commercial weather data pilot program for DOD. It’s very similar to my NOAA pilot program that was established by the FY16 Omnibus spending bill.


Sticking with weather, the American Space Renaissance Act will further encourage NOAA to incorporate innovative commercial solutions, while addressing issues that damage the market. For instance, NOAA claims international obligations require the sharing of all weather data, no matter the source or the type, to the entire world for free.  This undercuts the market before it even forms. Giving companies no business case to pursue these capabilities will mean that no one benefits from these new and innovative data sources. I believe the United States’ obligations are much more nuanced.

  • The ASRA directs the NOAA Administrator to promulgate specific rules on the treatment of weather data acquired from commercial space-based systems. The rules should ensure that the United States releases only the minimum amount of proprietary data required under World Meteorological Organization Resolution 40.

The 2010 National Space Policy states that the government should not compete with the private sector.  I wholeheartedly agree. The government ought not do what the private sector can do for it. Instead of competing with the private sector, the government should enable domestic, commercial launch and space system development.

NASA is an exceptional agency that has inspired billions of people and transformed the human condition.  In spite of its amazing accomplishments, the United States has seen NASA devolve from a presence on the moon, to maintaining a presence only in low Earth orbit, and now dependent on Russia for human access to space.

Over the past four and a half decades, NASA has not had a singular, driving objective that focused all of its resources, both money and manpower, on a common goal.  Divergent responsibilities, objectives, and priorities have been added by various Congresses and Presidential administrations, pulling NASA’s focus in many different directions depending on who is in elected office and who has been chosen to lead NASA. From a public perception standpoint, this has made it harder to communicate NASA’s many great achievements – in fact, when the Space Shuttle retired in 2011, there was wide sentiment that America’s space program had been cancelled.

From a functional standpoint, this has led to disputes over budgeting and focus, both within NASA, as well as between the executive branch and legislative branch. Other departments of the federal government utilize space for various purposes, and there is duplication and overlap among their missions and NASA’s.  Conversely, NASA is the only agency charged with human space exploration.

The American Space Renaissance Act begins the process of looking at how NASA fits into the space enterprise and what needs to be changed to enable NASA to continue its leadership role in the future.

  • The bill amends the Space Act of 1958 to alter the objectives of NASA’s aeronautical and space activities to bring NASA’s mission in line with a doctrine of pioneering space, meaning that NASA is directed to be the first to arrive at destinations in space, lowering barriers to access and putting in place necessary infrastructure to facilitate utilization and development of space by others.

Mars serves as an opportune goal to apply this new doctrine.  The National Research Council reported in 2014 that NASA’s current budgets, strategies, and missions will not get American Astronauts to Mars.  Mars should be the horizon goal and this bill instructs NASA to make Mars its human spaceflight priority. Along the way, NASA should utilize somewhere we have already pioneered – the Moon – to achieve this objective, rather than pursuing missions of questionable benefit, such as the Asteroid Redirect Mission.

Getting to Mars, or anywhere else, is going to be hard. It is going to take decades of research, planning, development, testing, and executing. But tying NASA to political cycles makes long term planning difficult.

  • To allow for continuity and stability, my bill sets a term of 5 years for the NASA administrator, so that their term lasts through elections, if not multiple administrations.
  • Funding stability is critical as well, and my bill gives NASA leadership discretion to allocate funding over longer periods of time, rather than a year by year basis.

With this flexibility comes greater responsibility. My bill institutes oversight measures to keep programs on track and on budget. Regardless of its noble aims, NASA is still responsible to the taxpayers.

NASA has already been forward leaning with the Commercial Resupply and Crew programs. When space exploration is in the national interest, but the risks or costs are too high for commercial enterprise, our civil agencies, like NASA, must lead.  But they must lead with a purpose to retire risk and commercialize programs. NASA has retired a lot of risk in low Earth orbit and the commercial sector is becoming more adept at facilitating operations in this arena.

In low Earth orbit, the International Space Station will not be around forever. So what comes next?

  • My bill directs NASA to lay out a plan for the remainder of the ISS’ useful life, highlighting the important scientific work being done onboard. The Agency must also develop a transition plan for a post-ISS world.
  • As a potential transition strategy, the American Space Renaissance Act establishes a Commercial Habitat Pilot Program. Under this program, NASA develops habitat standards, a private entity would fully fund the development of a habitat that meets those standards, and then NASA would provide the launch, and enter into an agreement to utilize part of the space station.

But we must go beyond increasing the government’s use of commercial solutions in order to truly unleash the innovation of the commercial space industry.


This starts with the office that regulates the industry, FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation, or AST.

One issue that has limited AST’s ability to be as effective as possible is the office’s location within the FAA. While there is debate over whether this is the proper location for AST, what is not debatable is that within the FAA, and within the Department of Transportation, commercial space is not treated as an equitable partner.

  • To remedy this imbalance, my bill establishes the position of Assistant Secretary of Transportation for Commercial Space Transportation, and designates this person as the Associate Administrator of the Office of Commercial Space Transportation. This way, AST, and commercial space issues, have a direct line of communication with the Secretary of Transportation.
  • AST does not currently get the funding it needs, and will only be further tried as commercial space activity expands. Given that my bill grants AST numerous additional responsibilities and requirements it is necessary to greatly increase their funding. By 2021, my bill authorizes $99 million for the office. For comparison, the FAA has a whole has been appropriated an average of $15.8 billion (with a “b”) over the past 5 years.

This is an exciting time for commercial space.  However, a 2013 study by the Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee determined that the debris population in low earth orbit will continue to grow due to collisions even if nothing new is launched.  Catastrophic collisions such as Iridium 33-Cosmos 2251 will occur every five to nine years.  Each such collision will create thousands of pieces of debris and result in more collisions.

Instead of no new launches, however, launches will continue with increasing frequency and constellations of hundreds or even thousands of satellites will be placed in orbit.  In this environment, satellites will require shielding and, correspondingly, heavier launch solutions.  Firms will need replacement satellites, more robust distributed architectures, and higher cost insurance.  In sum, the costs will reduce investment returns, challenge capital formation, and limit our ability to maximize the utility of commercial space.

The absence of appropriate regulation will in fact be regulation by increasing costs and eventually thwarting access.

Currently, the U.S. Department of Defense, through the Joint Space Operations Center (JSpOC), provides space situational awareness and conjunction analyses to foreign governments and the commercial sector as a byproduct of its mission to protect national security assets in space. Given the unique capabilities of the JSpOC, this was the right approach in times past.

However, as more nations and commercial operators have entered the market this service has become an enormous burden. It distracts from the JSpOC’s core defense mission at a time when American adversaries are jamming, spoofing, and dazzling U.S. satellites and launching very sophisticated direct ascent and co-orbital anti-satellite weapons. The JSpOC needs to use its resources to fight and win wars in space. I have heard time and time again from DoD leadership that they do not want to be the “FAA for Space.”

Instead, a civil agency can best fulfill this capacity. I propose that AST could be the appropriate agency.

  • My bill creates a conjunction analysis and warning center with a single integrated space picture that fuses unclassified data from DoD, international, and commercial sensors, as well as data emitted from satellites. This conjunction analysis and warning center should be commercialized and subject to the FAA/AST’s oversight.
  • It also calls for an agency to be designated as the lead U.S. Government agency for Space Traffic Management, complete with authority to take actions to minimize collisions of objects in orbit. This includes compelling movements and requiring some satellites to be equipped with transponders.

Among the increased activities will be big constellations of remote sensing satellites. The ability to image the earth from space has revolutionized life on this planet. Better routes can be found, storms can be seen as they form, and warfighters can know where the enemy is located. The implications of seeing the big picture are enormous and extend to nearly all aspects of the human experience. As the needs for remote sensing have grown over the decades, the responsibilities for providing this service have expanded to the private sector and today we are seeing a boom in this industry. As the industry grows, we face two challenges – ensuring that our national security is never compromised and that capabilities are not hampered by a heavy Department of Commerce work load. The current processes for licensing commercial remote sensing systems can be unclear, put American companies at a competitive disadvantage, and often fail to take into account all national security mitigation practices before denials are issued.

  • My bill pulls back the curtain on the licensing process by increasing transparency, requiring rationales for decisions, syncing up regulations with the current state of industry and technology, and holding the Department to account.

Remote sensing is a relatively traditional space activity. But what about non-traditional ones like habitats, on-orbit servicing, moon missions, or asteroid mining? Currently, the State Department does not believe it has the regulatory ability to say yes to these activities while still ensuring we are in compliance with the Outer Space Treaty. If we continue with the status quo, many new ventures will never see the light of day. We must give State the tools it needs.

  • The American Space Renaissance Act updates the payload review process to provide a mechanism to place conditions on a payload, ensuring authorization and continuing supervision is satisfied.

Given the implications for national security and economic growth, we must incentivize this industry. In order to create jobs in the space sector, encourage start-up and innovative companies, and push technology development, the ASRA establishes a loan guarantee program within the Department of Commerce.

But as I mentioned this earlier, launch truly is the long pole in the tent. It is critical we have the industrial base here that can support the current and coming demand. I am dismayed every time that I hear about a new constellation of American satellites launching on other countries’ rockets. That is business we are losing out on.

In fact, in a recent Aviation Week article, the head of Roscosmos in Russia acknowledged that they are developing space communications architectures and remote sensing constellations funded by the launch of foreign (non-Russian) satellites and Astronauts.  In short, the United States is paying for Russia’s space-based capabilities.

To incentivize launching from the United States, my bill does some pretty bold things that I know will not please everyone in this room. But the fact remains, we need to be able to launch from here and keep up with demand.

  • After December 31, 2022, the DOD and NASA must consider bids from launch providers that use engines built in the United States as 25 percent less than the true cost of the bid.
  • Payload owners will receive a tax credit worth up to 10 percent of the insured value of their payloads if they launch on an American made rocket.

We must never again be in a position where we rely on Russia for access to space.

There is much more in the bill that I simply do not have time to address. I encourage you all to visit space renaissance act dot com for more details, or come talk to me and my staff.

I would like to say thank you to the Space Foundation for letting me address you this morning.  I am also grateful for the input many of you provided throughout the drafting process.  Your feedback was invaluable and I look forward to working together to advance the priorities and policies in the bill.

Space has transformed our way of life from the way we navigate, communicate, produce food and energy, conduct banking, predict weather, conduct disaster relief, and provide security.  The challenges and threats to space are large and growing, but the United States of America is uniquely position to ensure that space is secure and available for responsible actors and future generations.  Again, I firmly believe this is our Sputnik moment.

The American Space Renaissance Act seeks to ensure America remains the preeminent space-faring nation. For our security. For economic growth and opportunity. For the sake of our leadership. For the future of space.

Thank you.

What do you think?