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Space Watch

The View from Here

Our Space Situational Awareness is Worse than we Think

The View from Here When the leaders of U.S. Strategic Command, our allies, and the space and defense industrial base gather in Omaha next month for the Strategic Space and Defense conference, Space Situational Awareness (SSA) will loom large on the agenda.  However, some recent events convince me that our SSA is worse than we think and the implications extend far beyond the national security space community.

We need a broader, integrated view of SSA that addresses more than just our immediate national security and homeland defense concerns. We need to redefine SSA as a top-level issue that includes ensuring our industry understands who we are as an industry and what we can contribute to our nation and the world, how we can leverage our capabilities and engage in larger global issues, and where and how to tap into our emerging capabilities. It also requires a public appreciation of the vital role that space plays in virtually every aspect of life today and for the future.

The development of such an integrated view is very important.  As engineering enterprises, many space companies are justifiably proud of their ability to integrate complex systems.  But, as an industry, we don't always do a good job of sharing knowledge across domains.  We tend to compartmentalize by customer, project, program, or security classification.  It gets even worse when we begin to discuss engaging the public.  The corporate or agency philosophies, commitment to communication, and allocation of resources for improving public SSA are all over the map.

I believe that one of the strengths of the Space Foundation is that we are a broad-based organization that looks across the entire $251 billion space industry.  We are able to integrate our activities, policies, and outreach programs with a view toward addressing all sectors of the industry.  We do not confine our scope to niche interests, programs that only address vertical stovepipes such as geospatial intelligence, personal spaceflight, planetary science, homeland security, exploration, or technical issues.  On the other hand, this broad view makes it challenging for us to continuously command a knowledge base and view - a space situational awareness - that penetrates all sectors of our industry.  Several years ago we established our Research & Analysis, enterprise which has gone a long way toward improving our own SSA.

But ours is a big industry, making big contributions and poised to do much more.  It is a daunting challenge for any of us to keep track of it all - much less to integrate it into an all encompassing SSA philosophy.

One of the challenges of integrating this information struck me recently in a social networking dialogue with a couple members of my Internet community.  One member, a car salesman, was opining the need to invest in alternative energy technologies instead of, or at least in preference to, investing in space exploration and development.  My knee jerk response was to ask him if he had any idea where fuel cells or photovoltaic solar power technology came from in the first place.  But before I could enlighten him to all the energy technology that traces its roots to the space program, another friend, a gardener from Germany, jumped in with a passionate discourse on the value and importance of exploration throughout human history and I missed my chance. The contribution of space exploration, research, and development to two of the largest industries on the planet - energy and transportation - quickly fell into the precipice of public ignorance, a gargantuan chasm in public SSA.

Discussions at Chatham House, London, this past July brought together space industry experts, insurance industry experts, scientists and policy specialists to discuss the importance of space capabilities to monitoring, interpreting and perhaps affecting global climate change.  One noticeable voice was that of the insurance industry, which relies heavily on space data for rating risk for climate-related catastrophes.  In the space industry, we tend to think of our customers as the NASAs and NOAAs of the world. We don't, as an industry, tend to think of the end-users - from insurance underwriters to the local television meteorologist - who rely on the output of our platforms, sensors, and value-added analytical tools to inform the public, policy makers, and emergency responders.  In the dialogue that swirls about climate change, the space industry is seldom mentioned, despite the fact that we provide the critical infrastructure.  Climate change should be our issue, and isn't because few people outside our industry have sufficient SSA to understand the role we play and the capabilities we offer.

But if the public doesn't understand what space brings to the fight, be it climate change, alternate energy, or national security, one can hardly blame them.  It often seems that we don't even understand ourselves very well.

Of course, our immediate concern at Strategic Space and Defense 2008 is going to focus on the classic, national security definition of SSA.  While we work together to arrive at agreement on how much awareness is necessary and how to best achieve it, we must consider how we communicate these requirements outside the space community.  Congressman "Dutch" Ruppersberger, D-MD, highlighted this challenge when he spoke of national security space in his remarks at the industry "Space Jam 2008" reception at the Democratic National Convention in Denver. Ruppersberger is keenly aware of the technical challenges some of these programs face, keenly aware of the greatly enhanced national security capabilities they will give us, and keenly aware of how little he can say in public about them.  SSA that helps Americans understand the value proposition for these systems can clearly help to overcome public-opinion and federal funding hurdles, but it is hard to develop a well informed public SSA for systems that you can't talk about.

The View From Here is that SSA is much more than just understanding what is in orbit and who has what kind of space capabilities. True SSA is an integrated system-of-systems for ensuring that everyone in our society, from our citizenry through our industry and among our highest ranking policy makers, is aware of the value our space enterprise brings to life on Earth and the importance of optimizing and investing in the space enterprise.

Elliot Holokauahi Pulham
Chief Executive Officer

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