The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why Congress’s newest space advocate says the U.S. faces a ‘Sputnik moment’

A computer-generated image of objects in Earth orbit that are being tracked. About 95 percent of the objects in this illustration are orbital debris, i.e., not functional satellites. The dots are scaled to optimize their visibility and are not scaled to Earth. (NASA)
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COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — For a politician, there’s not a lot to gain in space. Voters tend care more about taxes, health care and immigration than issues as abstract as who’s monitoring the debris in space.

But Rep. Jim Bridenstine thinks a lot about space debris — and space in general: how all that traffic up there should be managed, how wars would be fought in space, how we might get to Mars.

He’s not some far out, cosmic hippy type with a collection of funky space ties, even if he was the executive director of the Tulsa Air and Space Museum and Planetarium before he was elected to Congress. Rather, he’s a staunch, dark-suited Republican from Oklahoma who still keeps his hair high and tight in accordance with Navy regulations. And though he’s a rookie in the Capitol, with only about three years of experience as a congressman, he’s ambitious and looking to make a mark as a member of the House Armed Services and Space, Science and Technology committees.

At a speech here Tuesday at the annual Space Symposium, he unveiled what he called the American Space Renaissance Act, a sprawling piece of legislation that touches on virtually every aspect in space, including national security, NASA and the growing commercial space sector.

Speaking to an audience filled with members of the military, civil space agencies and the commercial space industry, he praised how “American entrepreneurs revolutionized access and operations in space.” But he warned that "these breakthroughs 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 space entirely for future generations.”

The legislation is so broad that even its sponsor concedes it has little chance of passing all at once. Still, Bridenstine said it is a chance to shine a spotlight on space, an issue that's not getting enough attention. He's even developed a website to explain it.

“Most Americans and members of Congress are not tuned into how important space is to our everyday lives,” he said in an interview before the speech. “Our very way of life depends on space. The way we communicate. The way we navigate. The way we produce food and energy. The way we conduct banking.”

Bridenstine, a Navy fighter pilot who still serves in the National Guard, said that space “could be our Achilles’ heel.” Concerns that China and Russia could become potential adversaries in space makes this “our Sputnik moment,” he said, referring to the Soviet satellite that orbited Earth during the Cold War.

The Pentagon and intelligence agencies have been increasingly concerned that space is quickly becoming a contested environment with the potential to become a new battleground. National security officials are concerned especially that the satellites the United States relies on for communication, reconnaissance and navigation for weapons could be vulnerable.

In 2007, China launched a missile that blew up one of its satellites, a show of force that surprised U.S. officials. Russia has a satellite in orbit that U.S. officials are concerned could interfere with sensitive space assets.

Indeed, at a later speech, Air Force Gen. John Hyten, the commander of the Space Command, said the command was shifting to be able to treat space as a contested domain. "It's not all about the airplane," he said.

Part of Bridenstine’s bill would help the Pentagon transition from a few large and very expensive U.S. government satellites to creating a distributed system of smaller, less-expensive ones. That way, if one satellite is compromised, there are still others in the fleet that could take over. He also said the Pentagon should focus on buying services — such as weather data and Earth observation information — from commercial providers instead of owning and operating all the systems itself.

Bridenstine said NASA has become a “jack of all trades” that should revert back to focusing almost exclusively on human exploration and pioneering the cosmos. That was its main mission in 1958, when the agency was created, and it propelled the agency through the Apollo era, when it sent a man to the moon within a decade, he said.

But since then, NASA has “been torn in so many different directions — by Congress, by presidents. Now, NASA is an agency that does everything from creating new technology for automobile fuel efficiency, to even medicine. … What we want to do is refocus NASA on what it is originally intended to do, which is pioneer space.”

The thousands of pieces of space debris swirling around in orbit are also a real concern, he said. A small piece of debris, such as a bolt, traveling at 17,500 mph in space could cause catastrophic damage — as dramatized in the movie “Gravity.” More collisions in space, which is growing more congested, would only touch off more debris and therefore more collisions. The Air Force is developing a “space fence” that would help it track even smaller pieces of debris. Under the act, a single government agency would lead "space traffic management,” and have the “authority to take actions to minimize collisions of objects in orbit.”

“I am a conservative Republican, and I am not an advocate of more regulation,” he said. “In this particular case, if we don’t regulate, we are in essence regulating ourselves out of having access to space.”

Stu Witt, a consultant, and former director of Mojave Air & Spaceport, a center for several commercial space companies, called the proposals bold and forward leaning.

"The Space Renaissance Act's introduction is a great step to keeping the conversation on commercial space going, but hardly the last step," Witt said in an email.  "Law and regulation won’t ever be able to keep pace with technology, but should work to encourage its progress."