Should space be considered ‘critical infrastructure’?

Read our exclusive one-on-one interview with Space Foundation CEO Tom Zelibor as he prepares to host the largest space industry gathering in history.

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This Week in Outer Space banner

Space touches everything we do — and not just physically. Modern transportation, communications and defense systems all hinge on the ability of governments and private entities to operate safely miles above the Earth’s surface. Thousands of satellites operated by dozens of countries and private entities now share the skies miles above Earth and in the first half of 2022 alone, there were more objects placed in orbit than in the first five decades of the space age combined.

With so many potentially conflicting national interests involved, the growth of the global space ecosystem is exciting but not without risk. That’s where the Space Foundation comes in.

Since 1983, the nonprofit Space Foundation has acted as a go-between for governments, militaries, industry and the academic community from its headquarters in Colorado Springs, Colo. — conveniently located a short distance from the U.S. Space Command and more recently the home of the U.S. Space Force. Starting on Monday, the Foundation will be hosting 13,000 space professionals for its annual Space Symposium for what may be the largest gathering in the history of the space industry.

Yahoo News caught up with Space Foundation CEO Tom Zelibor, a former Navy rear admiral and naval aviator, to discuss his hopes for the year to come in outer space.

(Photo illustration: Jack Forbes/Yahoo News; photos: Space Foundation, NASA)
(Photo illustration: Jack Forbes/Yahoo News; photos: Space Foundation, NASA)

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

First off, what is the Space Foundation and what do you do?

A lot of people misunderstand what our role is. The Space Foundation does not get into specific investments or number of launches or numbers of satellites and all that. It really started out as an opportunity to connect government, military, industry and the education world in a forum where people can discuss these hot topics when it comes to space.

That’s why we do the Space Symposium. The very first one was in 1984. There were 200 people, a few exhibitors, and it was all done in one very small hall. Now it’s massive: 13,000 participants, over 230 exhibitors, and all the senior military and governmental leaders coming in. We're a neutral player and we don't pick winners, but we do get all the policymakers and government people together. That’s one side of the business.

The other side is equally important and it’s more fitting in our nonprofit side. The industry is growing so rapidly that we know that the number one issue facing the global space ecosystem is an educated workforce. The big players, all the major industry players that are in the space economy, they'll win these big contracts, but they don't have the people to necessarily execute on those. So what happens? They may steal from somebody across the street — and then that company across the street gets a big contract and they steal back.

So my message is always to address the root cause and the root cause to me is starting at a much earlier age and getting kids excited about STEM education. We start in kindergarten and we work all the way up through entrepreneurship. You can't just hope to capture somebody when they're in college; you have to start at an early age and that’s what we do.

In your annual State of Space keynote in March, you called on the U.S. government to add space to the list of 16 “critical infrastructure sectors” identified by the Department of Homeland Security. What would that accomplish?

It would force whomever the administration is and Congress to support space from a financial perspective. I think there has to be a much bigger acknowledgment of the criticality that it brings to not just our national security but our economic security.

Space traditionally is a shared area, right? So our adversaries are up there, we're up there and as more players are getting into it, there's offensive capabilities, there can be intelligence capabilities, and those types of activities are putting a lot more pressure on the space realm.

Critical infrastructure sectors recognized by the U.S. government.
Critical infrastructure sectors recognized by the U.S. government. (Illustration/U.S. Department of Homeland Security)

Everybody expects space to be there for them. Everyone has [a cellphone] in their pocket. Well, you know, 90% of that phone is useless if you don't have space technologies attached to it. So I've been relentless in saying that the government and Congress need to have a declaration that space is a critical infrastructure. It may not fit in that nice chart anymore, but the one thing that overarching the majority of that chart is space.

I don’t buy that because space is part of those 16 areas that somebody will be paying attention to it. I feel that it needs singular focus and acknowledgment that it's spread across all of them.

What does the U.S. stand to lose by not treating space as critical infrastructure?

I think we can potentially lose competitive advantage. I'm a red-blooded American at heart and I don't like being second place in anything. The Chinese, the Russians and others are trying to gain dominance in that domain and I think we stand to lose in every single one of those areas of critical infrastructure dependent on space.

The entire global space economy as of our last annual report was $469 billion per year. Based on the growth that we're seeing, this could easily be a trillion-dollar market by the end of the decade. Look at people like Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk and Sir Richard [Branson] — you have billionaires putting billions into it and they know what's going on, they see it.

In 2022, the world launched more orbital spacecraft than in the first 52 years of the space age. If you look at 2023, it's even going to be bigger. That presents huge challenges: Who is going to be the [Federal Aviation Administration] of space? How are we going to deal with all the orbital debris? How are we going to keep lines of communication open and ensure national security when things are miles above all these countries?

That's why I think it's a critical infrastructure and I just don't understand why it's not being acknowledged that way. It's being acknowledged that there are threats to it, but if you make it a critical infrastructure, it forces the government to really pay attention to how financial investment goes into it.

You mentioned investment. The combined proposed budgets for NASA and Space Force for 2024 are over $60 billion. What do you say to people who might say, “Well, we've got a lot of problems on Earth, let's worry about those”?

I immediately had a flashback when you asked that question. Two years ago I was asked to give a speech In front of all these senior directors or CEOs of over 100 nonprofits in the United States. They didn't necessarily have anything to do with space — matter of fact, most of them didn't. I was talking about all the investment going into space, and space research and space technologies and all that. And this one guy in the front was just squirming the entire time I was talking. I knew he was bothered and so, as soon as I finished my talk, I immediately called on him and said, “Sir, you know, it's clear that what I'm saying is really bothering you. You know, let's have a conversation about it. What is it that you don't like?”

And he immediately launched into, “How can we justify spending billions and billions of dollars on space exploration and space technology when we have millions of starving children here on Earth?”

So, I immediately knew what his nonprofit did for a living, but it was also a great setup. The awareness side of space that people don't get is that the majority of the technologies that we have to develop for being in austere environments in space absolutely benefit us on Earth. And so my response to him was, “Do you think when we go back to the moon and we want to sustain life there, that we might need things like how you create water, how you grow food, in very harsh and austere environments?”

And I said, “If we do that, do you think that might benefit starving children in Africa, for example?”

We had a mature adult conversation about it and you could just see him just kind of sitting back going, “I never thought about it that way.” But the message for me was we have to do a better job on the space awareness side because people will see dollar signs but they won't equate it to what it does for us on Earth and in the world.

What excites you most about our future in space?

Going back to the moon. If we go there and actually try to stay and sustain life on the moon, that's great, but I don't want us to get stuck there. The next one is getting to Mars. And there are going to be so many technologies and things that come out of those two efforts that I think will definitely benefit us here. We have a real opportunity with those and I just wish that there would be an acknowledgment that without space, our life gets very, very difficult. And I think the best way to acknowledge that is through making sure that space is a stand-alone critical infrastructure that the government pays attention to.