The new federal Space Force received just $40 million in the $738 billion defense budget that Congress recently approved.
That amount is as comical as the name Space Force, which sounds like something from a low-budget sci-fi movie.
But that belies serious effort and spending the federal government is now devoting to space activities. Snickering aside, this should renew Washington state efforts to be sure its universities, workers and growing cluster of space companies play substantial roles in these national investments.
While creating a new military branch for space is a concept in progress, the Pentagon plans to spend more than $65 billion between 2019 and 2023 to acquire space systems for national security, commerce and homeland security. Included are upgrades and defense of satellites used for communications and global positioning.
That coincides with a surge of commercial space efforts and a renewed federal push for human spaceflight. President Donald Trump spurred the latter with a 2017 directive to return humans to the moon for long-term exploration, followed by missions to Mars and other destinations. Then in March he accelerated the “Artemis” Moon program, moving the lunar-landing deadline up from 2028 to 2024, though such programs are notorious for delays.
In addition to the military-space spending, Congress budgeted $22.6 billion for NASA in 2020, up $1.1 billion from 2019. Some of that is coming to Washington.
“This will translate into more activity for us,” said Kristi Morgansen, chair of the University of Washington’s Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics. She also codirects a new space policy and research center that held its debut symposium in December.
Boeing no longer has a space program based in its hometown, but other space companies in the Puget Sound region employ more than 6,000 people. They include Blue Origin, Jeff Bezos’ Kent-based space venture that’s a NASA partner on the Artemis program. Blue Origin is also seeking to participate in upcoming military space launches, which received $1.2 billion in funding for 2020.
Propulsion components for Artemis will be built and managed by Aerojet Rocketdyne’s Redmond operation, which has more than 400 employees. It’s a pillar of an Eastside space cluster that also includes satellite development teams of SpaceX and now Amazon.com.
Morgansen’s department at UW was formed a century ago with support from Boeing. It’s also a major recipient of military spending; she estimates 80 to 85% of its faculty and researchers receive defense funding.
Yet the department remains relatively small. It graduates about 72 bachelor’s students per year, but there’s demand for at least 120 spots a year. There’s also potential for more collaboration with industry and successful entrepreneurs, similar to how the UW computer-science program fostered and benefited from the software industry’s phenomenal growth.
The state Department of Commerce office supporting aerospace is exploring ways to increase support of existing and new space companies. That could include research incentives and new education programs, as suggested by a 2018 Puget Sound Regional Council study outlining opportunities in the growing space economy.
As the nation increases space investment, legislators and Gov. Jay Inslee should nurture and grow space research, development and manufacturing in Washington, building on its historical leadership in aerospace and software.