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National Security Space Situational Awareness Can Gain Public Support

By | September 8, 2008

      While the need for military space situational awareness (SSA) is great and growing, public support for SSA could be increased greatly if only the public understood how much civilian programs and organizations depend on space systems, the head of the Space Foundation argued.

      Elliot G. Pulham, the foundation president and chief executive officer, surveyed the sweeping effects that space programs have on everyday business life. He will lay out his argument at a Strategic Space and Defense conference next month in Omaha.

      His comments come as many military analysts note that China and some other nations may be poised to wage space wars, damaging or destroying U.S. and allied space capabilities, both military and civilian. A rising threat clearly creates a requirement for ever more SSA.

      He said space situational awareness "is worse than we think and the implications extend far beyond the national security space community," into the civilian realm.

      "We need a broader, integrated view of SSA that addresses more than just our immediate national security and homeland defense concerns," Pulham said. "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."

      One key step would be for an industry of disparate and perhaps competing firms and interests, and program areas, to begin sharing data more openly, he said.

      "We don’t always do a good job of sharing knowledge across domains," Pulham asserted. "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."

      The Space Foundation would like to help resolve that problem, he said.

      "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," he observed. "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."

      This isn’t always a simple matter, however. "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," he noted.

      He recalled a recent conversation with a car salesman who said money spent on space exploration and development should be spent instead on developing alternative energy, apparently not realizing that many alternative energy technologies grew out of the space program.

      Industry contractors tend to focus on space customers such as NASA and NOAA, while ignoring those who use space data obtained by those agencies such as detailed data on natural disasters, data used by insurance companies, TV weather forecasters and many more.

      "In the dialogue that swirls about climate change, the space industry is seldom mentioned, despite the fact that we provide the critical infrastructure," Pulham noted. "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."

      A final hurdle is that explaining space situational awareness to the public may be hamstrung before it starts because much SSA information is classified and can’t be discussed publicly, Pulham noted.

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