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Former VCJCS James Cartwright: U.S. Risks Obsolesce in Future Space Programs Without More Adaptation

Retired Marine Gen. James "Hoss" Cartwright speaking at CSIS on Monday. CSIS Screengrab

Retired Marine Gen. James “Hoss” Cartwright speaking at CSIS on Monday. CSIS Screengrab

The U.S. needs to rethink how it develops its future space assets from less purpose built platforms to more adaptive and agile learning machines, retired Marine Corps Gen. James Cartwright said on Monday.

Speaking at a forum on the future of civilian and military space efforts, the former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff told the audience at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., that the question is coming down to “do you go hard now or wait to invest” in deciding how to proceed on the governmental side and the commercial side of space.

For the military, Cartwright said it would be looking at such questions as the value of “swarm” or smaller assets and more in orbit that can be re-populated quickly if damaged or destroyed that can meet new threats in a post-maneuver warfare era.

In this period of transition, the United States does not want to be buying an inventory of “controlled obsolescence,” as Kodak was in the age when digital images were replacing film.

We know how to build higher walls around smaller” segments of technology that the United States considers important, but that does not reduce vulnerability, because change is happening so quickly across wide areas of potential operations, Sean O’Keefe, former NASA administrator, said.

The comments come days after a Pentagon report stating China is developing weapons to jam or destroy the West’s traditional edge in satellite communications and surveillance in the event of an armed conflict.

Cartwright said changes in space technology and usage “can’t just be [done] in NASA and not just in the Air Force.” Later in answer to a question, he added that he expected the commercial side, rather than the government, to make those investments over the coming few years because they see the potential for profit in ventures such as space mining, as Volvo is doing remotely in Latin America.

More private investment will occur after getting “the risks down to something that is manageable,” he said.

O’Keefe said there have been “continuous incremental improvements in chemical propulsion” that have lowered costs and heightened performance for space operations. He said the world was entering “a second machine-age” of explosive growth in computing capacity and accessibility.

This is occurring when the United States has “no reliable capacity”—other than from Russia—to put humans in space, O’Keefe said.

O’Keefe noted that military and civilian side of government are coming together again in ways that were similar to the early days of NASA. Cartwright mentioned reusable launch vehicles, reusable components, communications and remote sensing as areas in which this is occurring. He added that China’s anti-satellite testing has created a “re-awakening” of U.S. interest in looking at defending a range of space assets.

“Space is not so far away” from threats such as directed energy or cyber of those assets.

O’Keefe said that the United States and China were in a similar positions as America was with the Soviet Union and Russia years ago when it comes to space. “Relations have improved,” but there is great wariness over industrial espionage.

The idea is to find a common ground to build a stronger relationship. Cartwright suggested that could be over “space awareness”—what’s where, what’s happening, and so on.

As for new human explorations of space, O’Keefe said that even a short round-trip mission to Mars would take at least a year to complete. He compared such a mission as commuting from downtown Washington to nearby Arlington County when it comes to space travel. “How do develop a capacity to explore anywhere?” he asked. He added that the long-term effects of space travel on humans are largely unknown.

“We’re basically at the start” of looking at what questions need to be asked.

He added, “This is hard stuff. It’s not easy to do.”