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The first Vulcan Centaur launched in January, one sign of the strength of the US space program even as it has weaknesses elsewhere. (credit: ULA)

Taking stock of the US space program

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In 2023, a paradigmatic shift occurred regarding government space programs that was perhaps missed by the global space community. Euroconsult’s 2023 Government Space Program report highlighted that shift: defense-related space expenditures ($59 billion) exceeded civil space budgets ($58 billion) in 2023 for the first time. According to Euroconsult, this change reflects leading space nations intensifying their defense-related space investments informed by global space competition and national security aspects of space. I have written about how both China and India are developing their defense-related space capabilities and making long-term plans for space resource utilization.

There was a recognition in the State Department document that space systems contribute to US critical infrastructure and that the growth of the commercial space sector and multiple nations investing in space renders space a vital component of US diplomatic efforts.

Given this shift, this is a good time to take stock of where the US is headed in its space program. In 2023, the US space program led the world with a budget of $73 billion, followed by China with $14 billion, Japan ($4 billion), France ($3 billion), Russia ($3 billion), and India ($1.66 billion). The US space program is one of the longest-established and has developed some important new attributes in the post-Cold War period. This article highlights and explains some of those developments. The article also identifies some missed opportunities for the US space program and some delays in important space missions.

Policy and strategy

One of the most notable recent policies was the US State Department’s Strategic Framework for Space Diplomacy, the first such document issued by the State Department, in May 2023. The framework asserted US leadership in space and its intention to build partnerships with like-minded countries and allies. There was a recognition in the document that space systems contribute to US critical infrastructure and that the growth of the commercial space sector and multiple nations investing in space renders space a vital component of US diplomatic efforts. In the document, China and Russia were deemed national security concerns with their development of counterspace capabilities and efforts to undermine US and allied security in space.

The Strategic Framework is built on the 2020 National Space Policy issued by the Trump Administration and the 2021 Space Priorities Framework issued by the Biden Administration. This was supported by the December 2023 White House guidance on Strengthening US-International Space Partnerships, including direction for the US Space Force (USSF) to strengthen its global partnerships. An example of such a USSF effort is the US Space Command’s Global Sentinel Marquee exercise held in February 2024, which focused on security cooperation and collaboration with partner nations in the domain of space. India and Mexico attended the last two days of the exercise as observers.

In March 2023, the White House issued the National Low Earth Orbit (LEO) Research and Development Strategy, emphasizing the importance of building an LEO National Laboratory to promote data sharing and sustainable development of LEO, support the development of “commercial LEO constellations” specifically to answer scientific questions like the long-term radiation exposure on both humans and microelectronics as well as issues related to microgravity, vacuum exposure and space weather. The LEO strategy was the first US government document to suggest that “understanding the effects of solar and galactic radiation on both humans and microelectronics is necessary to achieve the goal of enabling human transportation and settlement within the solar system.” The LEO strategy also confirmed the US decision taken on December 31, 2021, to extend the International Space Station (ISS) to 2030. Of critical note is the fact that the US is pushing to transition from the ISS to US LEO commercial platforms, supported by US commercial launch systems.

Earlier in November 2022, the White House released the first National Cislunar Science and Technology Strategy that recognized the Earth-Moon system beyond geosynchronous orbit as important for US space strategy. This in effect, as per NASA estimates, will see human activity, that will far exceed historic activity in this region. The Cislunar Strategy document stated that the “U.S. government organizations will leverage collaborations with private entities to enable capabilities for large-scale ISRU and advanced manufacturing at the Moon, consistent with the U.S. National Strategy for In-space Servicing, Assembly, and Manufacturing.”

In December 2022, the White House released the National In-Space Servicing, Assembly, and Manufacturing (Implementation) plan, specifically viewing these activities as areas of interest and growth for the US commercial space sector. In this regard, since regulation will be a key issue, the White House released in December 2023, the United States Novel Space Activities Authorization and Supervision Framework, in which, the Department of Commerce and Transportation would be given further authority to regulate space activities in keeping with US Outer Space Treaty (OST) obligations. The Office of Space Commerce within the Department of Commerce also sought an increased budget. However, the Department of Commerce website carries a rather critical appraisal regarding the current state of government regulation of space commerce,

The scientific discoveries resulting from space exploration have created new industries and technologies that improve our lives, our economy, and our national security. Technological advancement of commercial space activities has created profitable opportunities. However, current government regulations are an impediment to the commercial space sector. We will advocate for the industry to ensure the United States remains the leader in space commerce.

The US Department of Defense (DoD) also issued policy and strategy documents. In August 2022, the DoD released its Directive 3100.10 titled “Space Policy”. The purpose of that document was to establish “policy and assigns responsibilities for DoD space-related activities in accordance with the National Space Policy, the U.S. Space Priorities Framework, the National Defense Strategy, the Defense Space Strategy, and U.S. law, including Titles 10, 50, and 51, United States Code (U.S.C.).” The DoD stated that it recognized space as a priority domain of national military power, and its contribution to joint military operations.

However, according to open source articles, the 133 US commercial space companies that provide services to the DoD do not have automatic protection provided by SPACECOM and would require the Secretary of Defense and the President to approve SPACECOM’s protection of commercial space satellites.

In March 2023, General B. Chance Saltzman, Chief of Space Operations of the Space Force, revealed his “theory of success”, termed competitive endurance, that works around three lines of effort: fielding combat-ready forces (first mover advantage), building the Space Guardian spirit, and partnering to win. Given the unique nature of the space domain and the issue of space debris, as per Saltzman, a strategy based on operational overwhelming force might not work in the space domain.

In August 2023, the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA), and the US Space Command (SPACECOM) signed an agreement titled Commercial Space Protection Tri-Seal Strategic Framework, the first of its kind, “to enable the protection of commercial remote sensing space assets vital to the nation’s intelligence collection mission.” The rationale behind this agreement is that DoD and US intelligence rely heavily on commercial satellites for their resilience, especially because of the unclassified nature of commercial satellite imagery that can be easily shared with allies and partners. The Russia-Ukraine conflict vindicated this aspect. Adversaries might attempt to deter or damage those commercial capabilities. Consequently, government-contracted commercial imagery companies must inform the three agencies (NRO, NGA, and SPACECOM) of any threats they perceive. However, according to open source articles, the 133 US commercial space companies that provide services to the DoD do not have automatic protection provided by SPACECOM and would require the Secretary of Defense and the President to approve SPACECOM’s protection of commercial space satellites.

In response to China and Russia’s counter-space capabilities, the Space Force has also issued a Proliferated LEO (pLEO) Strategy and awarded contracts to 16 US space companies to develop such pLEO capabilities. According to the Space Systems Command (SSC), this multiple-contract model was the first-of-its-kind government satellite communications procurement model. As Clare Hopper, Chief of SSC’s Commercial Satellite Communications Office, put it, “this is a transformational strategy that will allow government and industry to partner more quickly and more broadly to take advantage of the rapid innovation that’s happening in the Commercial SATCOM sector.” The idea of proliferating such services in LEO is part of the DoD’s strategy of building resilience to the Proliferated Warfighter Space Architecture (PWSA) in LEO with thousands of satellites, something that would prove difficult for adversaries to take down.

In August 2023, the Department of the Air Force submitted a Report to Congressional Committees on the Space Force’s Comprehensive Strategy, including its capability to maintain and assert US ability to utilize space without interference from adversary nations’ counterspace capabilities. The strategy identified that the Space Force must ensure freedom of access and operation in space. In September 2023, the Space Force issued a new mission statement: “secure our Nation’s interests in, from, and to space.” While to secure meant that the Space Force was formed to contest and control the space domain, the nation’s interest meant protecting the security and prosperity that the US derives from space as well as securing US space assets from counter space threats. In September 2023, in response to “Fiscal Year 2022 NDAA [National Defense Authorization Act] requirement for a Space Policy Review and the Fiscal Year 2023 NDAA requirement to make publicly available an unclassified strategy for the protection and defense of on-orbit assets”, the DoD released its Space Policy Review and Strategy on Protection of Satellites. The DoD noted the importance of securing critical space-based missions, building resilient structures, and defending US government space systems against counter-space threats. The question of defending US commercial space assets is still an open debate.


The Space Force released an updated Space Force Doctrine 2.0 focused on Intelligence in July 2023. The doctrine reiterated the importance of space power to the US, how military space power would be employed, and developing multi-domain operational capabilities for the Space Force. This second doctrine (the first such USSF space doctrine was issued June 2020) focused on intelligence gathering and integration from space-based assets and the USSF’s role in it. Key areas discussed were Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR), as well as the process of how intelligence is collected. To me, what stood out was the definition of military space power as “the ability to accomplish strategic and military objectives through the control and exploitation of the space domain.” The focus of the Space Force is on joint campaigns and operations as identified in Joint Publications 3.0, Joint Campaigns and Operations.

In August 2023, a doctrine update titled “Joint Publication 3-14: Joint Space Operations” specified how SPACECOM and other combatant commands should utilize space for both offensive and defensive operations. The updated Joint Publication 3-14 introduces the term “astrographic”, which describes SPACECOM’s Area of Responsibility starting at 100 kilometers above mean sea level, to exgeosynchronous orbit, beyond 36, 000 kilometers, to “include cislunar space, lunar orbit and Earth-Moon Lagrange points”.

Space capacity

Civilian launch

US launch systems are dominated by SpaceX with its Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets, while other companies like Blue Origin, Rocket Lab, Relativity Space, and United Launch Alliance are building these capacities as well.

In April and November 2023, SpaceX conducted two Starship tests, both of which did not result in complete success. Starship is viewed as a game changer, similar to China’s Long March 9, on which capacity I have written here. If successful, Starship will have the capacity to launch 150 metric tonnes fully reusable, and 250 metric tonnes expendable, to LEO.

Another US company, Rocket Lab, launched 10 rockets to space in 2023 and opened its first US launch site in Virginia. United Launch Alliance launched its Delta IV and Atlas V rockets in 2023 and successfully launched its Vulcan rocket in January 2024. Relativity Space launched the Terran 1 in March 2023, however. it did not succeed in reaching orbit. The company has now shelved the Terran 1 for Terran R, a bigger and more powerful rocket (capable of taking 27 tons to LEO) with an expendable upper stage, atop an expendable or reusable first stage.

Military launch

In January 2022, the US Air Force awarded a $102 million contract to SpaceX to develop a point-to-point space transportation system (rocket cargo program), to be led by the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL), to examine how commercial rockets like Starship could contribute to the DoD logistics, termed by the AFRL as “Rocket Cargo for Agile Global Logistics”. The idea behind a rocket cargo system is to utilize rockets to transfer tens of tons of cargo to respond to disaster relief and support military operations, halfway across the world, within a 60- to 90-minute transfer time. Other space companies participating in the rocket cargo program include Raytheon and Rocket Lab. The China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology (CALT) has also released a concept video for point-to-point transportation which features both a Starship-like concept and an airbreathing hypersonic spaceplane.

Thanks to SpaceX, the US is ahead regarding reusable launches and commercial satellite capabilities.

In December 2023, the Space Force, in partnership with SpaceX, launched its space plane, the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle, its seventh such flight, but for the first time, launched on a Falcon Heavy rocket. The X-37B is a reusable uncrewed spaceplane, that the Space Force says will perform experiments on Space Domain Awareness (SDA) and the radiation effects to NASA materials.

In September 2023, the Space Force made history when it launched a satellite, called Victus Nox, within 27 hours of receiving orders. Two US commercial companies involved in this project are Millennium Space Systems, which built the satellite, and Firefly Aerospace, which launched it. This is part of the Space Force’s tactical responsive space concept in case a satellite is lost during a conflict and requires fast replacement. In 2025, the Space Force aims to demonstrate an even faster response time with Victor Haze.

Satellite communications, civil and military

Thanks to SpaceX, the US is ahead regarding reusable launches and commercial satellite capabilities. With its Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets, SpaceX dominates the U.S. commercial launch market. SpaceX also has the largest constellation of satellites, Starlink, with more than 5,000 satellites. In December 2022, SpaceX revealed Starshield, a satellite constellation specifically meant for US government use. Starshield, according to SpaceX, will leverage Starlink capabilities for national security purposes which include “Earth observation, communication, and hosted payloads.” Starlink already offers unparalleled end-to-end user data encryption. Starshield uses additional high assurance cryptographic capability to host classified payloads and process data securely, meeting the most demanding government requirements.

Civil lunar and cislunar

After a 50-year gap from its last lunar landing in 1972, a US company, Intuitive Machines, launched its lunar lander, Odysseus, on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket on February 15, and touched down in the south polar region of the Moon on February 22. This landing was the first commercial lunar landing under NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program, which is aimed at encouraging the development of private lunar landers. Earlier attempts at a commercial lunar landing by Israel’s SpaceIL, Japan’s ispace, and US company Astrobotic (also under a CLPS contract) resulted in failures. While the signal from Intuitive Machines’ lander Nova-C Odysseus lander was weak, and the lander appears to have tipped on its side during the lunar landing, what is new is that it is a private company that made it to the lunar surface. During the Cold War, such US lunar capabilities were state capabilities developed by NASA; today it is being done by a startup, facilitated by a US public-private partnership to develop national space capabilities. With Intuitive Machines’ lunar landing, there is some level of lunar landing capacity for the US despite the mission’s difficulties. The US will need more such missions to get to a high level of competency and efficiency regarding its lunar missions.

In other capabilities, NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) successfully launched in November 2022 as part of the Artemis 1 mission. Developing a fleet of diversified launch platforms bodes well for the US, keeping in mind the significant delays and overruns to the SLS. A report by the NASA Office of Inspector General, Office of Audits (November 2021), warned that:

When aggregating all relevant costs across mission directorates, NASA is projected to spend $93 billion on the Artemis effort up to FY 2025. We also project the current production and operations cost of a single SLS/Orion system at $4.1 billion per launch for Artemis I through IV, although the Agency’s ongoing initiatives aimed at increasing affordability seek to reduce that cost. Multiple factors contribute to the high cost of ESD [Exploration Systems Development] programs, including the use of sole-source, cost-plus contracts; the inability to definitize key contract terms in a timely manner; and the fact that except for the Orion capsule, its subsystems, and the supporting launch facilities, all components are expendable and “single use” unlike emerging commercial space flight systems. Without capturing, accurately reporting, and reducing the cost of future SLS/Orion missions, the Agency will face significant challenges to sustaining its Artemis program in its current configuration.

All this means that the US lunar program, including its CLPS program, has been plagued by delays, with further delays now announced for the Artemis program. The US Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued its report on NASA’s Artemis program in January 2024 in which it found that NASA lacked transparency regarding cost estimates and that Artemis deadlines would not be met. In an earlier report issued by GAO in 2021, NASA was found to have limited control over Artemis supply chain mechanisms and faced management and technical risks.

Military cislunar

While the Space Force did not issue any public statement on their efforts to develop cislunar capacities, the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) released documents on the issue in 2022, as well as the National Air and Space Intel Center (NASIC) in 2023, all discussing the potential of cislunar competition and threats. This was a new development compared to earlier years where cislunar discussions were more or less ignored by the US intelligence community. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) issued a seven-month study in 2023 into a 10-year Lunar Architecture (LunA-10) capability that “aims to rapidly develop foundational technology concepts that move away from individual scientific efforts within isolated, self-sufficient systems, toward a series of shareable, scalable systems that interoperate — minimizing lunar footprint and creating monetizable services for future lunar users.”

International partnerships

In the article on US space policy for The Space Review in January 2023, I highlighted that US international partnerships do need to reflect the language and needs of allies and partner nations. Some changes have been reflected in that regard with the US moving to collaborate with India on its human spaceflight program, planetary defense, and space situational awareness, as well as getting about ten new nations to sign the Artemis Accords in 2023, bringing the total to 36 nations to date. India signing the Artemis Accords in June 2023 was a big win for both the US and India’s strategic space diplomacy.

I am starting to think perhaps the US requires an overarching institutional entity for space—a Department of Space—that brings together its disparate space agencies, something stronger than the National Space Council.

The US has also achieved signatories from Africa (Rwanda, Nigeria, Angola) but lost South Africa to China’s International Lunar Research Station. Regarding norms and guiding principles to deter space threats, there is no consensus, and the US leadership has failed to anticipate how this particular issue has played out at the UN. Russia vetoed the Open-Ended Working Group on Reducing Space Threats Through Norms, Rules and Principles of Responsible Behavior from submitting even a formal report to the United Nations General Assembly. The recent reports on Russia developing an ASAT capability, with the ability to detonate a nuclear device, in space have raised the stakes for the US to assert leadership in reigning in destructive behavior that can destroy all military and communication satellites. Getting the support of a major space nation like India, which abstained from the US ASAT moratorium, would go a long way to building global consensus on space norms. This is where the US must adapt to the changing realities of the 21st century where space is not just about prestige, a lens which most Western analysts utilize to explain away the space ambitions of China and India, but it is about both economic and military power projection.

Evaluating the written word

One can read into these documents on policy, strategy, and doctrine aimed at a strategic push for US space leadership, and yet come away with the impression that nothing is really clear in terms of US national strategy regarding space. What is the US aiming for here? Where are its clearly stated timelines for space accomplishments; what is its space vision? While the Biden Administration has made concerted efforts to issue several policy documents, the absence of a clear space policy structure (who is in charge) renders the US space program ineffective in its strategic messaging, both to a domestic American audience and globally.

Russia’s national security push for space, including an alleged development of a space-based nuclear weapon capable of an electromagnetic pulse, and China’s 2049 ambitions for space, implies that leadership in the space domain is up for grabs. India also issued a 2047 Space Vision in 2023. This absence of strategic clarity renders the US position weak. I am starting to think perhaps the US requires an overarching institutional entity for space—a Department of Space—that brings together its disparate space agencies, something stronger than the National Space Council. Informed serious debate should be generated in this regard, of whether that is a good idea. Such a policy-relevant debate should not repeat the public relations catastrophe and the lack of seriousness that preceded the establishment of the Space Force, something the service continues to fight, as it establishes itself as a military service of repute, having to waste precious time in demonstrating its usefulness, time and again.

Missed opportunities and delays

Among the missed opportunities for the US was the absence of any policy plan for building space-based solar power (besides a January 2024 NASA feasibility study), clear long-term plans for space mining, or plans for scaling up nuclear power generation for a permanent lunar base. US space nuclear ambitions are limited, and policy itself appears to be limiting the scale and breadth of US nuclear power and propulsion capacities. For instance, according to Space Policy Directive 6, issued by the Trump Administration in December 2020, the US should “demonstrate a fission power system on the surface of the Moon that is scalable to a power range of 40 kWe to support sustained Lunar presence and exploration of Mars”.

US competitors like China are moving ahead of the US when it comes to long-term space planning, a clear grand strategy, and the economic purpose behind its space program. Countries like Japan and India are starting to issue clear roadmaps for their space program.

Compared to the plans of its competitors, the US space nuclear power plans seem undersized. China plans to utilize one megawatt of nuclear energy to power its lunar base between 2028 and 2036. China is already the leader in nuclear energy on Earth with 21 nuclear reactors under construction in 2023 capable of generating 21.61 gigawatt of electricity, according to International Atomic Energy Agency estimates. In an excellent 2019 Space Review piece, Bart Hendrickx offered us insights into Russian company KB Arsenal where, in 2014, Director General Andrei Romanov stated to the press that “Roscosmos and the Rosatom State Atomic Energy Corporation…envisages the development of a one-megawatt gas-cooled reactor (Project TEM) with gas-turbine energy conversion to provide power to an array of ion thrusters needed to deliver payloads to high orbits or other destinations in the solar system.” While TEM is a civilian nuclear space reactor project, KB Arsenal since 2014 has also been working on “military satellite equipped with a nuclear power source. Called Ekipazh, its mission may well be to perform electronic warfare from space,” for Russia’s Ministry of Defense.


The US space program has registered some positive changes regarding space resource utilization, cislunar space, space development, and national security in terms of issuing policy documents and strategic guidelines. The policies and strategies, however, have not translated fast enough into institutions and actual capabilities. Ongoing space competition and socialization, based on evidence, is that US competitors like China are moving ahead of the US when it comes to long-term space planning, a clear grand strategy, and the economic purpose behind its space program. Countries like Japan and India are starting to issue clear roadmaps for their space program. The lack of a clear US national strategy regarding space is evident, with several agencies involved in the regulatory and policy process, with no single entity responsible for space. As stated earlier, it is perhaps time we start a serious discussion on whether the 20th-century-based US space institutions are indeed adapting to 21st-century needs. While the hope within the US space community is that its commercial space sector would offer it an advantage, commercial companies build competencies, not policy and strategy. Without a national-level strategic vision for space development, that commercial advantage could be fettered away, leaving key strategic areas in space open to varying levels of authoritarian influence.

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