Does SpaceWERX Work for Cybersecurity?

As the creation of the US Space Force in 2019 suggests, the United States military is increasingly interested in expanding its capabilities in space. One avenue of that expansion is exploring the potential of smaller companies. While big, well-known contractors like Boeing, SpaceX, Lockheed Martin, and more have produced technology for multi-billion dollar government contracts, there are plenty of startups and other organizations developing promising technology that just need sufficient funding to reach the milestone of commercial or military adoption. SpaceWERX, part of the Space Systems Command, aims to close that gap in resources. With $460 million per year in contracts to startups and small businesses, more new technologies can be developed on a shorter time scale (Erwin, 2024).

One rationale provided for the focus on small companies is that they can provide “80% of your requirements for 20% of the cost” for some contracts (Erwin, 2024). While the pareto principle certainly has its place in ensuring new technology is developed efficiently, the 20% of requirements that may not be met are worth considering as well, particularly if functionality is prioritized over security. Erwin also explains that one of the main goals of SpaceWERX is delivering capabilities within the next five years as opposed to the precedent of traditional military programs taking a decade or more. The shortened schedule and cost reduction have to come from somewhere. Contracts and other formal documents should be written such that if corners do need to be cut somewhere, cyber best practices are not up for negotiation (Erwin, 2024). 

The novelty of the technology combined with the types of technology being developed increases the risk of a possible cyber threat to the US. In-orbit surveillance and in-space data communications both involve producing, transmitting, receiving, and analyzing data that is likely to be sensitive and not intended for the public or other agencies. As the technology is being developed rapidly, standards and best practices may either not exist or be outdated. The risk of an adversary intercepting or otherwise accessing this data in an unauthorized way must be accounted for. As the increased funding and shorter timelines are at least partially due to rapid progress on space technology in China, these contracts could be viewed by China and other adversaries as escalation warranting a response. Companies developing spacecraft that create, handle, or communicate data need to take precautions in their handling of the data to avoid interception or a breach (Erwin, 2024).

Due to the astronomical costs of bringing a space technology concept to maturity, SpaceWERX is also considering commercial potential when awarding contracts. Dual-use technology is common throughout the space industry, as many systems have both civilian and military applications. However, broad access to new communications and surveillance technology outside the military creates a risk of use in unintended ways, such as surveilling US government satellites or using in-space communication to interact with other satellites in a threatening way. Depending on the level of access provided to commercial customers, reverse engineering or using the provided technology to develop and test attacks against it may also be possible. Of course, this all depends on the implementation of a commercial release of technology developed through SpaceWERX funded projects, which seems to be assessed on a case-by-case basis, but care should be taken that commercial customers do not have access to these systems in a way that allows them to misuse them (Erwin, 2024). 

While there are several unanswered questions and possible causes for concern regarding technology under development through SpaceWERX contracts, there is also reason for optimism. Strategic Financing Initiative, or STRATFI, contracts are some of the most lucrative government contracts available. They normally consist of $15 million from AFWERX, the Air Force’s investment arm that is the parent organization for SpaceWERX, $15 million from another program office, and the potential for matching or other additional funding from private investors. These eight-figure contracts are valuable indicators of the US military’s top priorities. Of five such agreements announced so far in 2024, two have clear positive implications from a cybersecurity perspective (Erwin, 2024).

The first is a contract with Defense Unicorns. They are developing cybersecurity solutions for US launch systems that would cover launch ranges in both the east and west, as well as other needed software. Meanwhile, Astranis is developing an innovative software-defined radio solution that can perform signal processing tasks. Its cyber advantage is that it will be able to change its configuration in response to adversarial interference, rerouting the affected signal. If SpaceWERX continues prioritizing effective cybersecurity tools and best practices, risks associated with new technology are more likely to be mitigated, and benefits such as additional options to prevent and respond to attacks will be realized (Erwin, 2024).

Works Cited:

Erwin, S. (2024, July 8). Seeding the future of Space Warfare. SpaceNews.