Privatization of Space Traffic Control

Military-to-civilian space traffic transition nears critical juncture

This article explains that an upcoming beta test will occur of a space traffic control system, which is a major step in the plan to transition traffic control from government-ran to industry-led.

Typically, privatization efforts like this are pursued for a few economic reasons: increase competition to drive innovation and reduce costs, lessen taxpayer burden and free up precious government resources for new efforts, and allow markets to drive efficient allocation of capital and efforts in the space. There are always risks, rewards, and all sorts of unexpected outcomes with an endeavor like this but it tends to be that the most extreme initial shake-ups get moderated over time.

There’s one quote in particular that I wanted to pull out from the article: “We’re setting up a mini commercial system to understand how to use commercial data and how providers can work together,” Starzyk explained. “That’s a tricky task. They have no reason to collaborate unless we incentivize it.”

We discussed this a bit in a previous class and I told a story about my dad working in the nuclear power industry. Commercial entities tend to not be great about collaborating with competitors because they don’t want to lose the competitive edge. In some cases, the incentive structure flips and it became advantageous to do so — in the US after the 1990s, nuclear power providers knew that if there were any more large public crises, they might be forced to shut down, so they began collaborating to ensure survival of the industry, because if one fell they all would fall.

The US (and other governments) will have to properly incentivize firms like those in this article to collaborate on cybersecurity matters because of the risks associated with exposing the payload comms or the telemetry comms of these satellites. The lack of focus on cybersecurity (in all industries, not just space) combined with the competitive nature of industry and the unique risks of space operations, there is a critical need to have significant space cybersecurity collaboration.

The nuclear industry got incentivized to collaborate, but the risk of shutdown was also so high that almost no new reactors got built. We don’t want to disincentivize space exploration altogether, we just want to create an environment where firms fully accept the risk of bad space cybersecurity and bake those costs into their bottom line.