What Awaits Israel in Space: A Discussion

The author of “Israel in Space” joins a Mosaic editor to talk about what small countries can do in space.

A technician assists an astronaut from a joint European-Israeli team simulating a Mars journey at the Ramon Crater in Israel’s southern Negev desert on October 10, 2021. JACK GUEZ/AFP via Getty Images.

A technician assists an astronaut from a joint European-Israeli team simulating a Mars journey at the Ramon Crater in Israel’s southern Negev desert on October 10, 2021. JACK GUEZ/AFP via Getty Images.

Response
July 8 2024
About the authors

Andrew N. Koss, a senior editor of Mosaic, is writing a book about the Jews of Vilna during World War I.

Arthur Herman is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and the Pulitzer Prize Finalist author of ten books, including Freedom’s Forge: How American Business Produced Victory in World War II and The Viking Heart: How Scandinavians Conquered the World (2021).

Last week, Mosaic’s senior editor Andrew Koss spoke with Arthur Herman, the author of our June essay, about the possibilities and importance of the Israel space program. Read the transcript of their discussion below. 

Andrew Koss:

I am here with Arthur Herman, who is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and the author of ten books—enough to make a minyan. He has written Mosaic’s June essay, “Israel in Space,” about the importance and the potential of the Israeli space program. Arthur has written a lot about how industry, technology, national security, government, and the private sector come together, and that’s very much the perspective of this essay. He has written about a ton of other really interesting things too, in Mosaic and elsewhere. He’s also, if you’re into that sort of thing, worth following on Twitter—or, excuse me, X. (We’re going to be talking about Elon Musk today a little bit, so we better call it X.)

Arthur Herman:

Thank you.

What you said about this piece is really true. This piece has been part of a series of pieces that I’ve done over the last several years for Mosaic that reflect on how Israel is seen or should be seen by others, whether it’s the essay that I did about how East European countries and the Baltic republics were looking at Israel as an example of a small state that can survive surrounded by hostile neighbors, or in a complex security environment. I also did two about how China was encroaching into, and looking for ways to get access to, the advanced technology and the startup-nation smarts that Israel was able to offer. And this one is likewise about how countries should think about the enormous asset that the Israeli space industry constitutes. It’s very small as compared with other countries, but there’s a lot going on there and there’s immense potential that I think the United States really shouldn’t be overlooking.

Andrew Koss:

I want to talk about that last point shortly, but I have to ask you another question, because I think it’s the proverbial elephant in the room. According to my computer, we’re having this conversation on July 2, 2024, but for me, and for many of the people reading this, today’s date is October 8, 2023 and it has been October 8th for a long time now. Israel is fighting a war in its backyard that it can barely contain, and a much worse war in Lebanon seems increasingly likely to happen. There’s the threat of a nuclear Iran. There’s a major internal crisis that is unfolding this week regarding the drafting of haredi yeshiva students. How is it that you are trying to tell us that we should be thinking about outer space?

Now, just to be clear, we more or less had this conversation in an editorial meeting, and I said, “If we can get Arthur Herman’s piece about space as our June essay, we should really go for it. I think it’s a great thing.” But I would like you to explain to a skeptical audience who might be thinking that you literally have your head in the clouds, or above the clouds, by focusing on this now.

Arthur Herman:

Well, I certainly had to ask myself, “How does this fit within the parameters of the issues that we’re all thinking about?” All of us who are supporters of Israel are thinking about the October 8th environment in which it finds itself. And in the end, I decided that it was important to finish the essay and to send it to Mosaic not because I wanted people to focus on this instead of the existential struggle in which Israel finds itself, but because this essay helps us understand that what Israel is all about isn’t survival, important as that may be. There are important reasons why Israel is a significant country to the world—significant to freedom, to the history of technology, and even to the history of the capitalist economy.

What Israel has been doing in space and the developments that have taken place with its space industry from the startup level all the way up through the Ofeq satellite series that they’ve been launching, which has been underway since the 1990s, represents a powerful vision of what we can do in space and in the fullness of Israel’s existence as the Jewish state. The future, for Israelis, isn’t just about defending themselves from threats or defining boundaries or their relationships with their neighbors. Those things are all important, but the Israeli imagination reaches out beyond that to larger horizons.

We’ve got people in this country like Elon Musk, and I’ll mention Jeff Bezos also, who likewise have that wide horizon. And that wide horizon isn’t just about venturing out into space, the last great frontier. It’s also intimately involved with questions of national security. And as I explained in the essay, Israel’s interest in going into space sprang up from important national-security considerations, that is, they needed to keep track of their hostile or potentially hostile neighbors. And watching and seeing what happens from space has been the raison d’être for Israel’s space industry and the government’s role in all of this from the very beginning.

But from these national-security considerations comes a larger picture of what is possible for a small nation like Israel to achieve in this vast expanse of space. This is a burgeoning industry worldwide and Israel has a place, I would even say an important place, in its future. I felt, and I think you agreed with me in deciding to run with the piece, that it was important to bring that positive light, that future-oriented perspective, to the picture of where Israel is and where it goes next. I also believe that it was important for American leaders to understand the importance of what the Israeli space industry represents for us here. And now we are at a time when the question of U.S. support for Israel has come into question for the first time—really, don’t you think for the first time since 1948?

Andrew Koss:

Yes.

Arthur Herman:

For those who are looking at Israel from a cold-blooded realistic foreign-policy standpoint, there are important reasons for keeping Israel close and maintaining a strong strategic alliance. And one of those reasons may be what Israel represents in terms of the future of space as an industry and as a national-security concern.

Andrew Koss:

I would just add to that I think it’s unfortunate that most people, whether they’re pro-Israel or anti-Israel or deeply conflicted about Israel—those are the worst, the deeply conflicted—don’t look at Israel from a cold-blooded realist perspective. But that’s a different conversation perhaps for another time.

Arthur Herman:

I think that’s really true. And that allows opponents of support of Israel to present it as if it were a matter of sentiment, or guilt over the Holocaust. There are those who think that if we just set aside that sentimental view or the fact that the Jews represent an important constituency in American politics, that somehow will reassess the importance of the U.S. alliance with Israel. But that’s not true.

It’s time to focus on why this alliance is important to us for our strategic goals for the future of both the United States and of the democracies. And this article that I’ve written and that we’ve published together here should be thought of as an important part of that argument as to why we need to keep Israel as a strong strategic ally.

Andrew Koss:

So that leads me to two important questions. The first is if you got a call from Bibi Netanyahu and he flew you to Israel and sat you down with Ron Dermer, probably his closest advisor, and Yoav Gallant from the defense ministry, and a couple people from the Israel Space Agency, and said, “We’ve got limited resources. We’ve got X amount of money here that we can devote to space, and we can only do one thing with it. What is the one thing we should focus on doing in the next five years?” What would you tell him?

Arthur Herman:

That’s a really fascinating question. And by the way, don’t think it hasn’t crossed my mind, that trip to go sit down with Netanyahu and the team and say, “Let’s talk seriously about space.” And that conversation would have to take place within the context of the other ways in which Israel’s penchant for understanding and working in advanced technologies needs to be a basis, maybe even the most important basis, for how U.S.-Israel cooperation should proceed in a variety of sectors: the commercial space, the national-security space, the defense industrial base. I spend a lot of time worrying about America’s defense industrial base, and I’ve written that there’s a lot to learn from Israel if you want to get our defense industrial base back into shape and understand what’s taking place. And I think we in the U.S. have a lot to learn from how Israel has approached the whole issue of space exploration and also the way in which it has quietly but steadily improved and grown out its satellite space industry both for national-security reasons and for commercial reasons.

So if I had to choose one area in which Israel-U.S. cooperation could really advance the cause of both the development of space as an economic and geopolitical asset for the U.S. and Israel and also advance the technologies that are going to dominate the 21st century, I would say it would be U.S.-Israel cooperation in getting quantum technology, particularly quantum communications technology, into space through a series of quantum-enabled satellites. It can use quantum encryption to communicate between the ground station on earth and satellites in synchronous orbit in space. There are a number of these projects underway already with the EU. There’s a Singapore-based consortium that’s planning to launch a quantum satellite. China has got two of them up there, the first one went out in 2016 because China understands that being able to communicate hack-free from space without any interference from outsiders has enormous national-security implications going forward.

The Chinese have been on this now for eight years and I’ve been pushing the United States to follow suit, to move in this direction. And I think an alliance with Israel in this area would be tremendous. As I explained in the article, Israelis are already thinking about how to use quantum and AI as technologies suitable for developments in space. I would like to see the United States team up with Israel and say, “Show us what you’ve got and let’s take the resources that we have in the U.S. with regard to space launch and combine them with the work that you’re doing on quantum technology and quantum communications.” So if I had to single out one area where the U.S. would benefit the most from working with Israel, that would be the one area. And I explained in the article, as you know, why that could be such an important part of what happens in the future.

Andrew Koss:

Fascinating. You’ve preempted not only my next question, but where I was going to end the interview, which was with quantum stuff. I was actually talking to a quantum physicist yesterday for a few minutes. Mostly we were talking about whiskey.

Arthur Herman:

I could see that. I can imagine that being part of the conversation.

But let me put this in the larger frame then, and I’m glad you opened that discussion. We’ve spent a lot of time talking about AI and worrying about AI capabilities, and ChatGPT has got everybody’s head spinning, etc., and we look at what China is doing in its AI strategy and all that. The real big change is going to be when AI and quantum technologies come together, each deepening and extending the power of the other. I’ve been talking about this for years and have published articles and columns about this. What we’re now seeing are commercial companies realizing that quantum can boost AI and that AI can boost quantum.

The place where these two advanced technologies—and in quantum technology’s case an emerging technology—will be able to interact with the most powerful and the broadest implications is in space. And by bringing together space, AI, and quantum, you get this powerful triad which is going to dominate the future of the 21st century, not just in terms of technology and the economic benefits that flow from it, but also the national-security benefits. Israel already has a seat on that train to the future. We in America need to reserve tickets to sit next to them and work with them on this.

Andrew Koss:

That is so interesting. Let me back up and try to go into this in a little more detail. First of all, every Hebrew-school student I think knows the story about Hillel, the rabbi who is asked to explain the whole Torah standing on one foot. I want to ask you, just standing on one foot, what is quantum encryption and why does it matter, for somebody who’s never thought about these things?

Arthur Herman:

Well, quantum encryption is a whole area which is a separate discussion. First, we’re talking about quantum computers—I think most people have heard about the advances that companies like IBM and Intel are making with these. And then there is quantum sensing and quantum communications, which is really quantum cryptography. What you’re doing with all these technologies is harnessing the energy given off by small subatomic particles.

And that energy can be used for calculations, for random-number generating, for one-time passcodes for encryption, because of the sheer randomness with which these particles jump from one level to another in the energy field. That sheer randomness can be harnessed to create a code for encrypting a message that is so completely random that no hacker can figure out how to unlock or decrypt it. So what results are hack-proof communications.

Now, there are aspects of this that make it more difficult to develop, namely that a lot of it depends upon certain kinds of hardware: quantum random-number generators, quantum key-distribution networks,, and so forth. I’ve worked to put together an industry consortium to work on global standards for this, so I have a little bit of understanding about how they work, but more importantly of how important this technology is. And it’s going to be an especially important part of how we think about communications in space. The development of a quantum Internet, for example, will bring with it incredible security. And today, anything having to do with using Internet and wireless communications means thinking about the security question. And quantum communications, technologies of the kind I just described, will become more and more important as we go forward in the future here.

And in the space realm, you have ways in which you can do this communication out of the line of sight. In other words, since you don’t have the atmosphere to interfere with the communication from ground station to satellite, you have more room for the development of network effects and a whole range of other things that are going to make quantum communications into more than just a series of lab experiments or a series of point-to-point relay-message systems, which is what we have now. The technology is there—it works—but it will take much more effort to develop it into something that’s broader and that has more possibilities, for instance to create a network that relies on quantum security. That is what you need to advance. And moving into space will allow you to develop this technology in ways that are really hard to carry out down here at the terrestrial level.

Andrew Koss:

That’s fascinating. My mind is blown.

Arthur Herman:

It should be. It is mind-blowing.

A lot of the problems that are preventing the advances we’re talking about, which are really hardware more than software questions, can be solved a lot faster by harnessing machine learning. It would be akin to asking a very powerful scientific version of ChatGPT to solve some of these technical problems. For instance, how do we solve this problem with regards to the aerodynamics of a quantum signal from ground station to satellite? That’s the sort of problem we could address using AI. And a lot of this doesn’t involve mysterious technology. It’s an extension of already existing linear optics that we use in space all the time, just adding a quantum dimension.

But how do you do that? What little problems come up? By harnessing machine learning, you could make some real breakthroughs, and then also apply them for future developments, e.g., to create a satellite network that would serve as the basis for a quantum Internet that no one can hack, where your information and your messages and networks are always protected from outside threats. That’s a very, very powerful dream to pursue. And we’ve just taken the first step. And Israelis, damn it, the Israelis are already thinking about how to do this and they’re waiting for us to catch up.

Andrew Koss:

That’s incredible. I actually have 100 other questions I want to ask about this, but I want instead to shift to talking about China. Have you seen the TV show Space Force?

Arthur Herman:

It’s been recommended to me. I have not watched Space Force. Sounds fascinating.

Andrew Koss:

Well, it depends on whether it appeals to your sense of humor. But one thing I liked about it is that even if it might be made by cynical, or perhaps leftist, Hollywood types, it first of all has a main character who’s a patriotic American who represents a lot of the best qualities of the U.S. military. But the reason I bring it up is because it’s the first thing I’ve seen in pop culture that acknowledges the fact that our main geopolitical competitor is China and that part of this competition is happening in space.

Arthur Herman:

Yep, absolutely. It’s unfolding there without a doubt.

Andrew Koss:

I won’t give away what happens, but it was just amazing to see that a few years ago now on Netflix.

Arthur Herman:

It sounds like someone understood what was happening, and now we need to draw the right implications from it. China has a full-blown national space strategy that descends from President Xi all the way down through the Central Committee to industry, to the military, to the intelligence agencies. And China understands that dominating space is the secret to dominating the 21st century. Make no mistake. And it’s not just space in terms of the satellites in orbit, but it’s space in terms of moon exploration, in terms of exploitation of the resources that could be found there in abundance. They’ve got a whole plan of how to do this. They’ve already carried out three unmanned moon landings. We still hold the record on that, but they’re already moving ahead with this in powerful ways.

And what that has meant is that our thinking about space has to move out of the 20th-century framework. We carried out Mercury and Gemini and Apollo as a series of discrete missions. We wanted to land on the moon. So first we had to orbit earth, then orbit the moon, then land on the moon. And we continue to think about it this way: next we’re going to land on Mars and then we’re going to have a new lunar landing, and so forth.

Thinking in those narrow mission terms instead of in a much broader strategic terms means we miss out a lot, and the result is that we’re always going to trail behind the Chinese in terms of the geopolitical and the national-security implications of moving into space. And we are also missing out on the huge opportunities that our own commercial space industry has launched. Of course, SpaceX dominates right now; it’s the colossus. Blue Origin as well: I don’t want to leave them out; they’re trying harder, and I think there’s a lot that Jeff Bezos can add to our sense of how important space and space exploration are, and could add to the message we’ve already gotten from Elon Musk.

But let’s think about who partnered with SpaceX to do this. It’s the Israelis who are launching their latest satellites for their own moon mission, which I talked about in the article. The Beresheet launch was done in cooperation with SpaceX. They understand how important SpaceX is as a commercial partner, but they also understand how important it can be as a national-security partner. And we’re still just settling into that kind of role in space. And I think that this is one of the areas where the Chinese have outfought us in regard to a national space strategy. And I think it’s hurting us.

I think the current debacle that’s unfolding right now at the International Space Station (ISS) is not just a single glitch. I think it represents a lack of leadership at the national level as to what operating in space is really all about and why the stakes are so high.

Andrew Koss:

That’s great because my next question was about the Space Station. Can you explain for people who haven’t followed closely what went wrong at the International Space Station?

Arthur Herman:

I don’t know if anybody really quite understands, but the Starliner space vehicle, the one that carried the two astronauts up to the International Space Station, had certain design or production flaws—helium leaks—that posed problems in getting there. And now it seems increasingly risky, because of these same flaws, to come back on the same vehicle. It hasn’t helped the fact that the Starliner was built and designed by Boeing. Boeing’s got a bad reputation right now, and I think this is just going to add to that. Of all the companies out there, it’s probably the one that NASA would least like to be associated with.

So those two astronauts were supposed to have come back last month, but their return has been delayed until they solve these problems. And now the return is put off indefinitely. And NASA just recently had a press conference in which they said, “These two astronauts, they’re not stuck up there.” It’s one of those moments that you don’t want to have. It’s like Nixon saying, “I am not a crook.” I think everybody understands that actually they are stuck up there.

And what’s so funny about this is this is that, when I was a kid, one of the novels that I read that really left a deep impression on me—I couldn’t put it down—was a novel called Marooned. It was written by an author who wrote on World War II aviation whom I admired by the name of Martin Caidin. They made a movie out of it in 1969.

It’s about three astronauts in a space capsule who go into space. It’s a bit like the Gemini mission, but they can’t get back. They’ve lost power. And so they’re just stuck in this endless orbit and their oxygen is starting to run out. And it’s a suspenseful novel about how they plan to go up and get these guys back before they die marooned. This was considered to be the realm of science fiction. Now it’s the realm of the everyday life of NASA. My apologies to NASA, but that’s really true.

And what strikes me, and I was thinking about this when we set up for the podcast, is that this problem would not have arisen if NASA had been working with the Israelis on this mission to the ISS. Your instinct tells you that the Israelis would not have allowed the vehicle to go to the ISS with the problems that it had, and that they would figure out a way to bring the thing back. What struck me was the juxtaposition between what we published about the Israeli space industry and what’s happening right now with our much larger-budgeted institution, one steeped in achievement and success, namely NASA. The contrast between those two things seems startling to me and should make us think about why I wrote this article in the first place and why I encourage Americans to think about working with Israel in our next round of space endeavors.

Andrew Koss:

This brings us to another aspect of this conversation, which has to do with the public-private partnership. There’s someone named Rand Simberg, who wrote a response to your essay and who spends a lot of time thinking about space. When I was preparing for this conversation, I listened to some old podcasts he did. He thinks everything went awry with the Apollo mission because—if I’m summarizing his ideas properly—it set a baseline that the big stuff in space was going to come from the government, along the lines of the Manhattan Project, whereas other great innovation in American history has come from the private sector. The Wright brothers were just two guys messing around in a field in North Carolina; Thomas Edison was just sitting and tinkering in a lab in New Jersey. And if space had developed like this, Simberg argues, we’d be much better off.

I don’t know whether or not he’s right. I don’t even want to ask if you think he’s right. But it seems to me that in Israel success has come from a fruitful cooperation between the private and public sectors, which have been working together closely. By contrast in America, what I see from the recent troubles at the International Space Station is that NASA hires Boeing; Boeing messes it up; Elon Musk—running a private enterprise that is in some ways even more private because he wants to do the whole thing by himself—offers to help; and NASA denies that they want Musk to help.

Now, I would like your opinion about the role of the private sector in Israel, how it relates to the public sector, and if you think I’m correct that they’ve struck the right balance between the two. And if so, what can America learn from that?

Arthur Herman:

I have to say, Simberg has a very good point. It’s ironic, isn’t it, that we think about the moonshot, and landing on the moon, as the great triumph of the U.S. We hold it up as an example of the government harnessing the power and expertise of industry to bring about this singular and still unique achievement of putting human beings on the moon. But perhaps that’s not quite right. And I don’t think Simberg is taking anything away from the achievement of Apollo 11 at all when he says this. But it established a powerful precednent for how the space program should proceed in the future that ended up hurting us. I think that’s really his point.

In particular, it’s hurting the way in which government thinks about its role in space, which was: if we’re not going to land human beings on the moon anymore, then we’re going to shut down space programs, which is what we did. We went to the space shuttle instead. It really gets to the point that I raised earlier about how the government tends to see space in terms of government-led and government-proposed missions instead of as an overall ecosystem that is taking shape far beyond what NASA originally conceived, thanks to companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin, and others as well.

I’ve been working on space at the Hudson Institute for a couple of years now and I’ve gotten to know a lot of the companies large and small that are engaged in this area, and they bring enormous expertise and are doing tremendous things in terms of space launch, in terms of satellite design, etc. It’s a whole new world that’s opened up thanks to commercial space, and yet our government continues to exist almost in a parallel universe from that. That’s really what Simberg is suggesting, isn’t he? I’ll even include my friends over at the Space Force right now in that regard as well. They still think about commercial space as a resource to be used as opposed to a partner to be brought to the table to say, “What is it you can really do? And what is it that we can do to help?”

But coming back to Israel, I think you’re right. And I think what has happened, as I try to explain in the article, has a lot to do with the startup-nation mentality, which is just part of the instinct of how Israeli entrepreneurs and scientists and technology people think about the world. “Let’s start a small company. Let’s see what we can do. Let’s go with our dream.” As I detailed in discussing the range of companies that I talk about that now make up the Israeli space industry, that kind of mentality not only exists, but is actually encouraged. The Israeli government realizes the need for that entrepreneurial energy. We need that vision from small companies as well as the expertise of the big ones, both to make ourselves safe, but also to make this an important part of what Israel’s future economy is going to look like. What Israel is going to look like in the 21st century has got to include an important role in the world space sector and what’s taking place there.

What I like to do with our articles for Mosaic is to say, “Look at Israel this way, and you learn a lot about yourself.” And you can also learn a lot about what your own country is doing and maybe the mistakes it’s making, but also the things it’s doing right. And in that sense, that article is a mirror to be held up to America’s space industry and our government agencies that are engaged in space and think about space. Maybe there are other ways to do things that might be better.

Andrew Koss:

It’s interesting: there’s a historian who once commented that “the Jews are good to think,” stealing a phrase from the French social scientist Claude Lévi-Strauss. It’s one of those things that sounds better in French. But I think his point is that thinking about the Jews helps you think about other issues, and it highlights them. And this is what you’re saying about Israel.

Arthur Herman:

That’s what I’m saying. And that’s what I’m saying about this article too. And again, I didn’t at all want to take away from the terrible events of October 7 or about what’s happened since then, but to think about another aspect of what Israel’s doing and where Israel’s future lies. This is reflected in that other aspect of the future, if you like, a very hopeful future that is reflected in what Israel’s space industry is. And we can look at that and turn it to ourselves to see what it is that we can gain, and what humanity gets by working with Israel.

And by the way, that’s one reason why when I was working on the article, when it came to the question of Ilan Ramon and his tragic loss as part of the Columbia mission, why I thought I absolutely have to include that story in the article and talk about what it meant, why he was going, what he brought with him on that trip, and how it really is an example of the Israelis thinking about the far horizon and the future while still rooted in their understanding of the past, including the horrors of the past, which I now think include October 7.

Andrew Koss:

That’s very well said. And you put something very beautiful near the end of the article about Ilan Ramon.

To bring the different parts of our conversation together, let me run a hypothesis by you and you can then tell me what you think. China is a place where almost everything is run by the government. And earlier you in fact commended the Chinese for having a top-down, large-scale approach that involves directing resources towards space in a certain way. I would like to suggest, and I think you’ll agree, that Israel and potentially the United States can do even better with some smart government strategy combined with a little bit of capitalist chaos. That is, if the private sector is allowed to flourish and pursue the things that it thinks will succeed, without being pushed in any particular direction by the government, it’s possible not only to compete with China but to get ahead of it. And this flows from what you’ve said about Israel’s startup-nation mentality, which allows for both smart thinking at the top as well as creativity coming up from the bottom.

Arthur Herman:

That’s right. I praised China for having a space strategy, not for having a top-down space strategy. In fact, I think one of China’s vulnerabilities is that everything flows from the mind, the words, and the commands of President Xi. And everybody knows then that whatever it is that President Xi thinks, China ought to do. Thus there’s a certain inflexibility and rigidity. They don’t see things coming out of the corners because if President Xi didn’t think about it then it doesn’t happen. In fact, you could even say it doesn’t even exist without President Xi.

So your larger point is well taken. And a lot of that capitalist creativity is already happening in the commercial space arena. In America, a plethora of companies have taken advantage of the fact that the cost of space launch has gone down dramatically, and that the size of satellites has shrunk while their capabilities have grown exponentially. You can do more with a small payload than you ever could have even twenty years ago. And now private industry is seeing possibilities for using space not only as an arena for communications, which has been a primary focus since Telstar. Most of us, when we think about satellites, automatically think of in terms of satellites carrying messages, either feeding information down or beaming information across. GPS is a classic example of that; it’s an information carrier. These are information-providing platforms.

But now we’re also seeing the use of satellite technology to do all kinds of other things, for example, to conduct medical experiments in a completely gravity-free environment. In an atmosphere- and gravity-free environment, there are all kinds of things you can do in the realm of scientific experimentation, including recombinant chemical experiments and the like. And that could be the case in terms of manufacturing too. There are certain manufacturing processes whose costs drop substantially when they’re performed in a gravity-free environment.

Now, sending those manufactured goods from space down to earth raises the cost quite a bit. But suppose you started by just manufacturing parts for other satellites, so that all you needed to do is shuttle these products from one satellite to another. That is an important way of thinking about how you carry out repairs and how you maintain your satellite in space while it’s in orbit. And not just maintain it—you could also upgrade a satellite with new technologies, using materials that are manufactured in space. Then you could make these upgrades with parts that are in space already, rather than having to launch a satellite and use rocket engines to get it up there.

These are just some of the very real possibilities that the commercial space industry is looking into, and moving forward with. But there are many other things as well. We’re now talking seriously about mining asteroids. Ten years ago, you’d be committed for talking about stuff like that in anything but a purely theoretical way. But now companies are being set up to engage in this too, and suddenly the commercial space sector has opened up to all kinds of new possibilities. And the United States government hasn’t really caught up into all of that. It’s still lagging behind.

And this goes back to our point: that we need to start thinking about space in a different way. Instead of focusing on discrete missions with specific scientific or exploratory goals, we have to see it as a fast-growing ecosystem in which those missions can easily lose their relevance compared to everything taking place around them.

Andrew Koss:

And that brings us back in an interesting way to the fact that we used to think that only the really big countries—Russia and China and the U.S.—could have space programs. But now it’s clear that smaller countries can too, and that, by the same token, space can be about small projects as well as big ones.

Arthur Herman:

Little tiny projects can have a big payoff. Let me draw you an analogy to drone technology. The Israelis were the great pioneers in the development of drones. And one of the reasons they did it was for purposes of national security, even national survival. They were a powerful and hugely useful tool for keeping track of what your enemy is up to without endangering lives, or even being detected by the enemy. You could send these devices to check up on what was happening on the other side of a hill, on the other side of a mountain, or the other side of a border.

In the United States, we had companies that were moving fast, with similar kinds of developments, again largely for national-security reasons. And our federal government, in the shape of the Federal Aeronautics Administration (FAA) didn’t really know what to do with all these new technologies. It got hung up on trying to determine whether drone activity should fall into the same category as manned flights. Regulators got very caught up on how to classify them. And so, while the industry was surging ahead, the government was trying to figure out the rules and figure out how to develop a rule-based order for understanding how drones would operate in the United States. And the result was that we fell further and further behind.

Companies realized that until the FAA could figure stuff out, it didn’t make sense to spend a lot of money developing drone technology. But guess who did? The Chinese. I was just talking about this at the Cato Institute a week ago. We wound up in a situation in which a Chinese brand, DJI, was providing something like 80 percent of the drones that we use here in the United States. And that’s crazy, because American technology is at least as good as, probably even better than, the Chinese equivalent. We can make much better and more reliable and more versatile drones. But what has held us back for too long is the way in which the government felt that this was an industry that needed to move at the speed of regulation instead of the speed of technology and innovation.

And I’ll put a general rule to you, Andrew, and that is, is that industry, business, and the military are all focused on making things happen, whether it’s making a product, making a profit, defeating an enemy, taking a hill, or achieving some sort of military objective. Government is really good at making sure things don’t happen. That’s one of its most important functions. And sometimes that’s good. You don’t want things to blow up. You don’t want drones to disintegrate in the air, or airplanes to fall out of the sky because they’re badly designed here. Government is also there to prevent enemies from taking advantage of us.  That’s what a government’s proper role is. But don’t expect government to make things happen. That goes against the grain of what government is.

However, if you can get business and industry working together with the military, with the government overseeing and providing the necessary connections between the two, then you can really make things happen. And that’s one of the things that Israel has proven to be exceptional at being able to do. And it’s also an area where we have lots of room to improve here in the United States, including in space.

Andrew Koss:

In the short time we have left I want to ask you about one other thing that Rand Simberg wrote about in his response to your essay: just as aircraft carriers superseded battleships in World War II, the 21st century may be the age of spaceship carriers, and every great power will have them for access to and from space. In his vision, just to explain, a navy will have to station these near the equator because—for reasons I can’t quite wrap my head around—the equator is the best place to launch things into space.

Arthur Herman:

There’s a certain truth to that.

Andrew Koss:

Simberg suggests that the Israeli navy should develop floating platforms stationed near the equator for launching satellites into space. You’ve written a book called Freedom’s Forge which talks about, among other things, the cooperation between private industry and the U.S. government in developing things like aircraft carriers during World War II. What’s your perspective on this?

Arthur Herman:

I think Rand’s absolutely on target with that in more ways than one. But I would just make one adjustment, and that is that what I see coming before the age of space carriers or even space battleships is the development of much smaller craft. The U.S. Space Force understands that. It knows that the key to the future is to move from simply putting objects in orbit to being able to maneuver in space. And the Russians and the Chinese—especially the Russians—are trying to develop their technology along those lines. And we need to do that too. And this doesn’t require big platforms. In fact, those platforms would be, I think, an impediment to the development of the kind of fast maneuverable spacecraft that we want. I would describe these not so much as space carriers, but as space frigates.

And just as the growth of the British navy, about which I’ve written, began with a superior technology at the frigate level, with small maneuverable craft, I think the future of war in space and security in space depends upon being able to develop small mobile spacecraft. And I’m not just talking about the ability to take out enemy satellites or enemy spacecraft, but also to carry out repairs and rescue missions of one sort or another when people get stuck in space stations. All these kinds of things will be the future of space.

Andrew Koss:

Thank you. We’ll end there, on the space navy. Thank you so much, Arthur.

Arthur Herman:

Thank you.

More about: Israel & Zionism, Space exploration