Air Force general says China is advancing in space five times as quickly as the US

Air Force lieutenant general Steve Kwast believes a "Kitty Hawk" moment will begin a new era in space. While the U.S. still leads in space, Kwast cautions that edge is whittling away. "In my best military judgement China is on a 10-year journey to operationalize space. We’re on a 50-year journey".
Kwast, who is also the commander and president of Air University at Maxwell Air Force Base, says the United States must "bring together the right talent to accelerate the journey" in a Manhattan Project-like meeting of minds. He says this would push the space industry to an moment like Wright Brothers had when they completed the first successful airplane flight in 1903, in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina..
"We could be on a five year journey, because it’s all about how aggressively we are going about this journey," Kwast said.
Regulations in the way
A half century of regulating satellites made government regulations bulky and nearly impossible for entrepreneurs. Kwast analogizes the current regulatory environment to needing to submit an itinerary for every item you plan to bring on a flight from D.C. to Los Angeles – one year before the flight.
"You have to detail everything in your suitcase – each item’s material, manufacturer, weight and more – the government takes a year to go through it and then tells you what you can and can’t take," Kwast said. "And, if you have to update your request, then you have to start all over."
He continued, "When you finally get approval you have to spend your entire life savings for the airplane, which, when you land, you have to burn to the ground."
Officials want to evolve regulatory methods but must placate taxpayers that discarded rockets will not begin falling on suburban rooftops.
"You need technological innovations to reassure Congress that this is safe and effective, as the FAA cannot do this unilaterally," Kwast said. "Low-cost access to space is the first domino to making this possible."
SpaceX has also criticized the regulatory process, with President Gwynne Shotwell noting the process takes six months "and then you re-apply at 90 days, 30 days, and then 15 days to file a flight plan."
"If we want to achieve rapid progress in space, the U.S. government must remove bureaucratic practices that run counter to innovation and speed," Shotwell said.
National security and global prosperity at stake
Militaries will soon work more extensively in the space between the earth and moon, according to Kwast. That realm is the next high ground, where nations are straining to gain a strategic advantage.
"China is working on building a ‘navy in space’" that would work even beyond earth’s gravity well, Kwast said.
Yet China is the not the most pressing threat. North Korea, with its continued missile testing, is "a real problem" today, Kwast says.
"Right now, if North Korea were to launch a missile into space and detonate an electro magnetic pulse, it would take out our eyes in space," Kwast said.
The Cold War-era "Star Wars" concept was "very strategic," Kwast says, but the technology was not feasible. The more the U.S. innovates in space, the lower the potential threat from a missile.
But even though the space industry poised to become eight times as valuable over the next 30 years, Kwast believes it’s too early to think about a new military force in space.
"We could have an operational space force in 3 to 5 years," Kwast said. "However, that would be jumping to answering what the form looks like, before you know the function."
Earlier this year Kwast penned a list of recommendations to the Air Force’s U.S. Space Command in a January study called "Fast Space." In it he details that public-private partnerships must be the nation’s focus, not an "an Air Force in space."
Kwast notes, "It took from the Wright Brothers in 1903 to 1945 — two World Wars — to get flying to where we needed an Air Force."
Finding balance in public-private partnerships
Kwast is a staunch supporter of the potential from corporations partnering with government actors. But he warns against the military completely depending on the private sector, giving the example of how the Air Force contracts out launches to both SpaceX and United Launch Alliance.
"I think the balance between public and private is reasonable right now but we’re still not doing enough, and we’re not aggressive enough," Kwast said.
At the New Worlds conference in Austin, Texas on Friday, Bill Gerstenmaier, the NASA associate administrator for Human Exploration and Operations, said his organization shares a similar vision. He does not expect "to get another huge budget like the Apollo missions," and says NASA will focus on "orchestrating human spaceflight," instead of conceptualizing, funding, building and operating all on its own.
Gerstenmaier told CNBC that he sees NASA now operating more akin to a venture capital firm, picking investments and helping build them up. He cited Morgan Stanley’srecent report on the industry as a look into the direction space is heading.
Kwast applauds the high-risk, high-reward entrepreneurial spirit of modern space companies. He calls himself "a very strong advocate" for partnerships "based on economic realities" which create competition.
"Corporations have a vicious, clear-eyed view of the bottom line, which is a very healthy thing," Kwast said, before adding: "Companies that fail should fail."