On March 22, the US intelligence agency, the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), announced the awarding of commercial hyperspectral study contracts to six geospatial companies. The contracts are part of NRO’s Strategic Commercial Enhancement Broad Agency Announcement (SCE-BAA) initiative aimed at tapping capacities developed in the commercial space sector for NRO’s various imagery intelligence, signals intelligence and measurement and signals intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance objectives. These six NRO-awarded companies are – Xplore (Washington), Planet (California), Pixxel (California), HyperSat (Delaware), Orbital Sidekick (California), and BlackSky Technology (Virginia).
Of these six, Pixxel is the only company that emerged outside the US, in Bengaluru, India. It enrolled for selection in the inaugural 2019 Techstars Starburst Space Accelerator in Los Angeles. Like the other selected startups, it was then mentored by the American NASA-Pentagon-private industry ecosystem. Pixxel has been swift with its technology demonstrations, having launched two – Anand and Shakuntala – of the three satellites in its hyperspectral constellation. Congratulations are duly credited to Pixxel for business contracts from the NRO; this contract validates their excellent product development. And appreciation is fittingly credited to the Pentagon for tapping into startups far away from its national realms.
The Pentagon is a known headhunter, owing to the sizeable financial power at its disposal, compared to other government ministries worldwide. It is on a contract-giving spree to numerous new space companies for their innovative products and services. For instance, the US Transportation Command recently signed a Cooperative Research and Development Agreement with Virgin Orbit to build an aircraft-launched rocket supplying military cargo rapidly across the world for the US military. Virgin Orbit does not have its antecedents in the US but in the United Kingdom’s Virgin Group. Similarly, another small-satellite launch company, the New Zealand-origin Rocket Lab, moved its registration from New Zealand to the US when it began earning more contracts from the US, especially from the Pentagon. Rocket Lab was also supported by the New Zealand Government’s Callaghan Innovation Growth Grants during its seed phase.
In the case of New Zealand or the United Kingdom, the US can rationalise coopting of startups under the UK-USA Agreement or the Five Eyes. But such coopting seldom pleases the origin countries, who are often the first backers of these startups and companies. Take, for instance, the ownership history of the Canadian company MacDonald, Dettwiler, and Associates (MDA). Ottawa has always competed with American companies to control the highest stakes of MDA. Under American majority stakes, MDA had always won contracts many more than during phases when it had Canadian majority stakes. While contracts and business continuity were essential for MDA’s board when it opted for American stakes, its board favoured protectionism when the Canadian owned its stakes.
The US space economy, which includes the space ecosystem cultivated by Pentagon, is the largest in the world. The national space economies – be that of China, Europe, Russia, Japan, or even India, ranking after it are considerably smaller. Therefore, for business sustenance, getting contracts from Pentagon is a coveted achievement for any space enterprise. Take the example of Virgin or RocketLab, a steady supply of US contracts is bound to Americanise any company.
The US’s massive space economy could be viewed as having a gigantic gravity that pulls lucrative objects. Not many countries would want to resist that, especially those under its security umbrella as allies. But those who wish to maintain their ‘strategic autonomy’ should seriously consider developing a countering heavy gravity. Upkeeping the commercial sector requires giving the best of them a steady supply of contracts. The inability to quickly identify a good enterprise and avail its services would sooner or later lead to its coopting elsewhere. Coopting begins first with attractive contracts and then with taking over ownership.