Space commerce will create multi-trillion-dollar markets in energy, information, manufacturing, and transportation — but may also present the greatest risk that America will ever face. We’re joined by Lieutenant General Steven Kwast (Ret.) to discuss the innovation & economic opportunities driving the emerging space economy and the threats we must avoid to ensure space remains a sanctuary of freedom & hope for all mankind.
Steven, welcome! Let me start by saying thank you for your remarkable record of service, as well as for your many years of space advocacy. Can you tell me about your “grand vision” for America’s future in space, and what kind of opportunities it presents for us?
Right now, we are at a moment in time where humanity has the knowledge to solve some of our most difficult problems and the wisdom to find solutions that are kind to Mother Earth and other human beings. We leverage these gifts through our technology, which has always been the key to national power but also provides us an invaluable tool for making the world a better place.
To answer your question specifically, we are now sitting at the edge of greatness as a human race, where we can start reaching to the stars for the resources we need to keep growing as a species. There are four areas to focus on, which are energy, information, manufacturing, and transportation, and with those four engines of prosperity, you can do amazing things.
Look at the invention of the automobile, the airplane, or the light bulb. These are a few of countless examples of technologies that have changed our world and made humanity more prosperous. Space is now that place where we can usher in a new era of solving our problems on Earth while being kind to Mother Earth and each other as well.
You’re known for being an advocate of space commercialization and a strong supporter of the US Space Force. Space policy writer Peter Garretson applauded you for having the “moral courage to speak truth to power” about the need for the Space Force, and Military.com described efforts by supporters to nominate you as its first commander. What can you tell me about your role as an advocate for the Space Force?
Yes. When you take a look at history, any time human beings went into any new market or venture, you’ll find that the builders of economic prosperity and development are the business people and entrepreneurs, and they have to be able to take smart risks to do that properly.
So, in any new economy, you need the rule of law and its guardians to bring stability & predictability to the market. This lets the venture capitalists, business people, and entrepreneurs make informed decisions based on risk & reward to develop novel solutions to humanity’s problems. If you don’t have that guardian force, then thugs, thieves, and pirates will steal it away, and you won’t be able to go enter the new market without war and conflict.
The reason I have advocated for a Space Force my entire career, and especially in the last 10 years, is because as a historian and a student of human nature, strategy, and technology, I see that space will usher in a new era of either conflict or peace. I want it to be peace, and the only way we’re going to have a peaceful space economy is if space has the element of defense.
The Space Force is the newest branch of the military, but it needs to function as a guardian because that’s the role that needs to be filled. It’s not about fighting — it’s about providing an environment where business people can make smart risk decisions because they know there’s rule of law, and accountability to policies that respect the Earth and other human beings, no matter what culture or nation they come from.
I’ve heard that the private sector can do what the government cannot, because they’re willing to take risks the government will not. Elon Musk is a perfect example of that because he’s willing to blow up rockets on the launchpad repeatedly to learn how to build one perfectly. What are your thoughts on that?
That’s exactly right, but it comes down to understanding innovation, which requires prudent risk-taking and speed to market as key attributes. Elon Musk could have accomplished what he’s done in only a year — but it took him eight years because the government required hundreds of millions of dollars worth of studies and extensive review before approving him. Elon Musk’s process discovers solutions more rapidly.
Here’s an example: five years ago, Elon Musk was working on his reusable rocket, the one that can take off and then land on the same pad it launched from — and it didn’t work, it blew up. At the time, the leadership of the Air Force said to me, “Steve, he’s reckless,” but they weren’t looking closely enough at his process.
Musk discovered the problem landing the rocket wasn’t the computation involved, but the amount of hydraulic fluid being used in the system. That discovery cost him about $50 million and took 10 weeks. It would have taken the government 10 years and a billion dollars to discover the same thing.
This is why Elon Musk is first to market, and it’s why nobody else can keep up with him. He knows he needs experimentation, prototyping, and taking prudent risks where you’re pushing the engineering and technology to its limit. Pushing it to the limit is why his prototypes blow up, but he knows the limit now, and now he can design something safe because knows where it is.
Ultimately, there’s risk in everything we do. The great adventurers, pioneers, and the people that change the world are the ones that know how to take prudent risks, but the government is not good at that. Private companies are, so don’t ask the government to do what private companies can do faster. That’s what took Musk so long to get where he is today — the government wanted control and didn’t trust him. Now that he’s succeeded, NASA has started to trust him, and I hope the Space Force will do the same, but right now they still do not.
Now, in terms of space technologies, you’ve recently described some revolutionary new technologies such as beamed energy devices capable of powering mobile devices and electric vehicles from space. What can you tell me about these breakthroughs?
Sure. Let me focus on two examples, of innovation in information and energy. The first is using a network of satellites in place of cell towers. Projects like China’s Tiantong, Elon Musk’s Starlink, and Charles Miller’s Lynk are already doing this. These systems let you talk and text from anywhere on Earth, and you don’t have to build a lot of expensive towers on every mountaintop to have a signal in every valley.
Telecommunications is a multi-trillion-dollar market, but it’s shackled to a terrestrial method of delivering data that requires building thousands of cell towers all over the planet. You can replace that entire system with 46 satellites in the right constellation, and now everybody on Earth has access to texting and high-bandwidth data connections. That’s a transformation from a linear process to a network process using technology that people are already aware of, and so far Musk’s experiments have gone very well.
Now lets about talk about energy. Right now, the Boeing X-37, the tiny autonomous space shuttle the military uses for experimentation, is showing the feasibility of beamed energy. This works by collecting solar energy from a satellite that can see the sun 24/7, and converts it into a beam of radio waves that can be received on Earth, or in space, and used as energy by any device with the proper receiver. It can also be delivered in a way that is safe for all living things.
Now, we haven’t made the devices to receive that energy yet. Right now it’s It would be like having a light bulb in your house and no power lines or AC/DC electricity to bring you the light, but we know how to build it. China sees this opportunity also, and they know that the global energy market is profound. This is yet another multi-trillion-dollar market waiting to be explored.
China is planning to put up satellites that take energy from the sun, convert it into radio waves, and they’re going to flood the world markets with devices that can receive that energy, and you’ll never have to plug a device into the wall ever again. This is a new form of energy that is coming to humanity, and China will have its infrastructure ready within a few years. The question is whether America is going to be in that market to compete with them.
Well, that brings me to China. You’ve voiced concern over the rapid pace of development in China’s space program, which hasn’t missed a milestone in over 30 years. What are some of the risks we face if they dominate the “ultimate high ground”?
Well, I consider the history of this civilization to predict future behavior, and when you look at what China does to people they already control, you’ll see a history of persecution, alienation, and cultural diversity being ostracized from their society. The Uighurs, Tibet, and Hong Kong are examples of that.
The reality is this: China, in their written word, in their doctrine, and in their vision, has a clear intent of using space as the economic high ground to control and dominate the global economy. When they do, they can hold us at risk by saying “you can’t come up here to space”, and I have no faith that they will immediately change their behavior.
The current tensions in the South China Sea are an example of this. They said, “Oh, these little islands we’re going to build in the South China sea are just for our economic development. We’re not going to make any claims, we’re not going to weaponize, and we won’t put any military forces there.” Now, not only do they claim all the waters around the South China sea, but they’ve also weaponized the islands they built, and they’re saying “America, don’t you dare come here, because this is our sea, and you can’t sail here.”
So, if the past is any predictor of future performance, when China gets into space they won’t just have satellites falling around the earth. They plan to maneuver outside of the gravity well between the Earth, Moon, and Mars, and build transportation hubs to bring water and other resources to Earth. They will be able to dominate space, and they’ve already announced plans to deliver energy through beamed solar power to devices back here on Earth.
Now, China’s ability to deliver beamed power can be turned in a millisecond into a weapon that obliterates whatever it’s pointed at, which makes this dual-use technology a real danger in space. If we believe that China will always be benevolent and respect others, then it’s fine to let China lead the new economy with this technology.
However, that’s not what we see. China has a legacy of pollution, where 80% of their wells are so toxic you can’t drink out of them, and the smog in their air is so thick that it kills over a million people a year. They also have a legacy of persecution against people with different beliefs or those who are not willing to subjugate their freedom to the communist party.
Now, the Chinese people themselves are beautiful, and with a rich culture that has invented more for humanity than any other society. However, the communist party that rules China today follows historical examples we’ve seen before in Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union.
If we allow China to have unilateral control of space, then we’ll have given them a multi-trillion-dollar market for delivering energy and information to the entire world — and we’ll have allowed them to build a weapon that can utterly obliterate us.
You’ve spoken about China building a “Space Navy” and assembling the equivalent of battleships and destroyers in space. Can you elaborate on what you mean by that?
This gets back to mindset. I’m not talking about the industrial age battleships and destroyers most people know about from World War II movies, I’m talking about the outcome those battleships and aircraft carriers have in terms of military power projection.
So, when you think about what China is doing in space, where they are designing full-spectrum dominance, where they can maneuver faster and cheaper than we can, have more firepower from beamed energy technology, and control information through a space-based communications hub they’re building to connect the Moon, Mars, and cislunar space.
This will give China the same power projection in space as having battleships and aircraft carriers do in the ocean. It’s done differently, but it’s just as dangerous as a battleship or an aircraft carrier. America needs to be up there too, or we’ll lose control over what happens back here on Earth.
You’ve said that “it’s not about the technology, it’s about the strategy”, and it sounds like the strategic paradigm has changed. Right now, a lot of people may be comparing today’s situation to the space race back in the 1960s, but it’s a different game, right?
Yes, it is a different game, and here’s what every American should hear and what the White House needs to understand: everything we are building — every ship, every tank, and every plane, has the potential of being paralyzed by what China is building. Strategically, we are in the same position as France, building the Maginot Line after World War I. Germany invented Blitzkrieg to go around their fortifications and Paris fell in three weeks.
Right now we’re investing time and effort perfecting our aircraft carriers, fighters, and tanks, and China can paralyze them all from space because we build them so dependent on computers and electronics. With the space network they’re building, China can manipulate the electromagnetic spectrum and simply turn off the electricity to our military hardware.
Try to imagine a $10 billion aircraft carrier transformed into to a cork in the water, or a fleet of F35’s stuck on a ramp in Guam because none of them can even start their engines. That is what China is building. That’s what people are not aware of, and it makes everything we’ve built outdated. That’s why people get upset when you tell them about it.
These are dangerous words, but we live in dangerous times and I do not want to wake up 10 years from now to a situation where China can paralyze our military and economic infrastructure at will. I don’t want to be France, building the Maginot Line, only to find the power we’ve been creating is impotent. The American people will ask, “who the hell were the strategists that didn’t understand that it’s not about the technology, it’s about having a strategy to beat the other guy to the high ground of power?”
Steven, let me close by asking what comes next for you. What are the key goals that drive your work in the private sector now that you have retired from public service?
Let me end a vision statement. We are at the cusp of a new age, powered by an economy built in space that delivers everything to humanity that we need. It’s within our grasp right now, if we can find the political will do to it.
We can create a world free of pollution, hunger, thirst, and the devastating effects of famine and drought. In this new world, everyone has access to education and communication to enjoy the diversity of life and to celebrate the color of our differences, which is the core of our beauty. Having grown up in Africa, I was raised with a mind towards how beautiful different cultures are if they’re allowed to thrive.
That beauty and diversity are in jeopardy, though — from tyrants and despots who push people under their thumb using water, food, and information as a weapon to perpetuate their wealth and the poverty of the people they rule. America can break that cycle of hopelessness right now, across the entire globe. It is affordable and it will make own economy stronger as well.
By applying the knowledge and wisdom we have today, we can harness the power of technology to elevate the entire human race. It is achievable now, and it’s the goal that drives me to help the government work more efficiently with private enterprise, and to help those companies develop novel solutions that will make the world a better place for all of us.
Disclaimer: Steven Kwast’s views expressed in this interview reflect his professional expertise and opinions, and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the US Government or any of its particular Departments or Agencies.
About Our Guest
Lieutenant General Steven Kwast (Ret.) served in the US Air Force as the commander of the Air Education and Training Command, responsible for training over 293,000 students per year.
Steven is a decorated veteran with over 650 combat flight hours, who retired in 2019 after a 33-year career in the Air Force with over 30 awards and decorations, including the Air Force Distinguished Service Medal, Defense Superior Service Medal, Legion of Merit, and the Bronze Star.
Steve Kwast is currently the President and Chief Global Officer for Genesis Systems, a company dedicated to solving the global water scarcity problem. Learn more by reading his corporate bio and Wikipedia pages.