It Is Not Rocket Science Anymore

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The winners of the 2nd Space Race will be innovators, like those before us who’ve led every technology-driven industry since the dawn of civilization. The winners of this space race, motivated either to establish international norms in a new domain or to maximize their company’s earnings, will be those with the most enduring vision, the keenest strategies, and the most innovative solutions. But they will not be rocket scientists, exactly.

There has been a fundamental shift from space hardware to software within the space industry, and it is something our government must quickly adapt to and embrace if we are to prevail.

The first space race channeled JFK’s emphasis on rocket science, or aerospace engineering, as it soon came to be called. Everything else was important, too, but this new discipline was considered essential for American victory. Even today’s space spectators and enthusiasts are awe-struck by the spectacular controlled explosion we call liftoff. The rocket science miracles necessary to realize every boomer’s childhood dream of launching into space on their own private spaceship has become a reality, with more and more people doing it every day.

Winning the new economic race; however, will require more than the hardware to get to space. The actual rocket science behind the hardware is no longer where the most cutting-edge innovation is happening and value is being created – the future is in software.

Commercial innovation in software will prove to be integral to the success of the commercial space industry and consistent Space Force victories, assuming the government gets out of its own way. If the government was in charge of developing the iPhone, how innovative would they be? Or instead, what if another lumbering bureaucracy was in charge of developing the apps for that phone? Would we see the same level and rigor of innovation?

With the commercial commoditization of rockets and small satellites nearly complete, and as satellite constellations become increasingly complex and innovative, the government must completely step away from investing in any development in these areas. Private industry backed by private capital has demonstrated it delivers faster with better focus when a customer need is demonstrated. There are hundreds of launch companies and satellite manufacturers delivering viable (and in many cases better) government-designed systems – and at a fraction of the cost.

Consider the differentiated orbital missions of satellites as they are more and more defined by the specific instrument payloads they carry. These mission payloads are the “apps” that include everything from a nearly infinite combination of cameras, weather sensors, radios, and communication systems to all manner of data storage, processing, and artificial intelligence. For investors, these software intensive projects, both on orbit and in the networked ground infrastructure, are where the next 100x investment returns will be.

Critical to our success in a new wave of competition is harnessing this power of innovation in software efficiently and effectively. To do so, deliberate policy and investment thesis shifts will be required by investors, the government, and industry.

Government acquisition agencies must reinvent their contract award incentive structures and adapt. Much like it did in the 1950’s with airplanes (except bombers and fighters), the government must completely shift itself to being a customer in the marketplace. Exquisite, one-of-a-kind development spacecraft projects directed by last decade’s government rocket scientists must become the very rare exception.

For everything else, government procurement must become more adept at rapid and routine technical and business analysis of companies’ current product and service offerings to define enterprise-level capabilities. Rather than directing the development of rocket and satellite hardware designs that compete poorly against what is available commercially, those R&D funds could instead be better repurposed to purchase the tools we need from these special-purpose payload apps. The expertise and wisdom associated with these trade-offs across the entire space marketplace is invaluable; knowing the space software marketplace and how to build what the government needs out of what’s commercially available is as important as understanding warfighters’ needs from the space domain.

We need to discard the legacy model of specified procurement, where the government directs development with exquisitely detailed performance specifications that only a single contractor can perform (Apple will not turn to just one company to build all its apps, either). With the hundreds of commercial space companies offering a plethora of goods and services, simple contracts should start to look more like buying a civilian aircraft than an Apollo mission.

Another similarly obsolete tradition are program status reviews, that call in as many government engineers to attend as there are employees in the company to painstakingly review contract needs and performance. Rooted in the old way of government-directed designs, today they do more to slow down progress than help. The new generation of acquisition professionals must instead pivot to buying goods and services that are useful to supporting the combat commanders, not the whims of armchair warriors in Washington.

The fundamental shift from space hardware to software within industry, while exciting, will be moot if we fail to adapt acquisition strategies that enable the 21st century space economy, not work against it. By doing away with the old ways of specified procurement and lengthy program status reviews, we can speed up the process to get critical hardware and software into the hands of our warfighters. Only by properly harnessing the innovation found within our own domestic industry can we come out on top over our deadliest adversaries and lead the technological advancement of humanity into the heavens.

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