sputnik mania

Our Sputnik moment in 1957 was the realization that the Soviets were able to do something that shocked us.  That something was to launch a rocket and orbit a spacecraft.  It was shocking because of the implication: nuclear weapons could conceivably be delivered from the Soviet Union and strike American soil in as little as half an hour.

Today’s Sputnik moment has a less immediate existential threat on the American people, but it is essential assuming America’s intelligence community and military will really insist on staying (warning: metaphor alert!) at the top of the space-faring food chain.

The 2011 Sputnik moment is to accept the reality that the “space edition” of the government-industrial complex (that is, “old space”) is incapable of providing the space products the government wants at a price it is willing to pay.

The fail-evidence is everywhere: FIA, the James Webb Space Telescope, the Space Shuttle, the International Space Station, SBIRS, EELV, and NPOESS to name just a few.

It’s been said that when you keep doing the same things, you ought to expect the same results.  So what is the change that will make space cheaper, better, and faster for the government?

With the Air Force, it is a “new” space acquisition model, complete with acronym. It’s EASE, the evolutionary acquisition for space strategy.  EASE is being touted as an improvement which will save at least 10 percent off space price tags.  It’s running concurrently with saber-rattling about holding contractor’s feet to the fire.

10 percent is nothing to sneeze at, but if it makes sense now, it should have made sense—and been done—years ago.  And as a point of comparison, don’t forget EELV was touted as saving as much as 50 percent versus the heritage launch vehicles.

The problem with EASE is the first “E” (and by the way, where did that second “E” come from?  I digress…).  Instead of an “E,” it should be “C” for commercial or “R” for revolutionary.  Commercial space has come to be understood as ferrying passengers and cargo to the ISS, but there is far more that can still gained from commercial space.

And how about the “R” part?  Here’s a revolution in space affairs: Israel, Japan, or India to building (and launching) satellites for those U.S. agencies whose names end with the word “agency.”

Or for the military.

Or for other U.S. government users.  Like NASA.

Despite all the platitudes about increased space partnering in the National Space Policy and the National Security Space Strategy, we’re all just nibbling around the edges with things like space data sharing agreements with France.  And while it’s great to space-partner with Australia on a southern hemisphere space fence, space data sharing, and AEHF, Australia has been a profound space partner for some time.

Where is the partnering—that is, the new partnering that’s going to make everything better—going to occur?

There is little comfort in revolution and for government, perhaps even less so in trusting commercial providers to do what they’re best at, but risk is everywhere.  Sometimes it’s mission risk; ironically, other times it’s the cost and schedule risks that result from attempts to remove (or over-mitigate) the mission risk.

Keep doing what you’ve been doing, keep getting what you got.

  1. Coyote says:

    I am always sceptical whenever they change methods, styles, means, or practices of space acquisition. The last two decades have been filled with such changes and each effort has made matters worse, not better.

    From my perspective, the real piggy-bank-buster for DoD and Intel space programs came in the 1990s amid calls for air and space integration. This was matched by the desire to somehow hammer the square peg of global satellite services into the round hole of regional air component management. We literally abandoned our “strategic” focus and concentrated instead on “tactical performance.” At the same time, we demanded aircraft-like performance from satellites.

    Against this backdrop, we reorganised the entire space community–including acquisitions–to mirror the way the Air Force mans and equips its flying missions. In effect, we diffused the centers of space excellence and scattered its members into the Air Force’s “general population.” In other words, we destroyed the space culture that delivered on-orbit success.

    We have become excellent at integrating space capabilities into other operations, but we have lost the ability to field new space capabilities.

    I humbly suggest that we need to find balance between integrating space into air operations and providing spacepower for the nation. Perhaps we should reconsider how we recruit, train, educate, assign, and promote space professionals. Since none of them fly, it would make sense that their career progression should be different than a fliers. But it isn’t.


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