Op-ed | The space renaissance: the government as an early adopter

by and

In November 2015, the House Science Committee held a joint hearing of its subcommittees on space and the environment to discuss the subject of how new public-private partnerships can be leveraged to support Earth science missions at NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Given the excitement and innovation of the commercial remote sensing sector, it is reasonable to start a public dialogue on how the government can benefit from an explosion in new commercial, space-based Earth observations. The emergence of remote sensing as a source of new economic activity in space is one example of the private sector creating new mission capabilities without first-and-only-customer demand being articulated by the government.

There is a much broader theme at play here, however. There is a renaissance occurring in the aerospace community, and the way governments respond in the next couple of years may set the stage for what could be the next new industry. There is much the government can do to support the launch industry, but this discussion is focused on the space component.

The aerospace industry is a strategic industry, with national security, scientific and commercial opportunities all intertwined. Driven by governments, the aerospace sector has served “the customer” to meet its needs, in its image, at its cost. In other words, the government has had market power, setting the quantity, quality and cost of aerospace products, is the delineator of requirements and acts as the program manager. There will always be bespoke aerospace contracting services to meet unique government needs, but we argue that the emergence of aerospace entrepreneurs can bring two new opportunities to bookend the existing aerospace sector: rapid demonstrations and commercial products.

For both of these opportunities, the government should move beyond the historical government-to-contractor relationship in favor of putting itself in the position of an interested consumer. Sometimes this consumer model may be more of a hybrid of investor and early adopter of novel capabilities by contracting and partnering for rapid demos, and sometimes as simply one of many global consumers of products and services by procuring a commercial product. Evolution along this spectrum from adopting novel capabilities to buying mature products can be guided by two principles: buy the outcome, not the process; and be a solid second customer.

For new developments, novel capabilities and rapid demonstrations, the government should buy the outcome, not the process. Government programs should foster innovation by creating a white space for new concepts emerging from industry, without constraining industry on how they are created. If a capability is relatively immature, the government can benefit from investment and risk reduction in the private sector, while also being an early adopter and providing customer feedback to shape a potential commercial product offering. In this construct, the government can evaluate the utility of commercial capabilities, provide feedback without placing requirements on the “how” of meeting the need, avoid directing changes to company operations that may conflict with broader business objectives, and limit long-term risks by not being immediately committed to a long-term, follow-on contract.

The U.S. government can approach much of what it does in space by looking to buy new outcomes instead of managing against mitigating risks of failure. These rapid demos can help to inform future space architectures and procurement programs better than studies and concepts. It is important to recognize that much of the aerospace industrial base already offers many commercial services. Spacecraft manufacturing is a solved problem, and quality assurance, launch services, commissioning, and autonomous operations are happening every day. The government could soon be facing a situation where a rapidly provided spacecraft bus to enable integration of new payloads will be available on demand, from multiple providers, at costs that are dramatically lower than currently available.

The government can begin to think now about how it will leverage this emerging U.S. industrial capability for turnkey spacecraft solutions and satellites-as-a-service. These novel capabilities will create in-space test and demonstration opportunities for new sensors much more rapidly and at significantly lower cost than has ever been available. There are many opportunities for rapid demos, such as space traffic management and satellite servicing, but emerging commercial weather companies may best poised to immediately take advantage of these new programs.

For operational services and commercial products, the government should be a solid second customer and let industry find commercial market traction first. As commercial capabilities mature, an entrepreneurial organization mitigates technical risk with its new product. If it is successful, it is because the team has proven themselves to be able to manage and build an enduring, viable company. The global market is larger and moves faster than any government, but similarly demands operational excellence, cost effectiveness and scalable business practices.

Once there is product-market fit, then the commercial company can pursue the U.S. government as an enterprise customer, and the government can purchase commercial products and services based on commercial terms and at commercial prices. In this way, governments can be a consumer and offer feedback to companies in the same way other customers do, and can benefit from the collective community drive to improve product quality.

The U.S. government has notably adopted this market-based approach in its use of commercial satellite communications services. Commercial remote sensing is ready for this relationship as well, as established and emerging providers are bringing new data sets in different phenomenologies for a variety of applications and customers. The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency is currently in the lead on developing an approach to engagement with this industry, as reflected in its Commercial Geoint Strategy. NASA, NOAA, USGS and others can do the same for new data sources and analytics-services providers in support of civil government needs. This is the essence of the “government as a second customer” construct.

The space renaissance has been ignited by innovation in private aerospace, made up of new and varied enterprises in countries around the world, growing faster than ever before. This industry shift is not necessarily going unnoticed by government, but there should be increased importance placed on focused engagement. We recommend immediate and urgent action to begin important changes to the policy and procurement environments, enabling government to position itself effectively as an early adopter and an enterprise customer. The space renaissance is global in scope and universal in its potential commercial impact, and those that engage early may play a pivotal role in shaping the next new industry.

Robbie Schingler is co-founder of Planet Labs. Richard B. Leshner, PhD, is director of government affairs at Planet Labs.