U.S. military trying to be a player, not a bystander, in the new space race

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There is a growing ecosystem around space, government and entrepreneurship.

WASHINGTON — An online advertisement titled “Think big, take risks, innovate!” is not a self-help seminar but a call to entrepreneurs to come do business with the National Reconnaissance Office.

The NRO, whose mission is to design, build and launch classified spy satellites, wants to hear pitches from companies with “cutting edge technologies and high payoff concepts.” The NRO promises a “risk-tolerant environment to invest.”

By most accounts, the intelligence community is leading the way in “leveraging commercial” when it comes to space technology. The Defense Department, a much larger institution weighed down by arcane procurement methods, has been slower to act.

The U.S. Air Force, with control of 90 percent of the military’s space programs, insists it wants to move faster. It has laid out ambitious plans to replace legacy constellations with modern, more resilient systems, and to increase the use of commercial launch services to reduce costs and shorten schedules. It is also working more closely with the NRO.

In recent interviews with SpaceNews, industry executives and Air Force advisers said they see the military more interested than ever in what the private sector is doing in space. There is nonetheless a wide cultural gulf between “legacy” and “new space.”

Changing the military acquisition culture “has been a journey,” said Bill Gattle, president of Harris Corporation’s Space and Intelligence Systems. For many years, the government has developed its own technologies. Then commercial companies started coming in, offering satellite services and launch. “Initially the government didn’t believe it was possible,” Gattle said.

A significant marker for the national security space community was a 60 Minutes interview with senior Air Force officials in 2015 in which they articulated why space had become a new domain of warfare. “It was a revelation throughout the government that space is critical infrastructure,” said Gattle. “If you don’t have it, you can’t fight.” After that, “we saw a fundamental shift. DoD and the intelligence community started to partner very heavily and take this much more seriously,” he said. “The intelligence community and DoD partnerships have never been stronger in my career of more than 30 years.”

Just as space moved up the ladder as a military priority, commercial activity began to gather speed.

“Today feels like 1998, that was the last time we had the same level of enthusiasm with startups,” said Randy Kendall, vice president of launch program operations at The Aerospace Corporation, a government funded think tank that serves as a trusted adviser to the Air Force, NASA and the NRO.

The late 1990s hype about commercial space didn’t materialize as everyone had hoped, said Kendall. “The question I get a lot is ‘What’s different today?’”

The obvious difference is technology, he said. “It wasn’t there in the 90s, especially in small satellites, microelectronics, additive manufacturing. Cubesats can now do imagery and communications. And investors are putting up money.”

National security threats in space are also different, said Kendall. “So we need to be more agile and more responsive.”

Agile launch

A big buzzword in the industry is “agile launch.” Military launches can be anything but. They take months or years to plan. Kendall said a combination of technological advances, regulatory reforms and a push by senior leaders are driving change. He pointed to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which soon will kick off a “launch challenge” hoping to attract innovators. DARPA believes the military must have fast-response launch services in case there is a conflict and satellites have to be deployed quickly.

To help the Air Force find emerging space technologies, Aerospace Corp. opened up a test lab where about 100 projects are now underway. One is a navigation system that uses RF signals and does not require GPS. Alternatives to the military’s Global Positioning System satellites are a priority as GPS satellites and signals could be targeted if the United States went to war against power rivals like China or Russia.

“We’re looking everywhere for ideas and technologies,” said Randy Villahermosa, director of innovation at Aerospace Corp. “We’re certainly bullish on the potential that lies in startups, in the entrepreneurial community.” As a technical adviser to the Air Force, “We’re in a great position to help both sides become more aware of the opportunities.”

The government has to understand that startups “live in a very precarious world,” said Villahermosa. “They’re worried about how they’re going to go to market, how they’ll grow their business.”

The military is accustomed to hiring contractors to develop customized products. In the commercial world, it has to play by different rules. “How do we translate government problems so they look attractive to startups?” Villahermosa asked. “If I can reframe a problem in space so that it solves a problem you’re seeing in your market, that’s a win-win.”

There is a “growing ecosystem around space, government, entrepreneurship,” said Villahermosa. The Air Force is spending $100 million on a space industry consortium to help recruit commercial vendors and bring their ideas to the government. The Silicon Valley-based Defense Innovation Unit Experimental, or DIUX, also helps the military scout the market.

Hurdles for new companies

Aerospace CEO Steve Isakowitz came from the commercial space industry and is a big proponent of connecting the private sector with the Defense Department.

Technologies the military needs to modernize its space systems — nanosatellites, artificial intelligence, virtual reality, cloud computing — are moving fast, he said. “But how do we get from programs of record to the future vision?”

The military’s acquisition process and government regulations “can be a high hurdle for newer companies that don’t have the accounting system or the timeframe to deal with the uncertainties of the government market,” said Isakowitz. He sees a push from the top leadership of the Air Force to accelerate change. “I am anticipating Air Force announcements to streamline operations, make it easier for commercial firms and allies to contribute.”

The threat is growing, he said. “We need to demonstrate our ability to keep pace with that threat. And the Air Force understands that.”

Some commercial companies still see bias in the military toward in-house development. “Even when commercial technology is superior, there is a preference to do development work,” said William Broderick, chief financial officer of AGI, a supplier of space situational awareness software. “The Air Force wants to go fast in acquisition? There are available commercial capabilities. Why don’t they just buy them?”

Celeste Ford, CEO of Stellar Solutions – an aerospace consulting firm in Silicon Valley — said bridging “old and new space” is harder than it seems. “Legacy space was all government funded. The government said ‘jump’ and the industry said ‘how high.’” And government agencies also worry about protecting their jobs and budgets. “Now we have other sources of money in space that didn’t exist before.”

What worries DoD and the intelligence community is that if they don’t keep pace with the innovations in space, the United States could be at a disadvantage, said Ford. “It’s obvious that our adversaries have access to the same technologies we do. We need to plan for that.”

Tim Greeff, founder and CEO of the National Security Technology Accelerator, matches up government agencies with nontraditional contractors, said sometimes government buyers don’t know how to work with companies that are not established government contractors, he said. Startups might respond to a call from a consortium, “and they never hear anything back.” Companies are not afraid of being told “no.” said Greeff, “but they need to know the opportunity is real.”