Commentary | Don’t Snuff Out F6 Innovation

by

The U.S. government should reconsider recent decisions to cancel the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency’s (DARPA) Future, Fast, Flexible, Fractionated Free-flying Spacecraft United by Information Exchange, or F6, program. F6 provides a critical testbed for future space innovation.

When I first arrived as a young space research-and-development officer at the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Organization in Los Angeles 35 years ago, the Global Positioning System was in its initial Block 1 testing.  Early test birds were flying, ground receivers were built, and the manpack version was huge — test soldiers carried it around in a large 18-kilogram backpack. Working-level Air Force space visionaries at that time foresaw the tremendous value that a system of navigation, positioning and timing satellites could bring to users around the world. While “Big Aerospace” showed little interest in GPS or weather satellites at the time (they were too busy making real money on the important missions), the Naval Research Laboratory and a small space unit inside aerospace giant Rockwell International helped make the program a reality.

Meanwhile, the Air Force bureaucracy in Washington did not help much. The GPS budget was zeroed out year after year by headquarters, where the finance division bean counters could find no “validated operational requirement or user” for this thing called GPS. After all, practically every Air Force aircraft at the time had a trained and certified navigator and carried all sorts of redundant navigational aids such as inertial navigation platforms, radio direction-finding and even old-fashioned sextants, in use since the days of square-rigged canvas sailing ships. 

The GPS program nearly died several times through a favorite strategy at headquarters sometimes referred to as “choking the baby,” which uses techniques borrowed from Pharaoh to kill the program before it could get too strong, stand up and demand financial resources from some important project. Gen. Alton Slay, one of the commanders of the Air Force Systems Command during that era, once said: “The problem with those space guys out there is that they are all a bunch of tinkerers.” Only the iron-mailed fist of Strategic Air Command (SAC), landing with its considerable thunder and lightning on top of Air Force headquarters  each year at budget time, saved GPS from certain death by a thousand bureaucratic paper cuts.(SAC had little real interest in the GPS global navigation role either; it wanted human navigators just as much. But smart program design had interested SAC in some other aspects of the system, and during internal wars with budget bureaucrats aerospace politics make strange bedfellows.)

The rest, of course, is history. GPS went on to improve its accuracy, shrink its receivers to thumbnail size and proliferate across every platform, and it was repeatedly named the “most important space system” by users in the decades ahead. I was there at the time, and nobody, not even the visionary initial innovators, anticipated the revolution in locating technology that would later be unleashed by the combination of GPS satellites and innovative ground electronics. When we first saw the Japanese putting GPS into cars to give driving directions, we thought it was hilarious. A multitude of current military and civil applications, like precision farming, tracking of children and parolees, and stolen vehicle location, were completely unforeseen at the time. Entire new industries have sprung up around each of these, and many other applications.

The GPS example has been repeated many times in the development of other space system capabilities, many of which remain classified to this day. Space innovators push forward new system concepts and payloads, and the “business as usual” crowd and vested interests push back, saying “no validated requirement,” meanwhile protecting their status quo and their slice of the budget pie, so ever more important today. One of the reasons that Congress gives DARPA and the various space laboratories a place in the space business is to provide a place for nontraditional thinking and product revolution to occur. Big Aerospace, the Pentagon and the major space programs are always happy to evolve their existing systems, but they hate risk, and risk-taking is where the big leaps ahead come from. 

DARPA actually had the right vision on the F6 program, and it should not worry about not having a “business case” or the lack of a transition or operational user. Just as DARPA’s role in inventing precursor technologies for the Internet ultimately unleashed a giant new industry, DARPA plays a key role in future space system technology development. For years, smaller satellites were criticized as “not having enough capability” (power, computing, aperture size, etc.). Many of those early criticisms are now thoroughly debunked, and medium-sized satellites provide a mainstay force to replace some of the old Battlestars.

The future promise of multiple smaller platforms and payloads working closely and smartly together, with low-cost, high-performance crosslinks, high-efficiency power systems and leap-forward on-board computing, as well as the holy grail of enabling the formation-flying technologies to realize truly dilute apertures sweeping the skies at high resolution, make the continuation of the F6 program critical to America’s long-term future in space — not to mention the constellation scatter and reformation capabilities to lay the groundwork for future advancements in on-orbit survivability. 

Programs such as F6 are the seed corn for future breakthroughs, and we must not sacrifice the seeds of the future. 

DARPA does not need an operational requirement to innovate, and that is exactly why we have DARPA. We should expect and tolerate 90 percent failed programs out of DARPA, because the 10 percent that work will be world changing — just as they have been in the past. The danger is for DARPA not to reach far enough.

The Fortune 500, Wall Street and even venture capitalists have all but abandoned funding real technology innovation, particularly anything related to space. 

America’s space innovators need DARPA and programs like F6 to help them invent the next GPS.

 

W. David Thompson was the founder and chief executive of Spectrum Astro Inc. and is a fellow of the American Astronautical Society.