‘Crossing the Valley of Death’ To Get New Technology Into Space

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  Space News Business

‘Crossing the Valley of Death’ To Get New Technology Into Space

By BEN IANNOTTA
Space News Correspondent
posted: 24 April 2007
11:17 am ET




COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — Inadequate funding, fear of failure, red tape and high launch costs conspire to make it difficult to take promising new technologies from the laboratory to orbit, officials with some of the leading U.S. space-development institutions said during a panel discussion here. But these officials also said they have, or are developing, means to counter these roadblocks.

Retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Eugene Tattini, deputy director of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif., admitted that his organization has the unusual luxury of “not having to arduously justify a return on investment for every dollar we expend in the technology arena.” JPL engineers are freer to experiment as they shepherd technologies across the “valley of death” to flight readiness, he said.

The NASA-funded lab’s free-wheeling culture also helps: “The facts of the matter are that if you want to wear your flip flops to work as people do for 37 years at JPL, that’s extremely great. I will keep the labs well stocked, we will keep the people well paid, and in some cases we’ll keep them out of the public’s eye,” Tattini said.

Anthony Tether, director of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), said his management secret is to rotate engineers and scientists through the organization on several-year stints.

“Just don’t have people be there for very long and you’ll get all the innovation that you want,” Tether said.

Employees of private companies or government agencies often have their hearts set on decades-long careers. Most engineers have a built-in fear of pushing innovations that might not work.

“If they fail [at DARPA] they haven’t screwed up their career because there’s no career at DARPA,” Tether said.

Once technologies have been proven, it is harder for the risk averse to ignore them. “We take the technical excuse off the table. That’s really what we do,” Tether said.

Even DARPA, however, cannot avoid all obstacles to innovation. Proving technologies by flying them in low Earth orbit remains a daunting challenge because of the high cost and crowded schedules of rockets , Tether said.

So DARPA is pushing advances in launch vehicles as well as spacecraft, supporting development programs including Space Exploration Technologies Corp.’s Falcon rocket and AirLaunch LCC’s QuickReach launcher, which is deployed from the back of a C-17 cargo plane. Those rockets could reduce launch costs to the $5 million to $10 million range for payloads weighing 450 kilograms to 810 kilograms, Tether said when asked by the audience to define a low-cost launch.

The Falcon is launched from the remote Kwajalein Atoll in the Pacific Ocean, so it does not fall under what Tether called “the tyranny of the ranges.” He was referring to the U.S. Air Force-operated launch ranges that extend over the oceans from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., and Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif. Launches from these sites are monitored closely at great expense due to their proximity to population centers.

Maj. Gen. Ted Bowlds, commander of the Air Force Research Laboratory, said his organization tries to cut through bureaucracy by having researchers work closely with those actually fight wars. “From our perspective we’re out there fighting the global war on terror, against an enemy that doesn’t have a bureaucracy that they’re sitting on top of,” Bowlds said.

That can be easier said than done, however. “One of the biggest things we wrestle with in the lab is we’ll find those game changers today but the program office isn’t ready to move it into the field” because the system doesn’t have the necessary capability or reliability, he said.

The lone commercial representative on the panel, Edward Horowitz, chief executive officer of satellite operator SES Americom of Princeton, N.J., said his company is disciplined about integrating innovations into its satellites.

“We don’t fall in love with any particular technology,” Horowitz said. “We will put experimental payloads on our spacecraft — phased array antennas, for example, for receive and transit — but [we] don’t fall in love.”

The company’s goal, Horowitz said, is to launch satellites at regular intervals to take advantage of Moore’s Law — a theory that describes the pace by which micro-chip processing continually improves.

“If a program takes … two, three, four, five years just to develop, and then another two, three, four years to build, we’ve had three or four turns of Moore’s law and everything that we assumed would be the case when the satellite was put on orbit has changed,” Horowitz said.

Horowitz expressed frustration that the once-innovative idea of freeing up military communications by transferring some communications to private satellites has not been formalized.

“If we’re part of the strategic plan for [the Department of Defense], why are we being treated as a hobby? If you’re serious, commercial space should be treated like a program. We should understand what requirements there are to go on the next generation satellites,” he said.