Commentary | The Last Compact Disc and Digital Assurance

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One of us, on a visit with his daughters (ages 6 and 8) to their grandparents who still own such things, showed them a cassette tape. With only slight interest, they stared at the bizarre contraption wondering what such an odd thing could be.

Back in 1984, CDs were new and wondrous, their shiny surfaces and digital perfection almost magical. This year, the music industry may well produce the very last mass-market CD. An era that began with Thomas Edison — when music went from something that was live to something etched into a physical item you could buy in a store — will soon be behind us. Walking down a cold, wet street in Stuttgart, Germany, last year under the perpetually gray sky, one of us heard a song playing from a fruit vendor’s store that he hadn’t heard in 15 years. Within minutes, four different remixes were downloaded from iTunes and added to his favorites playlist.

Thus Moore’s Law and the network effect, the exponential impact of increased interconnectivity, have radically changed an industry — everything from how we experience music to how executives profit from it. We have gone from shelves full of 33 rpm records to carrying our entire music collection on our cellphones.

If information technology (IT) has swept radical change across the entertainment content delivery business, its impact on the newspaper business has been a tidal wave. Almost overnight it wiped out well over half of an average newspaper’s revenue stream, leading a once fiercely localized industry to collapse to a handful of global brands whose news is increasingly co-mingled on tablet apps and websites rather than delivered on cold winter mornings to your front door. It has radically and forever changed publishing, the way we use libraries, the Post Office, communications, Christmas shopping and, certainly, how we will fight future wars. But one place it has barely touched is spacecraft development.

And therein lies an enormous opportunity.

Spacecraft engineers, managers and corporations are notoriously conservative people — and rightly so. These billion-dollar machines are unique in that they become almost untouchable well before they are ever turned on in their harsh operating locations. At the dawn of the Space Age, smart people set about developing a process to manage this risk that today we call systems engineering. Requirements are painstakingly decomposed by hand to their lowest component level. Components are painstakingly tested to those requirements as they are laboriously connected together into ever more complex assemblies — until a spacecraft is born. Every bolt has a pedigree and we have built a vast army of quality assurance professionals to ensure the integrity of the process. It works, no doubt, but it is very expensive and represents a large part of a satellite’s cost.

The systems engineering process, developed in an era of slide rules, is essentially a paper process that scales poorly as system complexity goes up. Overhead transparencies may have been replaced by thousands of projected PowerPoint charts, but as a decision-making experience, a three-day PowerPoint design review session is not much different from staring at transparencies, or paper copies, for those same days. Essentially, we have inculcated a paper decision-making and review process that is frozen in time. The main contribution of IT has been a dramatic increase in the ability to generate paper for this process. Witness, before it was canceled, the proposals submitted for the U.S. Air Force’s T-Sat program that had to be delivered in semi-trucks.

As a method of describing systems of ever-increasing complexity, paper proposals are a highly inefficient mechanism. Similarly, PowerPoint — with its associated abstraction, necessitated simplification and the power of the message primarily in the hands of the presenter — is a lousy way to make decisions in the modern age.

We believe that a significant portion of the troubles in recent space acquisition can be traced to a paper systems engineering process that is straining under the stress of space systems that are becoming more complex with every generation. Additionally, the development of these systems is increasingly becoming about the software — which the paper systems engineering process of requirements decomposition and testing addresses poorly.

In the late 20th century, music recordings, which were essentially Edison’s needle and groove idea, got better and better — until they hit a wall. A sea change was needed to progress, first to digital on CDs, which eventually led to direct content streaming. We believe that space acquisition similarly needs a sea change. The systems engineering process should be modernized and become a digital assurance process.

With the world changing around it, the space acquisition community should embrace the opportunity to apply the accelerating network effect to its acquisition system.

It should design a system with the world of 2030 in mind, rather than the world of 1970.

It should ask itself what a proposal, preliminary design review and critical design review should look like in an era of computer-aided design and ubiquitous connectivity within and between factories of 3-D printers and intelligent self-aware tools.

It should ask itself what oversight should look like with a young work force that naturally collaborates through social networks and rapid, multilayered simultaneous conversations.

It should ask how satellite designs should be documented and reviewed given the existence of virtual worlds and ever more sophisticated gaming technologies.

It should ask itself what acceptance testing means when computing power is such that systems can be modeled at the atomic level and every engineer has immediate access to the sum total of the world’s knowledge wirelessly.

With the iGeneration coming of age, when almost every major space acquisition of the past decade has experienced major crises, and with budgets from the U.S. Department of Defense to NASA under tremendous pressure, what better time to start this thinking than now?

Steven M. Huybrechts is vice president of Applied Minds Inc., a Glendale, Calif.-based innovation and technology company. He was the director of space programs and policy in the Office of the U.S. Secretary of Defense from 2004 to 2009. Jeffry S. Welsh, a former university professor and program manager at the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory, is currently the research, development, test and evaluation lead for the Operationally Responsive Space Office.