Military buyers challenged to stay up on the latest commercial space innovations

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Space Force Lt. Gen. Michael Guetlein said commercial innovation today is "outpacing the demand signal from the government."

WASHINGTON — U.S. military buyers of space systems for decades have relied on a stable of aerospace and defense companies to develop technologies and launch them to orbit at the government’s request. 

In the years since SpaceX disrupted the military launch market, the growth of the space economy fueled by private money has upended what was historically a government-driven approach to technology developments. 

Staying up to date on commercial space activities has been challenging for military procurement organizations, Lt. Gen. Michael Guetlein, commander of the U.S. Space Force’s Space Systems Command, said May 18.

We’re seeing more innovation coming out of industry than we have seen since the push to the moon, an enormous amount,” Guetlein said at a Center for Strategic and International Studies event. 

“We’re at the point today where commercial innovation is actually outpacing the demand signal from the government, which traditionally hasn’t happened,” said Guetlein.

Since taking the helm at the Los Angeles-based Space Systems Command last summer, Guetlein has started a number of efforts to bridge the gap between military buyers and new space companies. 

One initiative is to help startups and small businesses navigate the complex government procurement terrain. Guetlein. There are many business opportunities for companies but they are not presented to them in a user friendly way, he said. “With the acronyms, the office names, the different buckets out there, we completely confuse industry, they have no idea how to come do business with the government.”

The Space Systems Command has assigned officials known as “sherpas” to help guide startups and small businesses that are unfamiliar with defense procurement, he said. “They will be the ones that kind of show the pathway to a customer.”

The command also has stood up a commercial services office “to embrace as much of the commercial industry as we can,” Guetlein said. “When we stood up Space Systems Command, we did it with a mantra that we’re going to ‘buy what we can and build only what we must’ type model.”

The commercial services office has the responsibility of “trying to look across all of industry to understand what’s in the realm of the possible,” said. Their key task is to identify technologies developed for commercial use that can also fill a military need.

Space Systems Command also will increase the frequency of face-to-face “industry day” meetings with the private sector. 

Last fall the command hosted a meeting focused on crosslink communications technologies to connect satellites in space. 

On May 19 and May 20, companies were invited to pitch technologies at a “tactical ISR industry day,” focused on space-based intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities in the commercial sector.

“It’s going to be a reverse industry day,” said Guetlein. Instead of companies showing up to hear about the government’s wish list, Space Force program managers will hear about what companies have to offer. “That allows us to learn more about what’s out there,” he said. 

Next month there will be a similar event focused on cislunar space domain awareness, and another one later in the year on commercial data analysis tools.