Op-ed | Is the future of space ops officeless?

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DevOps plus ‘work from anywhere’ is the real endgame for satellite operators

The space industry as we know it was born in the glory days of the Space Age, the 1960s. The collaboration between astronauts on the surface of the moon and Mission Control engineers in Houston was the most “remote” work ever accomplished to date.

Fast forward to today and you’ll observe that while other industries have raced to adopt new technologies, today’s space operations are still rooted in the principles that applied 60 years ago. Run a quick Google image search for “Satellite Operations” and you will see pictures from 2020 that are essentially color versions of Apollo mission control circa 1969 with a few notable differences. The screens are now color/flat panels, and, thankfully, there is less smoking and more diversity among the employees. However, in terms of embracing their role as the “originators” of remote work, the space industry has fallen woefully behind other major industries. Our ancestors walked on the moon so we could run…the solar system remotely. It is past time for us to begin leveraging software as the pointy end of the spear and step up to that challenge.

Mission Control during Apollo 10. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The trend toward remote work has been slowly gaining steam for some time. Companies like Dell and Salesforce made the move to allow remote work years ago and some have even moved all of their workforce to remote work. But the last two months have seen an unprecedented rise in the number of employees who are working remotely. The catalyst for this transition to remote work is, of course, the COVID-19 pandemic, which has effectively forced the vast majority of industries and employers to swiftly move all office work remote, by mandate and for the necessary safety of their employees. Companies that may have never thought remote work an option for their business operations are being proven wrong. Nationwide Insurance, a nearly 100-year-old company has made remote work permanent. Facebook and Twitter have too. This rapid adjustment to remote work has begged unlikely industry leaders to ask the questions: Do we really need to be together in an office, or do we simply need access to one another? What is the node, and given the circumstances, does it matter? In this vein, satellite experts should be asking: why is the space industry, the original ‘remote’ industry, behind the curve when it comes to truly remote operations?

Upstarts like Planet and Spire have been able to evolve and adopt remote operations and replace SatOps with DevOps thanks to a Silicon Valley software-centric mindset. Other space-oriented firms, however, have struggled to catch up, only using remote ops as a temporary fix to an endemic problem. Once NASA’s Curiosity rover team moves back into their offices, will they continue embracing the remote work mindset or will they go back to business as usual? The pull of the old school 1960s-era NASA engineer may be too great to overcome once they share space in Mission Control once again. In order to better understand why companies operate satellites today the same way as in the 1960s, it’s important to look back at the evolution of remote work and software.

THE ORIGINS AND EVOLUTION OF TELECOMMUTING

When the original industries that made the transition into remote work, they employed one hop communications—meaning the operations of a decentralized location, such as a satellite office, were remotely controlled from a central node, like an HQ.

Improved developments to information-storage systems allowed for this change in teleworking mobility in the early 1970s but the organizational and cultural norms of the “traditional” office were slow to change and it did not see widespread takeoff. Leaps in technology since the 3rd and 4th Industrial Revolutions have taken those developments even further for remote work achievements. Unlike the days of earlier Industrial Revolutions where only manual human input could produce hardware and software, we can now easily control hardware with software (i.e. instead of physically pulling a lever for a result, we can push a button to activate the pulling of the lever). Add an internet connection and you can remotely push a button to activate a lever. Case in point is NASA Rover Operators who are pushing buttons in their kitchens and home offices to make Curiosity dance on Mars. Unfortunately, for the space industry, this example is the exception not the rule, and has only come about due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Credit: Kubos

THE NEW NORMAL

Predictions show that remote work will be a sort of “new normal” for a number of industries that have proved uninterrupted business success throughout the COVID-19 isolation orders. We know that this way of working can and has functioned effectively for software — a programmer can live in Reno and connect with Rome without obstacle. For example, note the success of GitHub, a platform successfully connecting millions of programmers globally for seamless sharing and asynchronous collaboration. Planet has seamlessly transitioned to operating and monitoring satellites from their homes without issue. We have observed that this process can now also work with hardware, and we are beginning to see this in applications like remote 3D printing, factory monitoring and beyond line-ofsight drone operations.

THE NEXT NORMAL: 2 HOPS/WORK FROM ANYWHERE

Processes like the remote control of hardware using software currently require two hops from the node — the individual to the internet, and the internet to the node/ company — a method that is eclipsing the one hop system in both accessibility and efficacy. We know that this way of working will exceedingly become the norm, not only because the two hop system has proved to work for myriad industries, but because it is the more convenient, more efficient option when compared to one-hop operations. The future is not just “remote” work, say from a satellite office, it is remote work from anywhere there is an internet connection, at any time, on any desired schedule. This is the “Next Normal.” The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated that the future of work categorically translates to removing barriers to doing work — office space, time commuting, local talent, in-person IT or HR teams, etc. The understanding being that the node is no longer a hurdle or a requirement to accomplishing work. When companies can take advantage of installing a two hop system, they will gain considerable value from a previously untapped use of today’s vast technological capabilities. Their teams are better able to optimize work schedules, their employees are able to produce results while never stepping foot in an office, and overhead expenses can be significantly reduced.

Satellite companies must begin to embrace this “New Normal” in order to compete for talent, maximize efficiency, and control expenses. As the elegance and sexy veneer of building satellite hardware peels back to reveal that satellites are really just orbiting computers that run on software (human-rated spacecraft not included), the space industry can no longer remain in one hop mode if it hopes to survive and thrive. On the ground, there is no longer a need to have a programmer or developer sitting next to a satellite to test it or upgrade software. Once in space, there is no need to have an operator or a software engineer next to the antenna that is talking to a satellite (provided there is internet access.)

Credit: Kharnagy/Wikimedia Commons

SATOPS BECOMES DEVOPS

In order for satellite companies to truly compete in the new remote work environment, work from anywhere will not be enough; a paradigm shift is also required. Do you know what DevOps is? You should. It’s the concept that ops and logic is centralized in software, not in humans. Using DevOps to design and run satellites means that engineers can design blocks of code, systems and applications and these blocks can be reused, reorganized and reconfigured as often as necessary to accomplish the goal. DevOps tools can be used to assist engineers with tasks like automation testing, software deployment, and performance measurement. Most importantly, it only requires an internet connection, making it a perfect two hop system. This is the final step — instead of a satellite operator following an SOP (Standard Operating Procedure), a piece of software will safely recognize and respond to a spacecraft operation or anomaly faster and more accurately than any human. Infrastructure will be managed by developers, not by operators.

DevOps embodies a way of designing and deploying software, but it also embodies a mindset. The mindset required to embrace DevOps is one of flexibility and decentralization of activity. It is a mindset that cannot function in a siloed environment. It is a mindset that embraces the role that technology can play in operations like remote work. DevOps relies on the concept of agility. The ability to pivot and adjust in real time (or faster than real time) to maintain or improve a system is crucial. The 1960s NASA engineers were on the cutting edge for their time, pushing the envelope of what computers could do and defining the concept of remote operations. But the people were the central part of the equation in the moon missions. It was a one hop system that required input from both engineers on the ground and astronauts in the spacecraft to be successful. We cannot allow the nostalgia of those days limit us from moving past the individual as the key player. In order to compete and thrive, we need to allow software to play that key role and cast engineers in developer roles.

THE NEXT FRONTIER TO CATCH UP

With the trend of universal accessibility becoming a future standard for industries, the two hop system will follow as its tandem solution for remote working. As the node becomes less relevant to fulfilling work for most job roles, companies will be able to embrace remote work in its fullest expanse of capacity and opportunity. The space industry is no different. Space from its start was always a remote operation and taking the work another hop to allow remote work from anywhere (pre and post-launch) is its next logical step. Mission Control for unmanned missions will become irrelevant, and SatOps will get replaced by DevOps. For other industries, two hop remote operations and DevOps collaboration have proved successful, even cost-saving in many cases, and space better be prepared to be the next — not final — frontier to catch up.


Simon Halpern is currently the chief operating officer for Kubos.

This article originally appeared in the June 15, 2020 issue of SpaceNews magazine.