Op-ed | Rocket science was the easy part. What can other domains teach us about space?


THE SPACE COMMUNITY KNOWS COMPLEXITY. We’ve been building, launching, and deorbiting complex systems in space for more than 60 years. We’ve gotten so good at it and done it so many times that the space operating environment is now becoming more challenging than engineering the systems themselves. Complex challenges are emerging that are (geo) political, policy, regulatory, standards-based, and organizational in nature.

Because we consider space unique, we often fail to look at other domains for inspiration and to avoid potential pitfalls. That’s a mistake. Following are some challenges the space community is facing right now, where we can learn from others:

> Think mobile phones

As the cost and barriers to entry have dropped, a proliferation of new actors is headed to low Earth orbit. The proliferation of space will undoubtedly drive innovation, bring new technologies to bear, and lead to other positive changes. But I expect the proliferation of satellite owner operators and launch providers will also erode norms. It’s not hard to foresee a situation where new satellites catch the community by surprise, when hackers take over underprotected satellites for fun, or dead satellites aren’t deorbited in a timely manner.

Similarly, many new actors entered the mobile phone industry as the barriers to entry dropped. We can learn from how the industry addressed tough cybersecurity challenges. Code reuse and cyber protection have been managed both through a central controller model such as is in the Apple iOS App Store — and through the Google Play Store, where a secure marketplace is offered, but not mandated.

> Consider info and cyber warfare

Space is now publicly acknowledged as a warfighting domain. This redefinition of the commons opens questions around rules of engagement, collateral damage, neutrality, and hostile intent. For example, are commercial satellites used by the military considered valid targets in time of war? How should governments, insurers, and industry manage risk of a third-party conflict that may reach far beyond the belligerents’ systems?

This is not the first time in history that traditionally peaceful domains have become battlefields. A very recent example of this is in information operations, where social media enables gray zones of conflict. We’ve also seen foreign governments target commercial companies such as the 2014 Sony Pictures hack. Conflict in these previously benign environments has forced a sea of both government and corporate policy changes, security enhancements, and commercial investments in self-protection to keep the bad actors from their systems.

> Learn from air traffic management

Low Earth orbit is growing more crowded, and that means a competition for limited resources. In the absence of worldwide norms for space operations like those for commercial flight, conflicts over available orbits and spectrum will increase. And less obviously, the availability of government resources impacts the ability to operate in space — such as the human capacity to license organizations and space traffic-management. Competition for surveillance and conjunction coordination resources will increase the risk of collision.

Similarly, airlines are placing increasing demands across the electromagnetic spectrum, physical space, and air traffic control resources, especially in regions such as the Northeast Corridor. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) partnered with industry to develop technical solutions that straddle both the aircraft and the control infrastructure. Examples include information sharing approaches that benefit the industry’s safety posture, technical requirements for Reduced Vertical Separation Minimum, and increasing automation to reduce controller workload. In building these solutions, the FAA and industry have accounted for noncompliant aircraft, a pattern that may also be very useful in dealing with space resource contention.

> Look to post-9/11 realignment of the U.S. government

Driven in part by the Space Policy Directives, new government organizations are emerging, and responsibilities are shifting, resulting in massive changes in traditional organizations. The Department of Defense stood up the U.S. Space Force. The Space Development Agency and the Space Rapid Capabilities Office are introducing new players on the acquisition field. And with Space and Missile Systems Command, the SMC 2.0 reorganization has realigned traditional programs across the entire command. The responsibility for maintaining the space object catalog will soon shift from the Department of Defense to the Department of Commerce.

Though driven by tragedy instead of progress, the space community can look back to the massive changes the U.S. government made in organizational responsibilities following the September 11th attacks. This included standing up the Department of Homeland Security, realigning current and new agencies underneath it, and establishing the Director of National Intelligence. Creating these new agencies and responsibilities meant many new opportunities for engaging with industry. But it also meant breaking some of the historic ties with industry that the Coast Guard and the Department of Defense had developed over many years. The successes and stumbles of this period can help us increase effectiveness through the current changes.

These cases highlight just a few potential sources for inspiration against the new challenges of space. Of course, the degree to which analogies are useful will vary. We must consider not just the similarity of the problem, but also the similarity of costs, time, and the consequences of mishaps.

As unique as we are in space, we can learn a lot by taking a fresh look at how innovators from other domains have solved similar challenges.

Ben Poole is the technical director of space programs at Mitre, a not-for-profit company that operates federally funded R&D centers. The opinion expressed is the author’s and does not necessarily reflect the views of Mitre.

This article originally appeared in the May 11, 2020 issue of SpaceNews magazine.