Q&A with Merri Sanchez, U.S. Air Force Space Command’s Chief Science and Technical Adviser

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Profile | Merri Sanchez
Chief Science and Technical Adviser, U.S. Air Force Space Command


Peering Into the Crystal Ball

Visions of the future involving space technology can easily drift into the realm of the fantastic, in part because the line between far-fetched and plausible isn’t necessarily clear. As the top science and technology adviser to the commander of U.S. Air Force Space Command, Merri Sanchez’s job is to map out a research agenda that aims high but keeps it real.

Sanchez’s boss, Gen. John Hyten, in February issued a technology wish list that included self-healing spacecraft, utilization of alternative spectrum bands, prediction of attacks in space and nontraceable counterspace capabilities. Sanchez put these out to industry and academia in the form of a document called “Space and Cyber Superiority 2030,” and followed that up in July with an innovation summit in which industry was invited to hear the Air Force’s ideas and present a few of its own.

The summit, Sanchez says, was held to provide companies with a “crystal ball” that tells them where they should be investing their internal research and development dollars. “We’re not looking to design a stand-alone spacecraft,” Sanchez says. “We’re looking at how do you improve the materials or the sensors or the capabilities that can then be folded into a new program.”

Sanchez came to Space Command in 2014 from Sierra Nevada Corp., where she was a senior director, and before that spent 28 years at NASA, including three as liaison to Defense Department space programs. She spoke recently with SpaceNews staff writer Mike Gruss.


Gen. Hyten issued a memo in February describing his science and technology goals. Is that an unusual step for a new commander?

What’s new and unusual here is that in discussions with Gen. Hyten we decided to add a little more level of detail — examples of types of technology — and then do a release on the letter. I call it our crystal ball so industry and academia have a little bit better idea on what we think our technology challenges over the next 10 to 30 years are going to be. They can look and see what their core capabilities are and what research they might want to focus on. The thought is it would help them make informed decisions on their internal investments.

What kind of response did you get during the innovation day to discuss industry’s initial ideas?

We had 132 attendees. Of those about 20 percent were [federally funded research and development centers], about 15 percent were academia and the rest were industry. A great response. We spent two long days going over the technological challenges, going into a deeper level of things we were looking to have matured. We were at a classified level.

When might some of these technologies begin showing up in programs of record? 

This is not program-of-record stuff. This is pure technology maturation. It’ll be hard to get there in mid-2020s or mid-2030s.

So what is a realistic timeline?

The general timeline is we want the companies and academia to be doing their own investments. They’re going to come back to us in September, where we’re going to do one-on-one sessions with each of the companies that are interested, where they’re going to tell us on these challenges, “We think we got an approach that will really work.” When they come back to us we’re going to provide a wider government audience that includes the research labs, National Reconnaissance Office, DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency), NASA — all of our space partners are going to be invited to be part of the audience. When you look at our technology challenges at Air Force Space Command alone, NASA shares a lot of the same technology challenges, as do DARPA, the National Reconnaissance Office and the Air Force Research Laboratory.

Have these types of outreach efforts led to technologies we see in use at Space Command today?

We have not done this kind of outreach before. We have in the past transmitted our technical needs to the Air Force Research Laboratory, which then has done a broad agency announcement and carved out their funding line. We’re trying a little different approach.

Why do it differently this time?

One of the things I noticed with industry is you were always wanting to know what the future was, where you should do your investments and your internal research and development, and you always wanted a sense of where the government might be going. Industry does long-term strategic planning for their investments all the time on a natural year-to-year cycle and we thought we would just tap into that by providing them a crystal ball. It’s our guidance.

Can you name one or two technologies that you’re particularly interested in?

From my perspective, there is large return on investment on data fusion and data analytics. There are a lot of data from a lot of sources and if we can better fuse that data to the end user — if we can get the information to the user’s hands in a better way — then there’s a better return on investment.

At the most recent Geoint conference, it seemed like every exhibitor was touting an analytics product. How is what you’re looking for different?

In the long term it may not be different. They may be following a technical maturation process that is pulling in data from a space-borne platform or an airborne platform, fusing disparate types of data so that we may meet the needs of users. Of the products I’m looking at, is there data that allows you to make a decision: Do I do A or B? Should I be concerned because I see this? Do I conduct a spacecraft operation? If I’m in the theater, do I move a team of soldiers to a different location? It’s how you pull all that together. We are setting the ground floor for data analytics but we need to make sure we’re building it into our processes so that it will meet future needs and support decision-making. The other part of it is where I can do data analytics so the machine does part of the data processing and takes the burden off the human. There’s a line in the sand that says it’s smart to have machines do these things and humans do these things. We need to make sure we’re building a system that uses the best capabilities of the organic mind and the cyber algorithm.

Gen. Hyten has mentioned what you’re talking about as a missing piece to the Joint Space Operations Center, or JSpOC. 

JSpOC is one of the technology goal areas that we’re looking at.  But it also extends to other users and onto the cyber side.

Another technology commonly associated with the JSpOC is data visualization. 

One of the things we heard is that when you have a cyber team or network team, how do you display that information so that they can intuitively determine courses of action? You don’t want them looking at a spreadsheet full of numbers because the human mind reacts better to data visualization. It’s the space and cyber side.

I was intrigued by the idea of self-healing satellites, which appears on the list. What does that mean?

On self-healing — we’re looking at cyber systems as well as space systems — can the system diagnose what is wrong? Can it diagnose if it is a man-made phenomenon or if it’s natural? I’ll use the example of a coronal mass ejection where you’ve got a mass of charged particles creating a magnetic storm that is a natural phenomenon. You see power grids, or a spacecraft, affected by CMEs. Alternatively, is it a man-made hostile attack or is it a piece of hardware that has reached its lifetime limit and failed? Can the system self-diagnose what’s wrong and if it does diagnose what’s wrong can it fix or reroute how it processes information so that we recover capability?

Has the White House’s Space Portfolio Review influenced which priorities made the list?

It has. It is part of the larger whole. When you do a Space Portfolio Review, when the combatant commanders define their needs, when we study our capability gaps, those all inform what we think our technology challenges and needs are. We use multiple sources to determine what our needs are.

Were any of your technology ambitions developed with specific thought to what capabilities adversaries have?

Yes. We look at worldwide current and future capabilities.

Where will funding for these technologies come from?

It will most likely be through the research labs. We’re going to be working with the Air Force Research Lab over a matter of several years to look at what funding is available, but in the meantime companies can be using their own investments so they’re better positioned when we actually start funding those.

How do DARPA and the National Reconnaissance Office fit in at this stage?

We’re in the process of cross-walking our technology needs to find the areas of overlap and synergy where we can work together better. We’re actively in that process of trying to find that common area that helps all of us.

Can you cite any examples off the top of your head?

Resilient launch is a great area. We need robust low-cost access to space, whether it comes from engine, range, processing or other technology improvements. A couple areas that are cross-cutting between the military and civil space agencies are things like rubidium or cold atom clocks that help give you better timing resources. That helps NASA in the deep-space mission. That helps us looking at GPS technology that could be a GPS enhancement or replacement.

Solar electric propulsion. NASA is looking at that for deep space. We’re looking for that because if you get solar electric you don’t need as much propellant so you can get your launch mass down.

Optical communications. NASA is looking at that for their deep-space mission and they demonstrated that on the LADEE mission to the moon, where they did optical communication between the Earth and the moon. But it would also be appropriate for when you communicate between satellites or between the Earth and the satellite. You’re looking at the common satellite technology foundations that everyone will apply uniquely to their own programs.

Which might we see first, or at least in the near term, and which might be longer in coming?

On the space side, we were very specifically looking at far range, which is 10 to 30 years out. Anything under 10 years, we actually have the program working through the requirements organization and working through Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center to get that technology matured. We truly were talking 10 to 30 years out.