Lt. Gen. John “JT” Thompson, Space and Missile System Center commander, speaks Nov. 5 at U.S. Air Force Space Pitch Day in San Francisco. Credit: U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Christian Conrad

MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif. – In 2020, the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC) will expand its campaign to draw on the innovation of companies that are not traditional government contractors, SMC Commander Lt. Gen. John Thompson said Feb. 4 at the SmallSat Symposium here.

“The Department of Defense space enterprise is less than one-fifth of the space investment currently going on in this country,” Thompson said. “The rest of it, the other 80 percent, comes from commercial investment. We must have structures, processes and the ability to reach out to the people doing the other 80 of innovation.”

SMC, an organization with about 6,000 employees and a $7 billion annual budget, has been revising its approach to producing weapon systems. Through the initiative, called SMC 2.0, it has worked “to flatten our organization, delegate responsibilities to the right levels, expand partnerships with industry and allies, focus more on incorporating innovation into space systems, and changing our culture to become less risk averse,” Thompson said.

The overarching goal is to move faster and to take “smart risks,” which means risk in demonstration, experimentation and prototyping projects as opposed to risk with GPS 3 precision navigation and timing satellites or Space-Based Infrared System missile warning satellites, Thompson said.

“With nontraditional defense contractors, small businesses and potential game changers, we can afford to take risks,” Thompson said.

SMC is taking risks, for example, with Small Business Innovation Research funding awarded to companies that attended Space Pitch Day in San Francisco in November and with Space Enterprise Consortium (SpEC) projects.

SpEC started in 2017 with a $100 million budget and 50 members. It has grown to include 350 members and $1.4 billion 2020 budget. To date, SpEC has spent $410 million on 59 projects. Seventy-eight percent of SpEC members are nontraditional contractors or small businesses, Thompson said.

Later this year, SMC plans to release a solicitation for a follow-on to SpEC.

“We are considering a very large ceiling for that contract and a multi-year contract vehicle so we can reach the members of that consortium competitively for innovation, experimentation, demonstration and prototyping efforts that we value so much more in today’s Department of Defense than we did in the past,” Thompson said.

In 2020, the Air Force plans additional initiatives “to make sure we are not leaving anything on a table with respect to innovation,” he said

There will be additional Space Pitch days as well as accelerator projects and a Hyperspace Challenge, an effort to link tech startups with government innovators, he said.

Debra Werner is a correspondent for SpaceNews based in San Francisco. Debra earned a bachelor’s degree in communications from the University of California, Berkeley, and a master’s degree in Journalism from Northwestern University. She...