Apoorva Desai and Megan Spencer led development of Slingshot’s edge processing algorithms for … [+]
Slingshot Aerospace Corp
In 1905, the great philosopher George Santayana warned future generations that, “Those who don’t learn from history are destined to repeat it.” His warning has been recited throughout the last century because we instinctively see its logic and truth, applicable to everyday life. For those newer to the space business, a quick look back a decade ago at those who came before you. For those of us who lived it, a refresher is warranted.
With the necessary resources, sincerity and clout at their disposal, the task of leveraging commercial space technology to improve our national security was undertaken by committed space leaders. About a decade ago, both the Operationally Responsive Space – 1 (ORS-1) and Commercially Hosted Infrared (IR) Program (CHIRP) were brilliantly fielded to improve resiliency and lower costs, much like this year’s ambition with Hybrid Space Architectures (HSAs). ORS-1 was meant to leverage “off-the-shelf” cameras and integrate them with a small satellite for less than a tenth the cost of the current imagers. The program was enormously successful, operating on orbit beyond its design life and demonstrating a still unprecedented utility to the military for many years to come. CHIRP’s ambition was to host an off-the-shelf IR detector onto a commercial telecommunications satellite to evaluate whether such a hosting was possible and quantify the utility of the data for the purposes of early warning against ballistic missile threats. It too was a huge success, yet both programs suffered premature fates because we did not plan for their potential to bring lasting and necessary change to a broken system. In other words, we deployed the technology well, but did not pivot the culture for enduring innovation.
Both ORS-1 and CHIRP were highly successful (ORS-1 is still operating eight years after launch) but neither impacted operational architectures, real or planned. Questions of conspiracy are not impossible, but very unlikely. A lack of support from “the top” isn’t an answer either, since both Congress and many senior executives (including myself) in both the Pentagon and respective field units were very supportive. The answer as to why these programs didn’t illicit more widespread transformation can be found in the well-documented, and now legendary research, by Clayton Christensen in his seminal work known as the Innovator’s Dilemma.
Christensen observed what he called the “innovator’s dilemma,” a natural cycle that occurs in the lifecycle of a new product or even a company. Christensen describes how as an organization goes through its lifecycle, it becomes exquisitely focused on the customers it has won and is currently meeting their needs well. In so doing, it rejects breakthrough or disruptive concepts and technologies to address current, new or adjacent customers. Unresolved, this dilemma becomes the source of the demise of the product, and eventually the company.
This same innovation cycle occurs at an architectural level, or even across an economic sector when there is only one customer, which in this case is the U.S. government. It is the reason we still have the same fundamental design to solve nearly every national security space architecture that we created over 30 years ago. Some capability improvements have evolved in the areas of missile warning, navigation and satellite communication to address evolving threats, but none to deal with the disruptive ones. For those unfamiliar with Christensen’s work, I highly recommend reading it.
Fear not, fellow space enthusiasts, this “dilemma” that currently exists within our current national security industry has a solution. For legacy government innovators seeking to break out of their stagnation, we can look to successes in history, as Christensen also chronicles.
Take IBM as a case study. Unlike its other mainframe manufacturers of the 80’s era, IBM chose a different path for their personal computer, and that made all of the difference. They were the only one of the legacy mainframe computers to successfully enter, compete and flourish in the desktop computer revolution (before selling Lenovo to the Chinese). When IBM first developed their PC to compete in the market, it created a completely separate division of the company with a jealously guarded and separate mindset to allow it to innovate and be relevant to what executives saw as a looming threat to the firm’s relevance in the new era. They were unconstrained by the internal procedures of the rest of the company, known for its very button down, conservative culture. Though there was pressure from both inside and outside the company, the corporate executives fought hard to prevent legacy IBM from killing the new.
How could this apply to the success of Hybrid Space Architecture, one of the keys to securing the Space Force’s future and American preeminence in space for the next century? It appears that the next big push for 2020 across many agencies in the USG is to leverage commercial space for what they are calling Hybrid Space Architectures. Activities include acquiring space products and services that the commercial industry has already developed, and is delivering to customers, and integrate those into existing government capabilities currently being performed.
This new hybrid economy would do well to learn from and heed Christensen’s warnings based on his decadal research. As a customer, the government has a responsibility to ensure that legacy companies rigorously support this emerging generation of space companies, and not just acquire them. To keep innovation high for national security, the USG should encourage these companies and the offices who work with them separate to ensure that these disruptive technologies will be fully realized and leveraged by the government. Simultaneously, the government must cleverly incentivize legacy companies to initiate their own innovation efforts in lockstep. By ensuring proper separation and not urging these newer companies to be consumed by the legacy, the government can foster a vibrant, competitive and innovative space ecosystem long into America’s future.
Irrespective of learning the lessons of the technologically successful but minimally consequential ORS-1 and CHIRP, today’s even more disruptive commercial technologies will still proceed, just not in the United States. Unchained to legacy architectures, other emerging spacefaring countries’ economies will be able to leap forward while ours will likely stagnate with diminishing national security against rivals.
More of the same one-offs, or even worse, “studies” without comprehensive business strategies to protect and advance this nascent commercial industry will not alter the dead-end course we are currently on. In the end, we will have no added resilience and no ability to leverage off-the-shelf, next generation technology. Applying the practical lessons from the space industry’s recent past with the research beautifully synthesized in “Innovator’s Dilemma” will give the nation hope for the best systems leadership in our newest military service, the U.S. Space Force. In so doing, 2020 might just finally be the year agencies put together long-term plans for enduring innovation. This undertaking will require them avoiding the easy path and force them to actually address the Dilemma head-on and perhaps, solve it for good.