Solutions to Government Needs

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Solutions to Government Needs Perhaps the most significant item in President Obama’s NASA budget proposal is the increasing role commercial space will play in the future of space exploration and the space economy. This was the topic of the 26th National Space Symposium panel discussion “Solutions to Government Needs – A Paradigm Shift?”

The panel was moderated by Josh Hartman from the Center for Strategic and International Studies and included panelists: 

Ashwell talked about the proliferation of assured-quality Earth observation systems in orbit, saying that commercial entities are available more rapidly than in government acquisition process. He said that DigitalGlobe is working closely with the Department of Defense (DoD) and associated agencies on geo-intelligence, trying to move from “data and information” to “knowledge and understanding,” with a goal of developing a role to assist the government with geo-intelligence. “We need to integrate this process to the decision cycle rapidly,” said Ashwell, “and we need to get our products to decision-makers quickly.”

Among the product features he discussed were change-detection algorithms that allow us to see quickly what is different; multi-spectral imagery that improves the ability to see landuse/landcover images; and feature extraction. “We must exploit the optimum agility and assuredness of the constellation,” he said, “so that we can provide the content, platform, and services to economically and efficiently meet Customer Operation GEOINT 3.0 requirements. We must also enable critical personnel to be released and empowered to exploit advanced GEOINT and other intelligence and information capabilities.”

Hamel spoke about the rapid growth in government use of commercial systems for activities including satellite communications, space-based imagery, and launch. “Orbital is now providing communications satellite capabilities and hosted payloads and, in the future, will provide commercial crew cargo services,” which he said calls for, “tri-lateral – not bi-lateral – cooperation among industry developers, government end-users, and industry operators.”

He added that, because industry is driven by short development cycles, stable investment is necessary. “Industry builds on proven technologies and makes only incremental development progress,” said Hamel. “At the end of the day, it’s all about the financing.” Hamel said that the government tends to prefer “large, complex systems with many customers, which complicates execution. But,” he said, “in the commercial sector, risk management comes down to the bottom line.” He called for a paradigm shift that replaces mission assurance that significantly slows programs with more robustness in constellations.

“We’re increasingly seeing practical solutions,” said Hamel. “We need leaders and champions in the government to start implementing pilot programs to take advantage of what the private sector offers.”

Lord said that the government needs to be supported by commercial industry. “The Space Posture Review talks about importance of commercial capability. We’re driven by events not in our control, such as constrained budgets,” he said. “We need to look at new financing models.”

Shotwell added that there needs to be a market beyond the government to help develop cost structures. “For example,” she said, “NASA has invested $278M in SpaceX; in return they get access to Falcon 9 and its transportation capability.” She added that NASA also opened the market by providing opportunities for cargo transportation to the International Space Station.

Weston said that, although more than 80 percent off DoD communications is acquired from commercial satellite providers, “The DoD needs to take next step to get dedicated, fee-for-service, military-frequency communications from commercial industry. Satellites can be produced with commercial practices without government oversight,” he said. “Commercial operators can build, launch, and operate much more quickly. The government should recognize the huge but ad hoc role that commercial satellites currently play in their architecture and should budget for commercial satellite capability in long-term planning, rather than year-to-year.”

After opening remarks, the panel answered questions about barriers and potential solutions:

Weston: “Governments spend a lot in the spot market, but have a hard time finding funding to lease a satellite that will be ready two years from now.”

Hamel: “In order to have a viable business case, we must manage the risk of the government changing its mind, which requires multi-year commitments.”

Shotwell: “If the government can commit to being the market, then commercial entities can think of innovative ways to develop technology.”

Lord: “Commercial should think about government needs and plan ahead.”

Shotwell: “There are many possible ways commercial businesses can play a role in solving problems for the government, but there are many possible methods.”

Weston: “The government approach focuses on high-technology, higher risk, proven technologies that can be turned over to industry.”

Shotwell: “Government should focus on the difficult things; Commercial can handle transportation to orbit.”

Ashwell: “Security apparatus within government is not aligned with information-age technologies, creating an opportunity in the civil-military context to address issues related to security.”

Weston: “The time is right to do this. There is enough precedence in multiple mission areas. This is the maturation of the space arena.”

Shotwell: “At a minimum, the argument over commercial space has generated interest in space.”

Pictured: Josh Hartman moderates the panel “Solutions to Government Needs – A Paradigm Shift?” at the 26th National Space Symposium. Photo by Tom Kimmell.


This article is part of Space Watch: June 2010 (Volume: 9, Issue: 6).