Past to Present: Forging a Way Forward for National Security Space

Book iconFirst published May 2013, Crosslink® magazine

The national security space enterprise has successfully exited one of its most challenging decades since the dawn of the Space Age. This was a decade of intense technical challenges, and seemingly relentless programmatic challenges, leading to many painful cost and schedule overruns. Yet the decade culminated in the successful delivery of unprecedented military and intelligence capabilities on orbit that will serve the nation well for many years. These first-of-a-kind missions that have been successfully fielded offer order-of-magnitude improvements in capability or capacity in almost all mission areas. When the history is written, this past decade might well be regarded as the most significant period of military space modernization on record.

The United States and its allies now face a new decade with different, but equally challenging, hurdles. Tight budgets, escalating threats, and industrial base uncertainties are some of the challenges on the horizon. However, for the space systems engineering enterprise, these challenges represent opportunities to excel.

Many factors contributed to the troubles that were faced, and eventually overcome, in national security space acquisition in the decade of the 2000s. Simultaneous recapitalization across all major military space mission areas led to the stretching and breaking of available space development budgets. Poor program formulation during the birth of these programs in the acquisition reform era led to later issues with program execution. The elimination of appropriate specifications, standards, and the principles of systems engineering led to late discovery of latent defects and extremely costly repairs late in program development lifecycles. An overreliance on what seemed to be a burgeoning commercial space enterprise contributed to overly optimistic budgets and technology development timelines. Rapid consolidation of prime and sub-tier vendors caused hard-won manufacturing and test recipes to be lost.

At the same time, the nation’s dependence on the space enterprise became paramount. In the global war on terrorism, there was no room for gaps in the fundamental enabling of space capabilities. These new space systems needed to be delivered, and they needed to work.

Fortunately, the space enterprise rallied to the cause, and the necessary capabilities became a reality. In some cases, significant redesign of space system programs was necessary. Parts procurement and testing processes were made more robust wherever possible. System test philosophies were improved. In many cases, robust system-level testing was implemented as a last resort to weed out latent defects that might have been missed in poorly formulated component and unit-level testing earlier in space systems. While it is never a good philosophy to try and test for quality late in a program, many of these programs faced no other choice. This was not the optimum way to run complex development programs, but everyone in the space business had to play the cards that had been dealt by the choices and philosophies of the prior decade.

The U.S. government space system acquirers contributed to the ultimate successes by adapting contractual requirements, improving government oversight, accommodating some painful expenses, and taking on clear accountabilities for the outcomes. Industry primes, subs, and sub-tier vendors worked to recapture the lost recipes and build back disciplined, repeatable processes.

The Aerospace Corporation adapted its workforce, tools, and focus to help tackle these challenges. The company instilled a culture of personal and corporate accountability for the success of critical missions. It also helped reinvigorate the systems engineering process discipline, and revived or improved relevant specifications and standards. Aerospace helped formulate an independent program assessment process that has now become an industry standard for providing senior government leadership with an unvarnished, truthful assessment of a program’s health as it prepares for key milestones. While this is sometimes referred to as going “back to basics,” it is not really as simple as that. Many of the specifications, standards, and processes used in the development of space systems were not just rediscovered—they were improved or streamlined. For example, Aerospace recognizes that some situations warrant specialized or tailored treatments, such as where risk acceptance is higher, or where design and manufacturing maturity allow for reduced oversight.

A key change that is being made within Aerospace today—and across the space industry—is a shift in focus to the front end of the systems engineering and program formulation processes. This is sometimes referred to as “recasting.” This enhanced focus on the front end of programs manifests itself in different ways. For example, the nation’s fiscal challenges have forced an urgent need to find more affordable solutions to today’s space system challenges. The evolving global space environment, often characterized as congested, contested, and competitive, has driven the space industry to look for more resilient architectures that will assure users of these critical space capabilities that they will not be denied their use, despite escalating threats in space and cyberspace. Toward this vein, Aerospace is contributing to the rearchitecting of more resilient and affordable space architectures, and helping to identify key investments that will be needed to enable the transition to these architectures.

However, recasting is not just about architecting. The aerospace industry has a responsibility to capture the lessons from the past decade across all of the engineering disciplines, so as not to repeat the same mistakes in future blocks of satellites or in new programs. For example, during the past decade, a lack of appropriate parts screening and unit-level testing led to the need for costly and risky rework late in the integration phase, and this occurred across many critical programs—these shortfalls in parts screening and unit-level testing turned out to be a false economy, and we cannot allow early perceptive testing to be swept up in the name of efficiencies. Systems engineering shortfalls caused gaps in system testability, leading to functionality escapes that required corrective actions, sometimes as late as on orbit. Here too, we need to help define the appropriate, uncompressible level of systems engineering effort that will lead to successful programs. The space programs of the recent past also suffered from overly optimistic applications of new technologies—we need to critically assess technologies and manufacturing readiness, and clearly communicate these objective assessments.

I am often asked whether the shift toward the front end of the systems engineering process will require a significant shift in the engineering and scientific skills mix. Although some shifts are required, particularly in areas of evolving threats such as cyber, many of the engineering and scientific disciplines that have contributed to the modernization of the fleets during the last decade are readily applicable to the front-end work that will be needed to make future programs affordable and executable. For example, parts, materials, and process experts who have been heavily engaged in assessing noncompliant parts or materials in first-of-a-kind systems are well positioned to help assure that appropriate screening is in place to rid future programs of these issues. Similarly, scientists who have been engaged in root cause analysis on various component or system anomalies can readily contribute to assessments of technology readiness and the art of the possible for future architectures.

In aligning Aerospace’s efforts for the future decade it is important to keep one thought in mind: the past decade was not the baseline. The past decade was a mad scramble of urgent, overly parallel development of programs that were formulated based on false economies. The future decade offers many new challenges, including tight budgets and evolving threats, but these are challenges that are in the sweet spot of good systems engineering and the mission assurance discipline. The space industry has an opportunity to get it right.

Much good work is already being done to address these challenges. Some of this is described in this issue of Crosslink. This magazine issue spans a range of topics from policy to parts, and from requirements definition to system testing. Several articles detail current work in the area of developmental planning and architecting. Others touch on program formulation and acquisition support across the lifecycle. These are just a sampling of the fine work under way as part of a recasting effort at Aerospace to address the front end of the space systems engineering process.

– Dave Gorney, senior vice president, Space Systems Group

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