Newswise — The United States is currently the world's greatest power in space.

But space as we know it—particularly low Earth orbit, or LEO—is changing fast. And there's nothing fast or cost-effective about our traditional means of putting the new technologies into space we'll need to maintain our dominant position.

That's a serious problem.  

We'll get to the droids and Death Stars in a moment, but first think about two historical examples that Fred Kennedy, director of the Department of Defense’s nascent Space Development Agency (SDA), offered. He gave a keynote speech for the Resilient Space Conference 2019, co-hosted and held at MITRE in Bedford on June 11. Among the key points:

  • During World War II, the United States built 2,700 Liberty class naval cargo ships over a four-year timespan, at an average of 40 days per vessel.
  • America manufactured 12,000 B-17 bombers—at an average price of $2 million in 2018 dollars.

"Some of you might find it scary to think we'll be making 12,000 satellites," Kennedy said. "But we have a surging pair of near-peer competitors [Russia and China] who are trying to figure out how to negate our advantages in space because they recognize it is a linchpin of the American way of warfare.

"We don't want space becoming the Achilles heel of our national security resilience. My fear is we're headed there because of the way we build, and the time and money it takes. That would be a tragedy."

Dramatically Increasing Speed of Acquisition Is Crucial

The theme of this year's conference was "Emergent Technologies, Faster Implementation." Also attending the conference were senior leaders from MITRE, the Space Development Agency, the Defense Innovation Unit, the Air Force Space Command, and the Department of Commerce. MITRE partnered with the Association of Old Crows Patriots’ Roost Chapter, the Air Force Research Laboratory, and Sandia National Laboratories. Editors from Aviation Week and Space News moderated two panels. MITRE's Michael Joy, Space Superiority portfolio manager, was the emcee.

A consistent theme throughout the event was that the U.S. must dramatically increase its speed acquiring space technologies and reduce delivery times. The best way to do that? Work with the burgeoning number of commercial companies launching into low Earth orbit.

"There's been essentially a tsunami of investment [by U.S. commercial space companies], according to Lt. Gen. John F. Thompson, commander, Space and Missile Systems Center and Air Force Program Executive Officer for Space. "We want to take advantage of the offerings from these entrants so we can move more rapidly against some of the peer competition that we see around the world."

He offered examples about speeding acquisitions and processes, such as the goal of working with small launch providers and using dynamic scheduling to reduce the need to prepare launch manifests from two years to six months.

"We're not going to miss space opportunities, because 'well, it's a two-year process,'" Thompson said.

Design Now for Hot Production Lines

"We're not in panic mode about space right now, but we are in a period of high security concern," said Bill LaPlante, senior vice president of MITRE's National Security Sector. "We need to make smart decisions and go fast."

He said the U.S. must get past building "golden school buses"—that is, "exquisite" technologies that take decades to build and cost billions of dollars. He said the risks of going that slow when our adversaries are going through multiple cycles is just too great.  

LaPlante followed up Kennedy's example of the Liberty Ships and B-17s, noting both were designed before Pearl Harbor.

"In the same way, we must do the right designs now. We must be ready for manufacturers to build hot production lines turning out the technologies we need in space. Because in fact, the hot production line is the deterrent [to our adversaries]."

Dan Ward, with MITRE's Defense Acquisition & Policy program, offered a succinct analogy that others repeated throughout the conference.

"In the Star Wars movies, the Death Star was the huge, expensive monolith that always failed," Ward said. He pointed out that R2-D2 always came through, however. "Simpler, smaller, faster is better."

He added, "Let's build droids, not Death Stars."

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