The Slowness of Being Government and Its Space Technology

Image from Wikimedia. Click to Embiggen.

From a Softpedia news post, a writer conjectures mainly about the United States Air Force’s (USAF) X-37B space drone and what it might mean to space warfare.  It’s a decent, thought-provoking article, so you may wish to read it.  But there’s an assumption made within the article:  the government has the best, most sophisticated space toys.

As stated in the post, one agency giving away optical satellites to another agency is something to ponder.  But it might be more of one agency’s admission there’s a lack of money issue rather than, as the author implies, the existence of better technology ready to be used by the suddenly generous agency.  The giveaway might be prompted by other issues.  Maybe the program the satellites fall under is going away.  It could be the ground infrastructure can’t handle more satellites.  Maybe launching more satellites is just too costly.  But one shouldn’t just assume the newer optical satellites we don’t know about are better than the ones given away (although it can be fun to think about).  After all, the optics of those old satellites could still have been reused with a newer image processing chip.  But that can get expensive, and will take time.

Anyone who has been involved in government agencies, whether the NRO, NGA, NSA, or the MDA, knows how many things go slowly.  And slowly in this instance applies to the process of acquiring and building the satellite payloads, which takes so long that things just get outdated.  It’s why SpaceX chafes at government plodding at every turn.  The slow pace doesn’t mean the tech isn’t useful, but the tech on government satellites is typically a decade behind the tech a US citizen walks around with today–even if the government satellite payload tech was ahead of its time at launch time.  I won’t say this happens all the time, but it happens more often than people like to think.

Part of the mystique of government space technology has to do with NASA’s achievements back in history.  Part of it is likely the sense that with all that money being spent, surely something “cool” will come out of a particular program.  But history is not today.  And, while maybe some of the money goes to technology development, a fair bit of it goes elsewhere.  A lot of money spent in these programs is on people’s expertise in older or arcane technologies.  Some money is spent enhancing the robustness of the technology, and “buying down” risks with constant reviews and inspections, making sure there’s as little opportunity for something to go wrong as possible.  The government also tries to ensure there’s a way to retain the expertise of old and arcane technology (spending more money on the expert so he/she is available).

This happens naturally.  Government employees, whether they’re civilian or military, rely on this ever-present expertise.  It’s the nature of the job that forces this to happen.  The expert will always be there, until retirement or death.  The government employee, on the other hand, might work three years on a program, then move on to something else.  So money is spent to keep that expertise close by, a crutch for the government to lean on, because it bought obscure tech to begin with.  Maybe more often than is admitted, a lot of the older programs become non-viable because the expertise goes away.  It falls further behind.

And government satellite technology will likely fall even further behind, given the explosion of small satellite building going on (in spite of high expenditures in government satellites) around the world.  The small satellites are so inexpensive, they are almost disposable.  But because the investment is so small, there will be quicker and more iterations of satellite payloads.  Each iteration will lead to smaller and better payloads.  Different payloads will be built–ones the government and bigger companies will never have thought of because of risk and cost.  And unlike the government process, these small satellites are built in a nearly unmanaged environment, coming from the wackiest ideas of an eccentric millionaire or  students who just don’t know better.  It will be those people and their satellites that will have the greatest impact on space and space warfare (should it occur).  There’s something similar happening to space planes, too.  More players entering, more interesting space planes designed and flown (eventually).  All the while, the X-37B will still be costly to launch, require range time, and need a rocket core to launch it.  All of this my conjecture??  Sure, but maybe a more realistic one than the Softpedia post about the X-37B.

The X-37B, while interesting, is already halfway to the Smithsonian.



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