Category Archives: Opinion

Two Years Later as a Space Industry Analyst

https://i1.wp.com/www.brookepatmor.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/transitions.jpg

Happy New Year!

Transitions are not unfamiliar to me. During my childhood, our family moved around a lot. We’d move to other countries occasionally, always from assignment to assignment on different Air Force bases. Each move contained challenges and over time, each time, I looked forward to the moves. A move meant I would see something different, make new friends, and learn something new. It was great being a Air Force “brat.”

I’d like to think growing up in a military family, moving, and as a result, adapting and learning, have influenced me positively. I might never have learned German, German culture, or eventually become aware of different perspectives from the American Way. My tolerance for risk might have been lower or non-existent. I might never have tried to make my luck with writing.

I have the same attitude towards job transitions. Each new job means there’s something new to learn, something different. So, how do I feel about changing from a satellite missile defense test manager and space operator to my current position as a space industry research analyst? It’s been over two years since I took on this writing gig.

I like the change! Heck yeah, I really like this last transition! I’m learning a lot, too.

I’ve always had an affinity for writing. My degree was in communications, for goodness sakes. I definitely am better at expressing myself in writing than speaking. Writing allows for my brain’s background processing to come to the fore in a nice tidy package once the processing is done. Writing about the space industry is icing on the cake.

But it’s not just about writing about the industry. It’s also learning about the industry, conducting research, finding great sources, reading whatever I can find, which can sometimes seem unrelated. Then I think about it all. I think about it in the gym. I think about it when I’m watching TV at home. I think about it when I’m sleeping. It’s the way my brain likes to work. Some of my better insights come from listening to podcasts not at all connected to my research. Some of my ideas just fall in my lap while running on the treadmill. It’s not tiring, and it’s not forced.

So, yes, my current job is a blast. So much so, I don’t really feel like it’s a job. I get to meet with interesting people from around the world. I get to study and learn about new trends in the industry. I get to write it all down. And, shockingly, people find the information I bring to them useful. It doesn’t hurt I’ve got a good boss, who also has a good boss. It doesn’t hurt I’m on a team full of great people. But what motivates me is finding and writing an analysis people use. It’s wonderful when that happens.

It’s not all sunshine and tea cakes all the time. And the transition between jobs was a bit rough, as part of the problem was me trying to figure out what I REALLY wanted to do. But I can honestly say I feel more fulfilled in this job than my prior work. Admittedly, my experiences and lessons learned in my prior work helped me in my transition to this job. And I’m still learning a lot. So I’ll mention a quick overview of my perception of the space industry today.

There is so much going on in the space industry, a person researching the category would really have to work hard to NOT learn something. Space situational awareness, small satellite growth, possible new entries in the launch market, reusable rocket stages, and more—there’s always a learning moment waiting around the corner. And that’s assuming a person stuck with studying only the American launch industry. But globally, there are trends that impact the launch industry, too.

There are the activities conducted by India and China. Both countries have very active space programs, with China’s commitment evidenced in it’s recent 2016 attainment as the world’s most prolific launcher for that year (actually, they tied with the US this year–I just finished updating our database–sorry). The Europeans haven’t been sitting still either. And there’s surely a story behind Russia’s alarming decline in launches for 2016 as well as a seeming decline in launch reliability, too.

That’s not to say that the U.S. is lagging. From my observation, the U.S. space industry is perhaps the most innovative and most vibrant it’s been in a while. But the U.S. space industry is also in transition, slowly switching from primarily government-sponsored missions relying on government launch services, to a healthier, and hopefully multi-pronged launch industry with many more customers. There are many, many plans, from many entrepreneurs and companies, some of which may actually transition to real businesses and opportunities.

The upshot is, I get to research, learn, ponder, and write about this changing and interesting industry. It’s been fun during the past few years, and I’m pretty sure it will be fun for the next few. This was a fortunate transition for me. Sorry if that sounds like bragging.

Transitions can be wonderful—if you have the means, I highly recommend picking one up. Oh, yeah!

 

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When China Attacks?

Spacewar1

SpaceWar! screenshot courtesy of MIT through Wikipedia.

It must have been a slow news week last week, because this story gained traction: Space warfare with Russia and China? Pentagon urged to prepare for itIn the story, an unlikely scenario unfolds where China attacks U.S. navigation satellites, the U.S. suddenly becomes helpless, and is at the mercy of the “Red Menace.” My response: really??? Is it really that easy?

First, let’s just look at the numbers. The current number of operational GPS satellites the U.S. Air Force is operating is 31. They have an advertised requirement of 24 satellites in operations (Where are these numbers coming from? Why GPS.gov, of course.). This doesn’t include the number of older backup satellites. So, if China wanted to cripple GPS, they’d have to take the constellation below the 24 required. That’s a lot of anti-satellite missiles. This being space, though, it’s not that simple as the scenario suggests: GPS satellites move.

A GPS satellite orbits in what is known as a medium Earth orbit (MEO), which is about 12,500 miles in altitude. A GPS satellite circles the Earth every 12 hours, which means it is occasionally in view of China’s landmass or the contested ocean areas for perhaps 3 to 5 hours of one orbit. So if China were to take out 8 GPS satellites with missiles, they’d have to be ready to take out more a few hours later. Is this possible? Let’s say it is. The media is quick to talk about earlier anti-missile tests the Chinese military conducted, with the 2007 test creating A LOT of debris in space. Which gets to the next point.

China is launching its own GPS-type satellites into orbit, called BeiDou. At my last count, they have about 20 of their own, and aiming to eventually have over 30 in orbit as well. These BeiDou satellites are in different orbits, with a majority, I think, in MEO. This means there’s the possibility of China shooting themselves in the foot if they shot enemy satellites in orbits of similar altitudes, which might then litter debris in some of their BeiDou satellites orbits. But space is a big place, so maybe not.

Keep in mind this scenario is only for positioning, navigation, and timing (PNT) satellites, like GPS. Adversaries would have to launch a lot more to blind the U.S., especially when you consider there are commercial companies like Planet Labs with over 50 Earth observation satellites in low Earth orbit (they launched over 100 in the past two years). Are they as capable or robust as a DigitalGlobe WorldView, or a government-operated imagery satellite? Probably not. But they would be good enough for government work in case those bigger, juicier, expensive targets were taken out.

Back to GPS. There are more players in the PNT market than GPS and BeiDou. Russia has their GLONASS constellation, with over 20 satellites in orbit. The Europeans have Galileo, which is now quickly building up. The Indians are putting up their own regional satellite navigation system and are expecting to complete it this year. Each one of these PNT operators might have something to say about China launching missiles against U.S. GPS satellites. And if you don’t think China isn’t worried about India, you haven’t been paying attention.

A simpler, cheaper, and possibly more effective way to accomplish this is jamming. I’m ignorant of the power requirements to do this, but I understand the power used in the GPS signal is low, which means a bigger jammer could make sure no GPS signals get through to a particular area. And jamming could theoretically cover a particular area for longer than 3-5 hours. It doesn’t have to be expensive. It doesn’t even need to have something shot into space.

The U.S. uses drones, and China does, too. An inexpensive, high-altitude drone, or a fleet of them, could deny GPS signals coming in. Imagine how frustrating it would be for the U.S. Navy to expend million-dollar missiles on drones costing thousands of dollars. Imagine how much more frustrating it would be to then see a new inexpensive drone take the place of the one shot down. If space must be involved, cubesats might be able to do the trick, although China would need to put quite a few in orbit to be effective. Oh yeah, wait–China can do that: http://www.nasaspaceflight.com/2015/09/china-debut-launch-long-march-6/.

So, this kind of wargaming is fun. But let’s get back to the point, which is, sure, the U.S. military relies on space assets to conduct missions. But its assets, while seemingly vulnerable, aren’t as easy to get to as the article paints them. And the act of destroying satellites in orbit, while spectacular, does not help ANY space faring nation in the long run (unless they’ve developed a way to clean up the mess). It’s almost as if an attack on one is an attack on all.

And I mean ALL. If you have a smartphone, especially one bought within the past few years, you have GPS AND GLONASS receivers built right in to the brains of the phone. Let’s see, what apps use GPS? Uber, Yelp, Waze, and Google Maps for starters. Do you think citizens in China, Russia, India, or Europe use similar apps and tech on their phones? They’d be crazy not to.

Is the article’s scenario possible? Sure. Just like nuclear Armageddon is possible. Conflicts are always possible, especially when you have nations like China showing off shiny new muscles like a misguided gym-bro during Spring Break in Daytona, and the U.S. acting like the retired old man yelling at China to stay off of his lawn. But how likely is a conflict? There are cheaper, maybe even more effective ways to cripple a military’s use of satellite services than shooting them down. It’s our politicians job not to let it get that far.

The Military Space Operator–After the Military

Transitioning as The New Civilian

When I left the U.S. Air Force, I was a space operator. After working in the military space world for 11 years, it seemed very obvious to me and the Air Force, that I was a space operator, but not to anyone in the civilian world. I spent nearly six months applying for related positions, trying to convince others of my qualifications, before I found work. It was frustrating.

I had the training and experience in various sub-disciplines related to or directly involved in space operations. When the USAF trains someone like me in space operations, they assign a special prefix denoting the corresponding specialty: 13S or 1C6 (officer or enlisted). Add some extra letters and numbers to the end of those three letters and numbers and it SEEMS the Air Force stays pretty happy about how they keep track of their space operations force.

The Problem

However, there are some wrinkles within the Air Force which obfuscate what a space operator is. Such complications are what might have hindered my job searches. In the USAF, being a space operator might mean a person’s job is acquiring the systems for missions in space. It might mean a person installs fiber for ground networks to talk with space systems or runs computer network operations. It might mean conducting system engineering or mission assurance for particular systems. It might mean intelligence analysis. At one time it meant maintaining and launching nuclear missiles. Each of these was the Air Force’s way to appear to beef up its space cadre. Some of us benefited from the Air Force’s efforts to “spread space.”

So, while being a 13S or 1C6 still means a trained space professional sitting at a computer command console, operating a space system, making sure a missile, rocket, or a satellite and its payload responds to commands, there are some other professions within the space operations category without those prefixes that might be related but need more explanation. Don’t get me wrong: the multiplicity of jobs within the space operations career-field is great for those who are willing to learn about the different space systems. It’s particularly interesting to the many who gain the technical chops and experience in the USAF without any science, technology, engineering, or other types of technical educational backgrounds.

The problem though, is that while it’s very interesting and quite educational to work for the USAF, there’s the question “What happens after my USAF career?” The USAF isn’t doing you any favors with its broadly applied “Space Operator” category. Because, for example, being an acquisitions program manager is not the same as conducting communications satellite upkeep or running satellite warning or space intelligence missions. Hiring managers in the civilian world may become confused by all the great experience a person gained as a program manager while that person calls him/herself a space operator. There’s also the problem that a good portion of space operations occur in the classified world, and an involved person can’t really say what they were doing in that world. So how can a person define what their part in the military space world is, without getting into trouble? How can a USAF space operator make their military space job relate, in very simple terms, to the civilian space world? With the broader question being, what does it mean to work in the space industry in the United States?

Stay tuned…

I have a few ideas about this, just based on my experience in writing about this industry over the past few years. My next post will attempt to elaborate some of the terms to help make those connections in the civilian world. Hopefully it will help you in your job searches.

Another lull, I know…

There are those out on the internet who have subscribed to my site, and I truly thank you for that. It’s been quite a while since I’ve posted, as you’ve probably noticed. Here’s why I’ve not been quite so productive on this blog lately.

I get to do what I enjoy at work: I research all sorts of space issues, systems, etc. I then get to write about some of what I’ve researched. I do this quite a bit. This means I’m in front of a screen all day long, using whatever search engine I can to find anything to help make sense of certain aspects of space, and then tell that story. If you’re interested in my writing at work, you’re always welcome to read what I’ve put on that site.

So, when I get home, I feel the need to power down. It’s not that I’m not interested in space or writing. But to do good work at work, I need to let my brain–whatever there is of it–take a break. And when I say take a break, what I really mean is to allow it to do background processing. This is the way my mind works–it works whether I want it to or not, gathering bits and pieces of information I maybe didn’t consciously catch, and puts it all, eventually, in a package I can use. I think hunches and other such seemingly random feelings are results of such “background processing.”

So, this results in me not even wanting to touch the laptop at home. But I do enjoy writing about space still, so here’s what I’ll do: I’ll blog when I feel like it. It might be twice a week, once a month, etc.But that’s what I’ll try to do. I’ll focus on space, but reserve the right to stray sometimes. I am a little more active on Twitter, though, so you’re always welcome to interact there, should some insane desire to do so take hold of you.

That written, here’s a little fun post I found on Brickset.com a few weeks ago. Some readers of The Mad Spaceball know I enjoy Legos and Space. Apparently an astronaut or two also appreciate that combination. The picture below was taken IN the International Space Station. This means there are minifigs of the current astronauts zooming overhead. There are a couple more photographs on the Brickset site, so go there to take a gander. It’s good to see this kind of humor among space professionals…

Minifigs in space. Image from Brickset.com

Another False Step for Mankind?

Image from NASA.

The Orion capsule was successfully tested last week. For those who don’t know, the Orion is NASA’s future crew capable capsule, which will hopefully be used to explore to the moon and beyond. The capsule was tested on December 5, 2014, lofted into space for a very short time and then reentered the Earth’s atmosphere to land just off of Baja California’s coast.

I’m glad it worked. I’m glad so many people who worked on the Orion test received the gratification of a successful test. For the work they’ve done, they deserve to celebrate. But what does it mean? We’ve done something like this before nearly 45 years ago. Then for the next few years after that we did it better, with humans inside capsules, with better funding, greater public motivation, and very competitive external political pressure.

This is why I see this test as a false start. The conditions in the late 60’s/early 70’s helped to fund NASA for a bit. But the conditions don’t exist now. One might say the opposite of those conditions exists now: desultory and low funding, a generally uninterested public, and no real external competition. So why would anyone think NASA will be able to keep Orion and the Space Launch System (SLS) on track? Politics tends to get in the way of progress, sometimes, why should it be any different with space?

Look at it this way: NASA’s budget hasn’t really increased or decreased very much (page 10 of this slideshow), politicians still quibble about whether the program is even necessary (and some do believe so, a few for the wrong reasons), and I still don’t hear very many of the general public talking about the need for space exploration. I do hear plenty of worry about the U.S. economy, affordable care, ISIS, gasoline prices, education, and unemployment. But such issues are natural for us to worry about. They are more immediate, more tangible–even though many people in the U.S. use many products that would likely never have existed without a space program.

Those issues are why NASA will likely not achieve momentum to keep this current effort going. Social programs will ALWAYS outcompete NASA, and so NASA lives a bit like the brilliant, but spurned, step-child, getting crumbs from the adults’ budget table every now and then. As crass as it sounds, NASA’s programs like Orion are akin to the building of monuments to kings. It will probably always be like that, so long as space exploration lives at the sufferance of the very few: presidents, senators, and representatives. They are why NASA came into being. They are why NASA received money for Apollo. They are why NASA started living hand-to-mouth nearly 40 years ago. They will be NASA’s destroyers. They are why there was no real follow-up to Apollo. By the way, they are theoretically doing what we told them to do.

It’s not that it isn’t exciting to see something like the Orion capsule being tested. It’s not that it’s uninteresting. I want to see us as a species move out into the stars. It’s just that I must wonder what kind of start this is. NASA’s Administrator Bolden said this “Day One of the Mars era.” I’m not so sure. It might’ve been a good day for NASA, but what does that mean?

I know it sounds bleak, but there are good things happening with space. Small satellites seem to be interesting to more people and more companies. Some bigger internet companies are expanding on that interest, making very big plans for small satellites. These big plans with small satellites require more launch capability, which will hopefully be developed. It looks like that might happen, too.

Private launch companies–ones not beholden (yet) to military and government funding–are trying to come forward. A few are even talking about eventually using their spacecraft to travel to Mars. There are a few countries that are becoming more active in space as well. Some aren’t waiting to see what the U.S. will do. And who knows, between those countries and private companies, someone might do it for less money than NASA can. And not a single politician will be in control, money-wise.