Tag Archives: MDA

Two Years Later as a Space Industry Analyst


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!


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.



Dropped balls, accurate time, Zulu, and space operations–Part 2

My inspiration to write this particular series of posts was the latest switch from Daylight Saving Time (DST).  There were the inevitable posts and soft news arguments and articles about the reasons for DST.  I’m not going to write about DST, but it all reminded me of an experience with a certain defense agency—one that defends against missiles—and the importance of Zulu time.  We will get to that anecdote once I’ve finished providing an understanding of the historic actions and eventual reasons of why Zulu time was established and how that relates to space operations.

In my last Zulu time post I wrote the British government offered 20,000 pounds to the first inventor who developed “a method for determining the longitude within 56 kilometers.”*  Believe it or not, it took a long time for someone to get it right:  nearly 45 years!!

The inventor, John Harrison, developed the H4 marine chronometer in 1759—the world’s first truly accurate timepiece.  The H4 exceeded specifications:  it could help determine the longitude within 1 kilometer (time-wise, this meant it was off by ONLY five seconds)!!  Sure, in this world of ultra-precise Global Positioning Satellites (GPS) such an error would be very problematic.  But in 1759, there was no such thing as GPS.  For more about the H4 marine chronometer, read the wiki and the excellent references it recommends.

How does a timepiece help with determining location?  There are many great resources, but start with the Royal Observatory’s “Longitude Problem” post.  Summary:  Every 15 degrees of longitude east or west of the Prime Meridian represents one hour forwards or back from the Greenwich time (so, 30 degrees=2 hours, 75=5, etc.).  A very accurate clock, like H4, synchronized to a fixed location’s time (Greenwich Mean Time), and a navigator’s sun observations to determine the ship’s distance from that fixed location, would render a precise (for those days) ship location.  As an aside, navigators were also in aircraft, like the F-4 fighter jet, for the same reasons.

Harrison’s technology was so good, so robust, the H4’s internal design was the basis of for timepieces well into the 20th century.  You can still go see the H4 in the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, Britain.

Interestingly enough, Greenwich is also where another important activity occurred:  the dropping of a “time ball.”  Every day at 1 PM, since 1833, the Greenwich Observatory (pictured below), drops a ball to allow nearby marine vessels to synchronize their timepieces, their marine chronometers, to retain relative time accuracy (the ball is the red sphere on top of the tower in the picture).  Since Britain was an empire then, with a lot of commerce going on between continents, there were a lot of ships dependent on the punctual actions of the Greenwich Observatory (read this wiki if you’re interested in how the observatory kept time).  The punctuality and accuracy of the time ball drop created favorable circumstances for the eventual adoption of the Greenwich Mean Time as the international reference standard in 1884 AD (and the Greenwich longitude as the accepted Prime Meridian).

Royal Observatory, Greenwich Image by ChrisO

The United States also used time balls to help mariners keep accurate time.  In today’s terms, we call that action a clock hack or time hack.  Time balls were used by sailors until about the 1920’s, when radio time signals replaced their use.  Time hacks continued, with a bigger user pool relying on radio time signals to synchronize equipment, clocks and watches.  Radio time signals continue to be broadcasted.  If you’ve ever dialed (303) 499-7111, you’ve already heard an example of what part of the radio time signal sounds like, courtesy of the United States National Institute of Technology and Standards (NIST) WWV radio station.

Or if you have the right radio receiver, you can try to listen for it on the channels listed on the web page.  However, since you’re probably  reading this on a computer, you always have the option of using NIST’s clock synchronization for your computer–just go to their “Internet Time Service” page to find out how.  There are so many options for you to find out the accurate time–and to think nearly a hundred years ago, this technology was all still being tested.

Of course, something much better, much more accurate came along:  Global Positioning Satellites.  Also, we haven’t really talked about Zulu time itself—but next post we will.  And, I haven’t forgotten about that anecdote.

*Citation:  Graham-Cumming, John, The Geek Atlas:  128 Places Where Science & Technology Come Alive, O Reilly, 2009, Chapter 049, page 185.