The rapid commercialization of space and the establishment of the U.S. Space Force have created ideal conditions for change in the national security space business, says Steve Isakowitz, CEO of the Aerospace Corp. and former president of Virgin Galactic.
Aerospace, based in El Segundo, California, is a federally funded research and development center focused on analysis and assessment of space programs for the Defense Department, NASA and the National Reconnaissance Office.
In an interview with SpaceNews, Isakowitz says unprecedented opportunities are emerging for national security space organizations to capture commercial innovation. Defense programs won’t transform overnight, he says, but change is definitely in the air.
What in particular is driving change in national security space programs?
The stand-up of the Space Force certainly was big. Creating an organization that’s now empowered to make the kinds of decisions that before had been more fractured is a significant development. The Space Force just stood up a Space Systems Command [which replaced the former Space and Missile Systems Center]. I think this is going to enhance the coordination across the entire space enterprise that also includes the Space Rapid Capabilities Office and the Space Development Agency.
Aerospace Corp. worked closely with SMC and now with Space Systems Command. Do you think they will do business differently?
Not much will change immediately because SMC already had undergone a significant amount of reorganization over the past two years. An important step taken by SMC was to establish the “program integration council” that includes representatives from DoD and intelligence agencies that acquire space systems. The council, known as PIC, is a great venue to get all the players around the table, and to talk about unity of effort in a better way than they had in the past.
Everyone recognizes that technology is moving fast. The question now is what do we need to do to move faster, adopt the technologies in these emerging companies, and most importantly, outpace the threat.
What does all this mean for companies that sell products and services to the military?
The way companies compete for contracts will not be the same. With satellites, for example, in the past you competed through the normal phases of competition and if you won you pretty much locked that thing up for the next 10 to 20 years or even 30 years. That program was yours to grow with. I think it’s going to be much less of that going forward. What you’re going to find is that it’s going to be easier for newer companies and technologies to plug into programs. That could be done by adding new sensors to a satellite that we could try out, or trying smaller satellites in combination with the larger ones for greater resiliency.
At Aerospace, a lot more of our effort will be towards the front end, working with the government and with industry, understanding where technology is going, because you don’t want to lock in things too early. We want programs that evolve much the same way as the internet where you have protocols and standards that allow you to plug in. I think that’s what we need to do for national security programs.
How can the military integrate government and commercial space systems?
Space is becoming a hybrid architecture, not just in the way we often think about it, which is small satellites mixed with large satellites. It’s becoming much more of a hybrid architecture in terms of different orbits that now are going to be used. Frankly we’re even talking about going out to cislunar. I think it’s becoming much more hybrid in terms of satellites being able to talk to each other through optical links and so on. It’s not just for the same mission but across different missions.
We used to build ground systems that were dedicated for a specific mission. I think now they’re going to be multipurpose. So from that standpoint, you’re going to see much more mixing and matching. And this can only happen if you get the kind of coordination and standardization that I talked about earlier.
There is a lot of talk about ‘space as a service’ provided by commercial firms. Should DoD consider buying services instead of hardware?
I think the government recognizes the value of trying to leverage what’s happening in the commercial sector. When I joined Aerospace five years ago, I thought that the industry was going to transform itself quite a bit, with commercial activity and new technologies. I was actually wrong. Because it’s transformed itself much more than I would have ever predicted. And it is moving really fast and I think the government recognizes that.
We are not the only one these days that talk about billions of dollars. Private industry is raising billions of dollars. These are big numbers, and the government would be short sighted not to take full advantage of that kind of capability going forward.