R&D Can Revitalize the Space Industrial Base

For nearly 20 years, the United States has been living off its investments in space. Unfortunately, its ability to do so is coming to an end, and the space industrial base finds itself increasingly at risk. Without a healthy foundation, the American people will not continue to enjoy the benefits that space systems provide and may well watch other countries, which invest their seed corn rather than consume it, surpass the United States.

Several problems with the industrial base consistently rear their heads. These include an aging work force and the loss of critical skills as it retires, a lack of opportunities for young engineers to learn the ropes and “get their hands dirty,” a funding and acquisition approach that is not well-aligned with the boutique nature of contemporary space systems, limited budgets and a backlog of troubled programs.

Furthermore, the space industrial base, particularly the second- and third-tier suppliers, has not been immune to the steady decline in the overall U.S. manufacturing base, which has been exacerbated by the recent economic downturn. Particular attention needs to be given to these lower-tier suppliers because that is often where unique, specialized skills reside.

It is tempting to throw money at these problems, but dollars will not solve them. Resources are clearly necessary, but not sufficient, for a healthy space industrial base. Today, the United States often spreads the funding available around industry to protect as many jobs and heritage capabilities as possible, but such subsidies represent a hollow approach. “Keep alive” funding will not revitalize industry; it only promotes stagnation.

There is a range of frequently discussed, sometimes employed policies and practices that will help manage the risks of a weak industrial base. These include stable funding, improved training, frequent flight opportunities and more frequent contract opportunities. However, what is missing in that mix is a plan for investments in research and development (R&D) and a re-engineering of the acquisition approach.

Setting priorities and targeting R&D funding, particularly on key components and technologies provided by lower-tier suppliers, is essential to reinvigorating the technological underpinning of the industry. If the quantity of work is inadequate for fiscal reasons, the quality of the work will have to suffice.

A key issue for the government will be balancing the pursuit of revolutionary and evolutionary technologies. The United States has pursued too many highly complex, revolutionary capabilities with massive programs that ultimately fail, creating a boom-or-bust contract cycle that ultimately harms the industrial base. It would be more prudent to err on the side of evolutionary investments focused on the most critical second-, third-, and fourth-tier components and suppliers. Such R&D should be targeted at near- and mid-term capabilities with the prospect of being injected into pre-planned product improvements. Increased research and development to raise technology readiness levels will keep scientists and engineers productively employed and eventually enable the kinds of revolutionary capabilities that the United States may have prematurely sought in the past. It also will help manage the risk of creating capability gaps, which result when overly ambitious revolutionary programs fail and threaten to leave warfighters in the lurch.

Also, re-engineering the acquisition approach is critical to sustaining the investments over the long term. The R&D/acquisition/operations cycle must form a more integrated and sustainable portfolio of programs, with an eye toward positive reinforcement of the industrial base. Synchronizing the cycle of system development timelines, a mission’s operational life span and R&D expenditures will make it possible to sustain key segments of industry when procurements wind down and operational cycles wind up. The funding level and focus of R&D investments should alternate between evolutionary and revolutionary advancements in response to progress with system developments and on-orbit performance. Thus, the cycles become complementary. Such an approach also would produce a degree of fiscal predictability by creating a steady budget stream, giving different weights to R&D, procurement and operations funding at different points.

Some will recognize this as a form of spiral development, which usually enables programs to better manage cost and schedule risk over time compared with more ambitious revolutionary programs. By synchronizing the industrial base’s work force, facilities and production to minimize starts and stops and seeking opportunities to inject new technology into flight systems, the industry can begin to reverse the downward spiral and work its way back to health. There is still a place for revolutionary R&D, which can change the state of the art, but more measured steps are warranted now.

There is no simple solution to the problems of the U.S space industrial base. Ultimately, placing it on a firmer footing requires a combination of policies, practices and programs. Within that mix, pursuing a structured R&D agenda and coordinating it with procurement and operational cycles will help improve resident U.S. space capabilities and prepare the industry for the demands that will be placed upon it.

This article appeared in Space News on Feb. 22, 2010.

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