Conference Roundup: NSS An Analysis
by Hoyt Davidson, Managing Partner, Near Earth LLC
Congratulations to the Space Foundation for pulling off a highly productive and enjoyable National Space Symposium (NSS) in spite of the challenges of sequestration. Military attendance at the 29th annual NSS was certainly far below normal levels and NASA was totally absent, but the event easily shifted to a most worthwhile industry-to-industry focused networking opportunity.
Innovation, Resiliency + Affordability
If there was a theme to this years Symposium it had to be the one laid out most convincingly by General Shelton, Commander of Air Force Space Command. In his opening keynote speech, General Shelton introduced a new aerospace/defense procurement world to be driven by Innovation, Resiliency and Affordability.
This theme carried throughout the week and was firmly secured into attendees consciousness at the Acquisition Lunch by Brigadier General Teague, Director, Strategic Plans, Programs and Analyses, Air Force Space Command. I think I lost count at six uses of the phrase Innovation, Resiliency and Affordabilitythe message was clearly delivered, going down a new path, no more business as usual, money is tight.
Having attended the Symposium on and off for more than a decade, I can attest to the fact that Defense and Civil procurement has always been a hot topic of discussion. That all parties agree the process is broken and unsustainable has become as common knowledge as the lack of easy solutions.
This time seems different. There is nothing like staring into a decade of declining Defense budgets to focus ones attention on actually solving the problem. Of course, we should retain a high degree of skepticism. Plans are one thing, execution another, but this is not the faster, better, cheaper pipe dream of a few years ago. That never had a chance. This actually sounds like a new and smarter approach to acquisition. Thanks to numerous advancements in technology, the new options available to us might even allow this strategy to work.
What does Innovation, Resiliency and Affordability actually mean? I think we can assume, at the very least, that it means the normal practice of maximum performance at any cost and zero risk, or as one aerospace CEO described their goal, perfect product delivery, is no longer the guiding principle. Apparently, perfection is no longer affordable, and apparently not that resilient or flexible either.
I do not, however, think this means a whole new level of risk tolerance by the government customer. Mission assurance is still of paramount concern, just not at any cost and on any time frame. Instead, the idea appears to be to use technological innovation and new system architectures to achieve sufficient performance at still very low levels of mission risk and to perhaps even achieve lower levels of risk through higher system level resiliency. Kind of like faster, good enough to get the job done, cheaper.
Generals Shelton and Teague stated that this would mean a disaggregation of capabilities, using fractionalized satellite networks based on smaller satellite buses or payloads. It was also said to mean more hosted payloads, fewer dedicated systems and a greater use of commercial services. It sounds like the era of billion dollar super complex satellites that are simply too big to fail or lose on launch may have peaked as perhaps have the multi-billion dollar programs such as AEHF and SBIRS that have routinely experienced large cost overruns.
In its place is envisioned an era of smaller, more single purpose space hardware, but with many more points of presence. More and smaller is hoped to equal less impact from single unit failures and therefore greater system resiliency. Smaller may also mean simpler manufacturing and testing processes, quicker and lower cost deployment and more flexible response. More importantly, it is hoped to mean accomplishing missions at lower cost.
At Near Earth LLC, we do not think this new procurement strategy suggests an abrupt sea change nor a total abandonment of large scale satellite procurements, but rather a gradual shift toward smaller where larger has not worked. For instance, successful programs such as WGS may be safe as well as certain national security programs where there may simply be no substitute for size and complexitylaws of physics being neutral on the whole budgeting issue.
It is, of course, hard to tell at this stage if this new strategy will all work out as hoped. In the commercial satellite communication industry there is still a trend toward bigger is better, with High Throughput Satellites (HTS) in high demand. Larger and hybrid satellites have meant not only more broadcast power and more frequency bands to exploit at a given orbital slot, but also lower average cost per transponder from sharing a common satellite bus and one launch vehicle.
Apparently, this same dynamic is not working as well in a national security environment where design requirements are far tougher, oversight more bureaucratic and costly and production volumes far lowerthe push to disaggregation and smaller size: simpler requirements, easier oversight and higher volumes.
In addition to the government and us taxpayers benefitting from lower costs, who else should benefit from this new strategy? As Chris Quilty notes in his excellent April 15th issue of Satellite Signals, this shift toward disaggregation would undoubtedly benefit small satellite specialists such as ATK, Ball Aerospace, and Orbital Sciences also tend to reduce the Pentagons requirement for large EELV-class launch vehicles in favor of medium class rockets such as Orbitals Antares rocket and SpaceXs Falcon 9. [Congratulations to Orbital on the inaugural launch of AntaresCOTS is proving to be one of the most cost efficient procurement models ever executed. Hint, hint government, we need more COTS style procurement.]
I would also add Sierra Nevada to that list of U.S. satellite manufacturers, and for entirely different reasons, Space Systems/Loral who, although not a government contractor or smallsat manufacturer (currently), they know how to make small satellites and have decades of experience providing satellites on commercial terms. It may prove easier for a company with commercial best practices to go small than for a government focused smallsat manufacturer to go commercial. On the launch side, there are a plethora of new small launch vehicles under development as well as the ability to deploy CubeSats and smallsats from the International Space Station.
None of this is to suggest that the large incumbent prime contractors are in dire straits. The evolution to smaller satellites has been evident for some time now. Boeing, in particular, has been more aggressive in preparing for this revolution. It has introduced its new Phantom Phoenix line of smallsats with options from 4kg to 500kg.
Lockheed and Northrop may have some catching up to do in the sub 200kg. size range, but in the 200 to 500kg. range, Northrop has been providing its Eagle line of smallsats to NASA and Lockheed has its LM 900 bus at just under 500kg. Of course, the near term financial significance of this capability gap will remain unproven until the sub 200kg class proves its worth to the Defense Department and becomes more widely adopted. Skybox Imaging will soon provide an interesting test case for these new smallsat capabilities with their first remote sensing satellite launch planned later this year.
There is also the important question of just how much can be accomplished with the smallest of satellites (e.g., SeeMe, Kestrel Eye), particularly the increasingly ubiquitous CubeSats. Miniaturization of electronics and sensors has come a long way in allowing more to be done with less, but physics does enter the equation at some point in terms of apertures/resolution and power availability. Swarms of satellites and inter-satellite links may address some of these limitations, but the trade-offs are just now being fully addressed.
We should soon have a better understanding of where these CubeSats and smallsats fit into Defense Departments mission requirements and how best to use them. Regardless of the ultimate impact of CubeSat and smallsat technologies on Defense procurement, one thing is almost certainly truethere will be a material impact. To us, that suggests a need for larger companies to quickly develop or acquire these new technologies or at least forge partnerships with the most advanced players so they can prevail in contract proposals. This is looking like an industry sector where those that develop a market lead will quickly move down the learning curve and up the efficiency curve and have a clear competitive advantage for years.
We also believe this move to innovative (small/clever), resilient and affordable suggests a need for rapid prototyping and rapid flight qualification. If it still takes 5 to 10 years to field a new capability, it will not be affordable or state-of-the art in performance. Luckily, smaller opens up several new options such as 3D printing of structures and some components, assembly line production, space environmental testing at ISS with return to Earth, and launch as ride shares, hosted payloads or in large clusters on a wide variety of new vehicles. Providers of these services and capabilities should do well in this new procurement realm.
What this may mean for those developing in-space servicing capabilities (i.e., relocation, repair, maintenance, refueling) is less clear. We would suspect that, in the long term, a move to gaining resiliency through mission architecture will result in lower demand for such services as the value of any given unit of the space segment is less and therefore more disposable, especially as technical obsolescence is assumed through shorter design lives. The business case for profitably servicing these smaller satellites just may not close.
On the other hand, the new strategy could also mean an enhanced desire to extend the lives of the current fleet of high value satellites since they may not get replaced under this new strategy. The near and medium term prospects for in-space servicing may therefore actually improve. In-space servicing may also evolve to mean in-space manufacturing through the assembly of larger structures from smaller units. We shall see.
Lastly, if there are going to be far more satellites in orbit then several other space disciplines and services should benefit:
Space situational awareness
Mission planning and software (e.g., Analytical Graphics)
Telemetry, tracking and control (e.g., Universal Space Network)
Interference detection and avoidance (e.g., Glowlink)
A key ingredient to the success of this new procurement strategy will be securing sufficient funding for the early stage development and deployment of smallsat technologies and systems. We have already seen strong interest from DARPA and NASA to support innovation, but dollar levels are still modest versus amounts required to field large constellations. There are a few attractive programs / contracts being bid, but also many competing teams and inevitably there will be lots of underfunded entities. Meanwhile, although many mid to large aerospace firms are dipping their toes into this market, they are rarely set up to act as venture capitalists or to acquire early stage, negative cash flow businesses.
Luckily for the sector, a few venture funds (e.g., Khosla Ventures) are starting to focus on a new investment theme some in Silicon Valley are calling Government 2.0. Basically, there seems to be a growing belief among investors that government budgets will be strained for such a long time into the future, that Federal, State and local governments will all have to find new ways to use innovation to lower the cost to taxpayers of the services they providenot fewer services, but more affordable delivery.
This belief is starting to attract money from investors previously very shy about risking capital on government-dependent businesses either because governments have proven to be fickle customers, or expected growth opportunities have been uninspiring. Now, they see an entire multi-trillion dollar ecosystem that needs rebuilding and lots of opportunity to bring commercial best practices to bear.
Unfortunately, in many cases, more than $100 million will be required to get a constellation into orbit. Venture funds are frequently good for tens of millions and can join forces for larger amounts, but are much less willing to hit nine figure territory, especially if the total amount required begins with a numeral greater than 1.
From where will these larger amounts come? It is unlikely the public equity market or private equity firms will back these ventures unless there are large and stable government contracts to support the investments or a multi-year successful track record of commercial revenue growth and profitability. That may eventually develop once these new technologies have proven their worth, but for the next few years we suspect most of the large dollars will need to flow from government to the innovators and often through trusted prime contractors.
This dynamic may create an interesting balance of power between those with the long standing government relationships and those with the new business models and technologies. As power never likes to be in balance, we suspect there will be two outcomes. Those companies with applications relying solely or heavily on the government customer to reach break-even will most likely end up partnering with the primes as subcontractors or being acquired by the more commercially minded and nimble aerospace firms. These companies will tend to either sell dedicated systems to the government or own and operate systems under strong government anchor tenancy.
On the other hand, companies focused on applications with strong commercial, international or consumer demand may be able to break out on their own and eventually acquire government contracts directly. The determining factors will be the mix of business and the business plans scalability. The good thing about small is it tends to be scalable. The bad thing about small is the size of the market is not yet proven.
If the innovation is powerful enough and the markets do develop, this age of Innovation, Resiliency and Affordabilitymay actually happen. As a tax payer, that sounds pretty good. As a supporter of American innovators and entrepreneurs, it sounds even better.
About the author
Mr. Davidson is the founder and Managing Partner of Near Earth LLC. Previously, he was a Managing Director in the Telecomm Group at Credit Suisse First Boston. Mr. Davidsons investment banking career began in 1987 as an associate and one of only approximately 100 bankers at Donaldson, Lufkin & Jenrette. He was part of the phenomenal growth and success of DLJ to over 1,000 bankers by the time of its acquisition by CSFB in 2000. At DLJ, Hoyt Davidson was a co-founder of the firms Space Finance Group, Wall Streets first dedicated industry coverage group for the satellite industry.