“Old” space, “new” space…are we seeing a changing of the guard?

I am the Founder of Stellar Solutions – a group of space geeks that have a passion for making space systems work from concept to building, launching and achieving mission success. Over the last 19 years, we’ve been very fortunate to have worked on over 100 different space programs. Every one of our engineers is looking to change the world and does so every day, in some small (or big) way.

Because of the complexity and scope involved, there used to be only a handful of players in the world that could build space platforms. Most were funded by the government (NASA, Department of Defense, etc.) or by very large commercial service providers –like SES Astra and Intelsat. In the “old” space paradigm, everything was top down, built to specification, and the customer managed every detail. This mammoth system revolved around expensive long-term programs, with extensive state-of-the-art capabilities that pushed the envelope on cost-plus type contracts where requirements are continuously changed to enhance capabilities delivered on orbit. Ultimately, in the case of the government programs, these very expensive systems were paid for by taxpayers and provided “exquisite” capability for a limited set of users. Complexity and ever-changing requirements drove longer timelines and cost overruns.

The “new” space paradigm shifted away from that nucleus of the select few. Good ideas started to get into orbit using less expensive and creative approaches combined with a higher risk tolerance. “New” space applies the “if you build it, they will come” paradigm with a twist — an approach where innovation comes first, and the driver is the broadening of applications and types of services that can be accessed by everyone. It’s more about the product than the platform and the earth is just a giant data set. The teams are fresh, nimble, exciting and provide faster turnaround times. This entrepreneurial frontier entails building a system on faith alone, trusting that you will be able to sell the information coming from the platform to someone, and that you will at least recover the cost. Recent players include household names that people interface with every day, such as Google, who recently bought Skybox imaging for $500 million, invested in Virgin Galactic, hired O3B people/invested in O3B, acquired Titan Aerospace (UAVs) and whose founders, Larry Page and Eric Schmidt, participated in the funding of Planetary Resources, an extra-terrestrial prospecting company. Large ticket projects are increasingly being crowd-funded by angel investors not just for their love of space, but for a return on investment. Membership in the Space Angels network group has doubled in the last year with individual investments starting at a modest $50,000.

In the space industry, a lesson learned comes at considerable cost in time and money, a cost that can easily knock companies out of business. (Remember Teledesic, the original “Internet in the Sky” project?) For this reason, there are obvious benefits to leveraging the old and the new. New perspective and strategy projects stand to gain from using industry veterans and independent experts from outside their four walls. Skybox and SpaceX are two examples that come to mind who have effectively done this without losing their fresh approach. SpaceX is successfully combining private and public money, as it has over 20 commercial launch manifests in the next 2 years and a $1.6 billion contract from NASA. New blood can only benefit from the incorporation of “informed learning” from the past. The key is to have a grand vision with a precise execution plan rooted in reality, and to remain agile and adaptable throughout.

So, can we say that there really is a changing of the guard happening? Only time will tell. There are very smart people in both “old” space and “new” space, marching to the beat of different drummers. The ultimate winners will be those who can define and execute all aspects of the end-to-end program to field a capability that meets a need and closes on a business plan. What will separate the success story from the “wannabe” will be good system engineering and the integration of space and ground capabilities to deliver the right product at the right time. This is not only about advanced technology, but also about sound business.

If people knew how hard I worked to get my mastery, it wouldn’t seem so wonderful after all.

— Michelangelo

Fielding a new space system isn’t easy. Stellar Solutions is the new breed of “10,000 hour” people. (In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell reminds us of the “10,000 hour” rule, based on a study by Anders Ericsson. He finds that any so-called overnight success or stroke of luck, in any field, is preceded by at least 10,000 unnoticed hours of hard work and tireless preparation.) In our case, the secret sauce to mission success is system engineering, and our engineers have definitely invested those 10,000 hours, but with a new twist that integrates “old” space and “new” space. It isn’t just about the 10,000 hours; but rather it’s the fact that those 10,000 hours were spent on system engineering across multiple programs and platforms from end to end (space and ground) that matters. If someone blogged about “the good, the bad and the ugly” of the projects we have worked on, no two stories would be the same. System engineering is the glue that holds everything together and results in mission success. Once you “launch” your product, making changes is a lot harder than earth-based products. So what you do before launch, and what you correctly anticipate after launch, takes on added significance. Experienced system engineers can make a difference!