Hindrances Between Private and Gov’t Space Sectors

January 2018 No Comments

[Q9] What are the biggest hindrances to a successful relationship between the private and government space sectors? How can these be minimized? A Virtual Think Tank (ViTTa)® Report.

Author | Editor: A. Astorino-Courtois (NSI, Inc,).

Summary Response

The 33 individuals or teams that provided input represent large, medium, and small/start-up space companies;4 USG civil space agencies; academia; think tanks; and professional organizations. Four of these are non-US voices (Australia, Canada, Italy, and Norway.)

The consensus view among the expert contributors to this report is that a successful and sustained government- commercial relationship in the space domain is as essential for achieving US national security goals as it is for achieving commercial profits.5 At present, however, contributors see the ways in which US civil and National Security Space (NSS) operate as barring the attributes that make for an attractive business environment, including: a) clear requirements and data exchange between government and commercial partners, b) persistent and predictable funding and cash flow, c) non onerous and consistently implemented export controls, and d) synchronization of internal government agendas and decision making with regard to space.

The following sections discuss four themes related to US public and private space sector relations (i.e., US civil and National Security Space and the commercial sector) that emerge in the input provided by the expert contributors. While one of the themes focuses on positive aspects of the relationship, the other three themes focus on types of barriers—namely, red tape, culture, and organization of the bureaucracy. The frequency of mentions for each of these themes, as well as for specific examples of each given by the contributors, is summarized in the Figure below. These themes are discussed in greater detail below. It should be noted that, unless specified, there was no association between an expert’s views and his or her professional affiliation. The barriers and mitigation options discussed here were identified as much by NSS and US civil space voices as by commercial and scholarly ones.

First, the Good News…

Although the question of focus prompted experts to address hindrances, nearly a third (30%) of the contributors feel that relations between US public and private space sectors are fairly good. In fact, even among contributors who see significant barriers, several identify specific organizations and programs as exemplars of ways to make USG space a more attractive and accessible business environment.6 NASA is the governmental organization that is most frequently cited as having made progress in cutting red tape and developing innovative ways to work with commercial actors. The FAA Office of Commercial Space Transportation is the second most cited, followed by NOAA and then finally, some programs at NGA.7

The Barriers

The majority (70%) of expert contributors mentioned at least one of three types of important barriers that hinder relations between the commercial sector and US National Security Space. “Red Tape” refers to barriers imposed by USG regulatory and acquisition/contracting processes. “Culture” captures barriers that contributors suggest arise from the different goals, expectations, and cultures of the NSS and commercial space communities. Finally, “Organization of Bureaucracy” addresses impediments that result from the organization and structure of the US bureaucracy.

#1: Red Tape

What are described as opaque, convoluted, and slow US regulatory and acquisition/contracting processes are the hindrances that are most frequently mentioned by contributors.

The Barriers

In a sentiment echoed by other contributors, Major General (USAF ret.) James Armor of Orbital ATK suggests that problems with space acquisition do not just reside within bureaucratic machines, but often emerge at the outset from “a poor requirements process—[the NSS] can’t decide what it wants.” Dr. George C. Nield of the Federal Aviation Administration offers a reason for why this is so: “the nature of the DoD organizational structure, namely lots of people can say ‘no,’ but no one’s empowered to say ‘yes’.”

What is the impact on the commercial sector? In short, the effect is increased costs of doing business with NSS. When acquisition and contracting processes are difficult to navigate, involve so many steps, and require extended periods to reach contract award, the transaction costs of working with the USG can become higher than the value of the work itself—a negative business case that is extremely difficult to defend to shareholders and investors. Lengthy periods of uncertainty involved in securing work with NSS also increase financial risk to companies who must spend up-front capital to pursue NSS work.8 Smaller companies may experience additional barriers. Three contributions from small or start-up businesses find that current acquisition processes may benefit “entrenched interests” and make it difficult for smaller firms to compete with larger, better-known prime contractors.9 Theresa Hitchens of the Center for International and Security Studies at Maryland sees the issue as reciprocal—that is, the “creakiness/complexity of the acquisition process at DoD and NASA” also makes it harder for the USG to find and work with smaller companies.

While contributors were sympathetic to the necessity of government oversight of dual-use technologies with national security implications, many believe that this oversight is overly restrictive, unfair to US firms, and/or prone to what Joshua Hampson of the Niskanen Center tags as the “capriciousness and opaqueness” of decisions about export controls.10 More than half of the expert responses mention inconsistently implemented, “burdensome” and/or “outdated” mandatory Federal Acquisition egulation (FAR) requirements, International Traffics in Arms Regulation (ITAR), and other compliance requirements as major barriers to successful relations between public and private sector space. There are two inevitable results of restrictive export controls. First, activities such as moving space- related items from general export controls to ITAR put US companies at a disadvantage relative to foreign competitors, and create a situation that eventually will incentivize companies to leave the US for areas with more lenient controls.12 Second, as Lieutenant Colonel (USAF ret.) Deron Jackson (United States Air Force Academy) argues, a restrictive environment invites competition from foreign governments eager to attract business away from the US.

#2: Cultural Differences

What experts saw as “cultural” barriers to government-commercial partnerships in the space domain were attitudes and behaviors rooted in the different agendas, priorities, motives, incentive structures, and varying speeds of operations of government and commercial space. Contributors described two specific sources of culture clashes: differences in expectations about the operational environment, and different concepts of information sharing and control.

One critical difference between government and commercial space, unsurprisingly, emanates from the varying operational environments in which each side finds itself. In one example, Hampson observes that the private- and public-sector funding environments “do not neatly overlap.” He points out that even small changes in program funding can strain relations between the government and the private sector. Pressure on businesses to produce revenue—or at least the real possibility of it—to investors and directors as quickly as possible can be stymied by the deliberate pace of the NSS funding processes and decision cycles. In addition, government planning on the single fiscal year is simply out of alignment with commercial investment planning which, by necessity, requires longer lead times (e.g., for staffing- up, engaging capital investment, etc.) than does government planning. This mismatch can be lethal to all but the largest and most mature firms. For smaller, or “new space” innovators, this discrepancy can “de- incentivize entering the market or working with the US government” (Hampson).13 Dr. Luca Rossettini (D-Orbit, Italy)14 concurs that misunderstanding of commercial funding requirements is a major reason that companies often do not even consider the USG in their business planning. Simply put, the NSS business environment is too slow and thus too risky for the “aggressive go-to-market” strategies that drive many of these privately-funded enterprises.

A number of experts remarked on barriers generated by government versus commercial expectations regarding the control of all facets of space capabilities, systems, and development. An area in which the government culture of “control” appears particularly harmful is the control of information. This includes what experts identified as the tendency of NSS organizations to expect unidirectional information flows from commercial to government but not the other way around. Dr. Damon Coletta and Lieutenant Colonel (USAF ret.) Jackson (United States Air Force Academy) and Victoria Samson (Secure World Foundation) are critical of the government’s lack of transparency and tendency for “over-classification” of space-related information. As an example of the former, Dr. T.S. Kelso of Analytical Graphics, Inc. recounts his experience with tracking data disseminated by the Joint Space Operations Center (JSPOC) to commercial space; he notes that this data often is delayed, of questionable veracity, and/or incomplete. He says, “we constantly run into this kind of situation where the government is trying to protect processes or capabilities or systems or whatever it happens to be…but at the same time, we are putting hundreds of satellites that DoD relies on for things like communications at risk because we could think we understand the situation and actually maneuver into a collision rather than avoid one.” In a similar vein, the ViaSat, Inc. team comments on a recent statement by the Secretary of the Air Force on barring proprietary interfaces with government systems. They argue that declarations such as these illustrate a key government misunderstanding of the commercial sector, and should be the foci of efforts to find mutually beneficial common ground.

Nield describes the USG as committed to a “deeply ingrained habit of doing things the way we’ve always done them.” A number of experts identify the ironic result: The standard steps taken by the government to protect NSS systems could generate increased risk to those assets; an effect that these experts expect will only worsen as the space environment becomes more crowded. Contributors argue that ultimately, the key difficulty to overcome in the name of partnership is the reluctance of the NSS community to amend its standard procedures for fear of yielding control to other elements of the USG or the commercial sector.<,p>

Dr. Edythe Weeks of Webster University offers a slightly different view of the impact of culture clashes between public and private sector space. Rather than taking sides—or assigning the government most of the blame—Dr. Weeks characterizes the (ultimately self-defeating) conflict between the “myths” of commercial versus government space as one over “who knows the best way.” Commercial space, she argues, believes that it can produce space capabilities smaller, better, and faster than can government space. Given this ethic, it is not surprising to uncover commercial sector frustrations with a government space enterprise that it perceives as following a slower, less effective path. This commercial-government ‘mythology,’ encourages commercial space and the US public to “forget” the significant role played by the government in setting the legal conditions, funding innovative research and development, and purchasing services that underwrite commercial space. The mythology also diverts Congressional attention from the critical role of US government space, with the ironic effect of reducing budget appropriations for public sector space programs. This creates a negative cycle which lies at the heart of much of the budget uncertainty about which commercial actors complain.

#3: Bureaucratic Organization and Structure

The final category of hindrances mentioned by contributors has more to do with the practices and structure of the federal government than with the DoD or the NSS, specifically. Key issues mentioned by the expert contributors were the insufficient staffing and underfunding of US government space as a whole, as well as the legal requirements and other elements of the NSS acquisition process that are outside direct DoD input or control. Examples of the latter include the particularities of Congressional processes that can cause unanticipated roadblocks in program funding; or White House policy and priority changes that can change significantly from one election to the other. Robert Cabana of the NASA-Kennedy Space Center cites deficient policy synchronization among USG space agencies as adding to the confusion felt by firms that may want to do business with the USG. Hitchens in turn identifies the “lack of a clear policy on export controls [as] slowing the licensing process” for commercial space. Finally, Faulconer Consulting Group15 argues that many of the issues are the result of not having clearly established the government’s role relative to commercial space, asking, “Is the US Government client, manufacturer, or regulator?” They further point out the source of conflict: As one of the largest potential investors in the space sector, work done by government agencies is often in direct competition with “what the commercial providers can provide,” while at other times, the government is “purely the customer purchasing commercial services.”

Actions to Minimize Hindrances

If it is agreed that fostering a healthy, globally competitive commercial space sector is not at odds with US national security requirements but is itself a key requirement, then middle ground solutions must be found. To do so effectively requires taking an accounting of where the points of tension are. As such, tensions between commercial and government requirements, together with some steps for mitigating each, are summarized in the table below.

Contributors mentioned the need to “streamline,” “update,” and “reform” both acquisition and regulatory practices by taking steps to make them more transparent, lowering transaction costs to businesses associated with lengthy proposal writing and processing times, and facilitating access to businesses beyond the “old space” firms with which the NSS community currently partners. The majority of recommendations involved expanding the sizes and types of solicitations and funding vehicles available for space acquisition (e.g., increased use of Broad Agency Announcements [BAAs]; Small Business Innovation Research awards [SBIRs]; fixed-price contracts, competitions, demonstrations, and prizes; and space act agreements) to allow the government to leverage private sector investment and capabilities while reducing bureaucratic costs.16 Marc Berkowitz of Lockheed Martin offers several suggestions to facilitate progress, including increasing funding for federal regulatory agencies so that they might be fully-staffed, offering workers incentives for good performance, and modifying personnel policies to attract the best talent to the USG.


Adranos Energetics; Brett Alexander (Blue Origin); Anonymous Commercial Executives; Anonymous Launch Executive; Major General (USAF ret.) James Armor2 (Orbital ATK); Marc Berkowitz (Lockheed Martin); Bryce Space and Technology; Robert D. Cabana (NASA-Kennedy Space Center); Caelus Partners, LLC; Elliot Carol3 (Ripple Aerospace, Norway); Chandah Space Technologies; Matthew Chwastek (Orbital Insight); Dr. Damon Coletta and Lieutenant Colonel (USAF ret.) Deron Jackson (United States Air Force Academy); Faulconer Consulting Group; Gilmour Space Technologies, Australia; Michael Gold (Space Systems Loral); Joshua Hampson (Niskanen Center); Harris Corporation, LLC; Dr. Jason Held (Saber Astronautics, Australia); Theresa Hitchens (Center for International and Security Studies at Maryland, University of Maryland); Dr. T.S. Kelso (Analytical Graphics, Inc.); Sergeant First Class Jerritt A. Lynn (United States Army Civil Affairs); Dr. George C. Nield (Federal Aviation Administration); Jim Norman (NASA Headquarters); Dr. Luca Rossettini (D-Orbit, Italy); Victoria Samson (Secure World Foundation); Spire Global, Inc.; Dr. Patrick A. Stadter (Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory); Stratolaunch Systems Corporation; Dr. Mark J. Sundahl (Cleveland-Marshall College of Law); John Thornton (Astrobotic Technology); ViaSat, Inc.; Dr. Frans von der Dunk (University of Nebraska College of Law); Charity Weeden (Satellite Industry Association, Canada); Dr. Edythe Weeks (Webster University); Deborah Westphal (Toffler Associates)


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