Watch, Read: Key Technologies the Space Force Needs Now

Retired Lt. Gen. David A. Deptula, dean of the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies, hosts Lisa Costa, Space Force chief technology and innovation officer; Nicholas Bucci, vice president, Defense Systems and Technologies, General Atomics Electromagnetic Systems; and Frank DeMauro, vice president and general manager, Strategic Deterrent Systems, Northrop Grumman Space Systems, for a discussion on “Space Innovations: Key Technologies” during the AFA Warfare Symposium on March 4, 2022. Watch the video or read the transcript below. This transcript is made possible through the sponsorship of JobsOhio.

Retired Lt. Gen. David A. Deptula: Good morning ladies and gentlemen, I’m Dave Deptula, Dean of the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace studies, and welcome to this session of the 2022 AFA Aerospace Warfare Symposium. Today we’ve got a fantastic panel to discuss an area of immense growth. That being the key technologies that are driving space innovation. I don’t think I have to tell this crowd too often that space is a warfighting domain. 

Obviously Russia and China have made that very clear. And well, the United States has worked for decades to keep space peaceful. Given adversary actions, we’ve got to respond. But the capabilities that exist on orbit are simply too important to risk. 

We need to present senior leaders with a range of effective options and that means pursuing both defensive and offensive capabilities, just like we have in every other domain. Achieving this is going to demand aggressive innovation. Much of our capabilities on orbit today speak to an earlier time and space when the domain was not contested. The technologies operational concepts and strategies will need to operate successfully need to be manifested in the operational realm and that needs to happen as soon as possible. 

That’s why I’m especially pleased to have some key figures with us today. Are going to help us generate these new capabilities. So with that bit of background, I’d like to welcome Dr. Lisa Costa, Chief Technology and Innovation Officer the U.S. Space Force, Frank DeMauro, Vice President of Strategic Deterrence Systems in the space system sector at Northrop Grumman, and Nick Bucci, Vice President of Program Management with General Atomics. So I’d like to do is start off with Dr. Costa, and asked her if she could give us a quick rundown on what key technologies your office is pursuing, to equip our space force given the challenges in space and then after that, we’ll be followed by Nick and Frank.

Lisa Costa: Thank you very much. And I’d like to thank AFA in particular for putting this this symposium together. It’s been fantastic and I know it takes a lot of work. The CTIO office is unique across the services. There is no other service that has a chief technology officer and why that is, is most services have CIOs. We have a CIO and the Department of the Air Force. 

But what we wanted within Space Force was someone whose full time job it was to focus on asymmetric threats and opportunities. So we have critical areas that were focused on more than specific single technologies because there are a lot of technologies that go into space, right? We could, we could actually talk about whole sectors right? Energy, IT [information technology], space, et cetera. So what I would say is we’re really more focused on six primary activities: 

The first is improving the freedom of action and space and you can think about AI and ML, advanced analytics, providing space awareness to everyone—not just within space force, but across the services, our international partners and industry as well. 

The second is improving survivability and resilient architectures. 

The third is digital engineering, not just in the acquisition arena, but all the way through the thread of acquisition, to training to force design, to operations in other words, train the way we fight and fight the way we train. 

Responsible AI/ML and autonomy—Wow. That’s just huge in and of itself. A great deal of energy going into how we trust algorithms, and to what degree the human is in on an off the loop. 

The fifth area is improving space access, mobility and logistics. And this is really a critical area in that if something goes wrong in space, we were not there physically right to fix it. So we’re really looking at things like you know, in situ resource, seeing materiel located within space to be able to use additive manufacturing in orbit. 

So there are a lot of activities going on in the research of how you will even generate additional space assets in space. Not even starting off on the ground and needing lift. 

And then the fifth, or the sixth area, I’m sorry, is enhancement and integration of the current services that we already provide and that encompasses you know, anything from search and rescue, space commerce, defense, ISR, etc. So many technologies, and I would highlight that we do have a long-term S and T plan to get after that, and that was published in September of last year, and I would recommend folks go out and get a copy of that online.

Deptula: Thank you. Nick?

Nicholas Bucci: Thanks, General. Everyone can hear me I hope. So I want to kind of center my comments. So because this is about innovation, about what is driving that innovation and from a perspective of where I’m sitting in standing at General Atomics, it’s all about size, weight and power improvements in terms of capabilities. And so when you think about, you know, oh, if I can reduce the size of a focal plane array, then be able to see a certain type of object at a certain range. I now have shrunk down the optics, I’ve shrunk down the size of the spacecraft on which that sensor needs to sit and now all of a sudden it opens a tremendous amount of space – excuse the pun there – for being able to do things differently. 

And that’s kind of really the driver is being able to, I like to say, do bigger missions with smaller spacecraft. And what that means is I may be able to do things with a half a kilogram satellite in a certain regime, all the way up to being able to take on some of the toughest missions with, say, only a 500 kilogram satellite instead of a 5,000 kilogram satellite. And so that’s really the thought processes: Take advantage of the evolution of technology and the innovation and figure out how to make it come into this mission, especially as we move into this standing up of the Space Force – and the … admission of space being a warfighting domain. 

The second point is access to space. Access to the space has become much more reasonably priced as a result. Now I can do some of that innovation, and I can get it on orbit faster and cheaper. And then, kind of adjunct to both of those is the fact that I can get inside the technology development loop of those innovations. Think of a fire control loop. I know Dr. Schmidt said the OODA [observe, orient, decide, act] loop was confusing and people hate the word, but think of it as a decision loop. If I can get inside the acquisition timelines fast enough to take advantage of the evolution of innovation. Now I can deliver that new capability again, shrinking down the size of sensors shrinking down the size of communication packages, etc., and deliver that capability much faster rather than having to wait 15 years. I can wait three years, five years and get it on orbit much faster. 

And then I guess the last point is in terms of getting people who want to do innovation, to be part of this community. I think for space, it’s a lot easier. There is a lot of movement of personnel amongst different companies and things like that, and it’s because it’s a really cool mission. 

Again, stealing from Dr. Schmidt’s comments last night: We’re lucky in the space community that people want to do this work. You know, when I was a kid, my brother’s a little bit older than me. He was, uh, he wanted to be an astronaut. Well, he’s a plumber, so that didn’t come true for him. But, you know, everybody had that dream of doing something like the Apollo missions we’re driving toward. And so I think that’s a big deal for us. But getting people interested you know, getting you know, soldiers, sailors and airmen and women as they come out of the service interested in doing this mission is important. And then the important piece is retaining them by keeping them interested in the mission areas, and frankly, developing new mission areas. I think it was [Lt.] General [Michael A.] Guetlein about a year ago said one of the things that he thinks we should be doing is looking at how can I take advantage of other missions that we have done that have been I’ll say, adjunct space missions like missile defense, how do I take some of those technologies in and take advantage of them, whether it’s actual pieces of hardware, whether it’s approaches to software, where it’s just how I do my command and control processes? So I think those are kind of the coalescing principles around how we need to take advantage of innovation for space.

Deptula: Good, I would suggest to the Space Force quickest way to adapt Missile Defense Agency innovation and ideas by putting the Missile Defense Agency inside the Space Force, but that’s another subject. Frank, over to you. Thank you, gentlemen. 

Frank DeMauro: Good morning, everybody. Great to be here. Great to be on this panel. I guess I’ll focus on a couple of different technologies that are in various stages that we’ve done. The first one I’ll talk about is our investment space logistics and space mobility technologies. Northrop Grumman invested several years ago began investing in what we call the mystic mission extension vehicle, a pure commercial investment developing a technology to rendezvous and dock with existing commercial GEO satellites that are performing a perfectly fine mission just happened to be running out of fuel, where we would piggyback on the back of that spacecraft and take over its attitude-control systems and propulsion systems and extend the life of that revenue generating spacecraft. And we delivered two of those space craft. 

They successfully docked with two different commercial spacecraft. In fact, the last one we did last year [unintelligible] to dock with an Intelsat satellite, which was actually in the geo arc, transferring traffic for its customers and there was no interruption of traffic—and it was the first time that was done. And really, it was a commercial venture that we knew would have other applications beyond the commercial arena. 

And now since then, we are investing in the next generation or to have that capability to where we can put robotics in space where we can do repairs of spacecraft in space. 

We can do assembly of spacecraft in space, like Dr. Costa was talking about. We can go up in space and interchange payloads as technologies improve or requirements change. 

And so that investment’s, I think, a really strong example where we saw a need for a technology, we invested in it, and then we fielded it, and so far it’s quite successful. So we’re looking forward to being eventually fielding the next version of that technology in the 2024 timeframe. 

Another version, which is a technology—we invested in radar technologies, so that the government could look out use ground-based radars to look out to the geostationary arc and see what else is out there and do surveillance of the arc, and combining use that capability to combine with space based assets to give a fuller picture of what’s out there. 

And that investment that technology will eventually be fielded on something called dark deep-space advanced radar capability. 

And so that’s some of some of the work we did in our Baltimore facility. Really strong investment, a lot of great technology and now soon, a few years from now, we’ll be fielding that technology. 

And then the last piece I’ll talk about is, is something it’s consistent with another item that Dr. Costa talked about, which is the digital transformation in digital engineering. You know, there’s on the one of the programs that my portfolio GPSd—huge program. We’ve made tremendous strides in digital engineering model based system engineering, but we’re really trying to push it further from the corporation on down throughout the organization, [so that it’s] more of a digital ecosystem, so that we are not just doing digital engineering, but digital manufacturing—physics based simulation, modeling and simulation—and applying that across the spectrum of what we do from the acquisition phase to the fielding phase to the learning and training phase of programs. 

So we’re excited about those snippets of technology that we’ve been interested in. 

Deptula: Well, thanks very much, Frank, and all of you now let’s kind of dig down into some of these details. With some specific questions. Dr. Costa, budgets are obviously tight, especially given the demand for new capabilities and additive capacity that’s on Space Force’s plate. Could you speak a bit to how you’re setting up your tech development and investment priorities? What determines whether something falls above or below the cut line? I should say the funding line. 

Costa: Well, it’s all about prioritization, as you know, and it’s also about partnership. And this is really where industry is absolutely critical. Space Force will not be the organization that puts for example, IT infrastructure into space. That’s really going to be the job of industry because they see the value of being able to provide cloud based services globally. We want to take advantage of that. 

And so that is an area that we don’t necessarily then have to invest significant funding, but we do have to invest significant kind of blood, sweat and tears to make sure that the partnerships are there, and that we have a voice in terms of how we want information to move in and across space.

So the here’s a great example of that. As we rely more on artificial intelligence, machine learning, autonomy, a lot of assets and space don’t have that computational power To actually perform the analysis. We don’t want to have to move a lot of data to ground stations. Instead, we’d love instead to be able to process information on orbit, and then move that around space without ever touching ground. And so I think that’s really a key area that, you know, again, partnering with industry is critical. 

I love the topic of the digital ecosystem, absolutely ensuring that it gets driven down to every single Guardian. And we are focused very much on that. A lot of our funding is focused on digital university, digital headquarters and digital operations, and making sure that we are providing an environment for Guardians to be able to interact with their environment. 

I have this scenario where I … identify that if you are a Sailor, you have kind of the feel of the waves beneath you; have the feel of the sun on your face. If you’re … a Soldier, you feel the mud … as you’re crawling through … a field. But a Guardian only experiences their environment, their operational domain, through digital data. So, I would encourage industry to think about how we provide an environment where those Guardians can interact with their environment and an augmented reality perspective so that they can use their five senses with their operational domain.

Deptula: Oh, that’s great. I just reiterate some of the comments that were made by leadership yesterday in terms of the importance, although as simple as it seems, IT infrastructure needs a whole lot of attention. In all of our services. And you very clearly pointed out why it’s particularly important to folks in the Space Force. There is a bit of a follow up. Other than IT and networks and getting our act together in that regard, are there other areas that you would like to … how would you …what is another priority that you would like to see attention paid to by the Space Force?

Costa: So I would say that in that entire ecosystem of ensuring that we have resources in space that are able to be quickly used, right, it is not always an option to have liftoff and do that in a timeframe. That makes sense. And so being able to focus on additive manufacturing in space, being able to have material depots in space, in situ power, development in space, is really critical. And again, this is something that will not be unique to Space Force with the growth of … commercial space assets. Everyone will need this, right? Everyone will need the ability to … have on demand services in space. And so I think that is a key area that I’d love to see focus on without requiring … the cost of lift and then the … challenge of lift, if there’s weather and all kinds of other things that that might perturb you from getting capability on orbit as quickly as possible.

Deptula: To your previous point in terms of the capacity and capability to conduct onboard processing. Also, it’s applicable many, many other things. Our whole ISR infrastructure is based on, you know, an archaic model where you download everything and then you figure out what it is you need after you download it. Well, that’s kind of ridiculous, given the amount of, of data that one collects and 99 percent of it is garbage anyway. So figure that out before you translate and move what you want to do. Now, thanks very much for that. 

Nick and Frank, as we listen to Dr. Costa, it’s clear that the demand for space capability surging, that it’s going to demand more industrial capacity. So how do you look at this from your respective vantage points? And just some of these variables represent greater challenges than others? 

Bucci: Of course, there’s a lot of differences. … Some [unintelligible] things are much more challenging than others. But when it comes to it, you have to look at it from I’ll say, from an industry perspective, at least three different dimensions: financial, technology, and people. 

Do I have the right resources in those three dimensions to be able to support what I need, whether it’s … new capital equipment, whether it’s new training for people, or whether it’s a new piece of technology to be able to accomplish a new goal? Things like, can we bring new sources of energy to do on orbit? 

You know, what you were just talking about Dr. Costa … whether it’s on-orbit refueling, whether it’s providing a new source of power and energy on orbit, and essentially getting rid of things like solar power, solar panels on orbit. New ways to do battery work, all of those things. So each of those I think will help us make the decisions as to what are the right things to go off and pursue. And frankly, constant communications between the Space Force and industry is the only way to get that right. What are the right priorities, and where is the right thing for us to invest and essentially ensure that we’re meeting that demand that the Space Force wants.

DeMauro: I think from an … industry-capacity point of view, I … agree with what Nick said. But I think just to add to that, there’s obviously the physical capacity of getting hardware through factories, whether it’s Northrop Grumman or one of our partners on our programs. There’s a lot of stuff moving through factories these days [that] need to be sized to be able to handle all that. But at the same time you want to right-size them for lots of reasons. 

One, you want to optimize your investments, but two, you want to have the right size footprint not only physically but also from a carbon standpoint, as we think about sustainability. I think the people piece is huge. I think right now the competition for talent out there is increasing, as all of us in the industry are very busy. And so making sure we’re getting the right people in the positions in the company to be able to do all the great work that needs to get done to support these great programs, these great initiatives, and then to feel the investment that we’re doing. 

And I think the other another piece of this is, as we’re thinking about these factories and what we’re going to be delivering from a hardware and software point of view, I think we also need to think about how do we design them? What’s the smartest way we could do in these smart factories and factories of the future? We’ve all heard those terms. I think those are real things because I think is where figuring out the flexibility we need to have in our systems, we also need to have the flexibility in our facilities and in our systems to be able to pivot quickly, to be able to be agile in what we’re delivering to the customers. Because at the end of the day, as we field things more and more quickly, we’re going to have to figure out how to make sure that it’s meeting the needs of the warfighter. And as those requirements change, and they’re changing very quickly these days, our systems have to be able to support them.

Bucci: As Frank was talking, I was thinking another important dimension is teaming amongst industry – essentially to what you’re saying Frank in terms of maximizing the efficiency of footprints and sustainability, etc. I don’t know that there are many programs where a single company top to bottom can essentially bid and produce everything in an efficient manner. And so I think teaming amongst industry, and frankly teaming with the government, as we go through acquisitions and development and fielding and operations, is really important, too.

Deptula: Sounds very good, which is a great segue into this next question that I’ve got for Dr. Costa. For too long, we’ve heard about this critical barrier, if you will, which stands in the way between fielding new innovative operational capability. And that’s the “Valley of Death.” As most of you all know, this involves innovating new technology, but then failing to find a sponsor who can bring it on board. So how’s the Space Force addressing this challenge?

Costa: That is a great question. And, you know, I think that the Space Force is small for a reason, right? The Space Force is focused on being able to iterate very quickly. And while there are some challenges with that, the value of being small is that we can shepherd particular initiatives and activities and ensure that they are not even encountering that “Valley of Death.”

So, you know, a great initiative that we’re looking at is how to create this metaverse for the Space Force. How do we create this immersive environment that includes digital engineering, modeling and simulation, AI, And then all of the kind of the haptic sensory feedback to the to the Guardian, so that they can make better decisions. 

We are working with industry and academia to help make that happen. And those investments, in turn, are really fueling industries. You know, approach and desire to enter the metaverse, right? So I think where we can find opportunities that meet both industry’s needs and Space Force’s needs, that’s critical. 

I do want to highlight the something that Frank said and it really is all about the people. The greatest pleasure that I have is, you know, the other day I visited University of Central Florida and I had the opportunity to sit down for an hour and a half with our ROTC cadets and let me tell you, you know, absolutely, these are individuals who are dedicated to the mission. Incredibly brilliant. I have nothing but high hopes for the future when I talk to them. But the key will be to put into their hands the tools that they need to bring us in to the next century of space and not give them 30-year-old technology. And that’s absolutely critical because you know, they go out to their cars and have better technology than that we’re providing them on their desktop. 

So I think that’s the challenge and I also like to highlight what Nick said, which is I see much more teaming between government and industry. I see that relationship becoming much stronger and us working on common areas of interest. You know, perhaps in different ways than we have in the past where we just want a contract and, you know, and maybe it’s more though, than a CRADA [cooperative research and development agreement], right? So there’s this there’s the spectrum of CRADA, and then there’s this … contracting. But there’s a lot between there and I think there’s opportunity space for Space Force and industry to explore that together.

Deptula: That’s a great segue to [go] back to Frank and Nick. You know, this phenomenon is not just restricted to the government. Industry has challenges in the context of how you’re going to spend your IRAD [independent research and development] monies. And then you’ve got the same complications with continuing resolutions. And Dr. Costa already kind of led into the answer this question, but I mean, I’ll give you an opportunity to in the context of being able to work together better in the future than perhaps we have in the past. Your thoughts on these issues. 

DeMauro: I’ll start. Yeah, on that last point, I agree with Nick and Dr. Costa. If you look at our biggest program in my portfolio, GPSd, enormous enterprise that we’ve undertaken here. This is a national team. Northrop Grumman may be the lead but Lockheed Martin is on the team and Boeing’s on the team and General Dynamics and Aerojet Rocketdyne and I’m not going to name all of them. 

But if you look at the map that we’ve we created to show are the people who come and visit us and see what we’re doing on GPSd, the map is covered with participation from Northrop Grumman across the country, but all of our partners across the country. And so that amount of teaming to bring … capabilities to bear on such a critical program, the ability to do that extremely well, I think is critical to the success of the program. 

And I think to add to something Dr. Costa also said, the interaction between my team and the government team on the development of that program—they are intertwined really strongly to where as we as we move the development of that system into the cloud environment that the folks at Hill Air Force Base [Utah] right outside my office door, will have access to the same data and the same models and the same analysis that my team does, without having to transfer it via email. 

Those types of things, I think, are going to be integral into pushing us faster, while not losing any other any other capabilities that we need to provide the system. I think in terms of the investment conversation, it is critical we look at the priorities that we think our customers have, but clarity from our customers is really helpful in figuring out where we want to put those investment dollars. 

Sometimes we’re going to invest because we know there’s a direction that the customer wants to go and sometimes we’re going to put money and invest in things that we think will differentiate ourselves in the marketplace and sometimes they’re very much combined. 

And so as we decide where to place those bets, as we call it, it’s a very iterative process, not only in talking to the customers and figuring out what direction we want to go, but also looking at okay, we invested X dollars and last quarter. How is that looking? Let’s continuously reevaluate it, efficiently though, because you don’t want to keep throwing money and then having to pull back. You have to make the right decisions. But you have to give yourself the ability to change course, at a very quick pace to make sure you’re keeping up with what the customers are looking for.

Bucci: I guess I’ll just repeat the three C’s, but a little bit differently. We heard it twice yesterday. But the three C’s that I’ll use are communications, communications, communications. And that happens I’ll add one more thing between CRADA and contract, Dr. Costa, and that’s the OTA [other transaction authority] process. Now that Space Force has been pursuing some of those, that is huge. Because what that enables us to do is have communications through the parts of the development process continuously, so that we’re going down the right path. 

So many times the “Valley of Death” is encountered because someone feels threatened by an innovation, right? It’s threatening someone’s franchise, you know, in an industry or in government. And so they will battle to essentially say how that innovation can’t possibly make it through the “Valley of Death.” 

To ensure that they, they can continue to do things like pre-planned product improvements and things like that to their programs. So I think that’s really the big thing. And I really liked the thing you talked about because Space Forces small—small now, it’s going to get bigger—but I would say it will still be a classic tweener kind of organization, right? Not too big, not too small. 

And there was a Harvard Business Review a long time ago that talked about as a tweener, the small folks look up to you and say you’re big you got all the processes and all of those kinds of things. And the big guys look down at you and say, “You’re nimble, you’re fast, you’re innovative.”

The point of the study was, it requires focus—laser focus—again, excuse this pun, on exactly what those investments need to be and when you talked about how you want to keep the space for small and essentially do a very good job of focusing on exactly where to go to avoid the “Valley of Death.” That’s a perfect spot.

Deptula: Very good. Dr. Costa, we’re getting ready to see the acquisition, if you will, inside the Space Force of one of its first major external organizations, and that’s the Space Development Agency. How do you view your role changing as SDA comes on board our Space Force?

Costa: I don’t view the role [unintelligible] as changing, but I do view it as an additional partner that we especially can ensure that we’re taking advantage of the capabilities that they have built up. Right? And we’re already working with them. I mean, that’s it. This is not something where we’re waiting and you know, and then we’ll start working with SDA. So we’re working very hard to take advantage of what they’ve already been doing. I want to just identify that we don’t view – I started this conversation off with we don’t view any single technology right as being kind of the key to space. And it’s really the convergence of technology and the novel convergence of technology that will have the most tremendous impact on space and it’s really not even government that will have the greatest impact. It is industry and how it changes the socio-cultural fabric of our citizens that will have the greatest impact on space. So, as we talk about science and technology, and I said this to our team who focuses on futures, always think about the impact of the socio-cultural fabric of what industry is developing for citizenry because that will have direct impact on what we do. And it will have direct impact on how we work with SSC, SDA, and others as well.

Deptula: Well, very good. Either you care to comment on the SDA issue? You don’t have to. I mean, I just offer. 

I the only thing I’ll say is that I think it’s

DeMauro: I think it’s a positive progression of driving, Where it’s I think it’ll be a more nimble application and communication of what’s really required by the Space Force, that will enable the industry to respond in a more effective way. I think we’re seeing that already in some of the [unintelligible] work we’re doing. So I think that as that takes more and more hold, but really, not to be dramatic, but unleashes what industry can bring. I think that’s going to be the real benefit of SDA to the Space Force.

Bucci: And all I’d add is [unintelligible] is taking almost the same approach – stay small, stay nimble, stay innovative, and that will fit in well.

Deptula: Very good, unfortunately, ladies and gentlemen, we’ve come to the end of our session today. Dr. Costa, Nick, Frank, thank you very much for taking the time to share with us your perspectives. I think the audience and certainly I found them very illuminating. 

So with that, ladies and gentlemen, thanks. Please join me in thanking our guests and have a great aerospace power today.