The Inspiration4 mission was boring, but I should qualify that assessment.
Boring is Good?
Boring is an excellent trait for a space, or for that matter, any transportation system to possess. I suggest that most people would agree that excitement during travel, especially when a car or an airplane is the source of that excitement, is not welcome. A bogging engine or a flat tire, for example, is not a welcome experience for drivers (especially during a blizzard). And no one wants a “Hindenberg” type of event. The fact that the worst part of Inspiration4’s mission appeared to be the toilet fan that is supposed to suck, um, stuff away is still good news for SpaceX. (Although this may have been a rare instance of when stuff hitting the fan would have been a literal and desirable outcome for the mission’s passengers.)
Everything about this mission, not including the passengers, was routine for SpaceX. Again, that’s a good thing. The Falcon 9 launch experienced no anomalies, and, unlike a particular company whose name rhymes with “towing,” the Crew Dragon’s orbital insertion held no drama either. The three days the passengers were on orbit appeared to be uneventful, aside from the expected Q&A sessions and the occasional Instagram-friendly images. Even the capsule’s return through the atmosphere seemed more or less routine.
The overall success shouldn’t be surprising, considering SpaceX’s experience conducting cargo and crew launches to the International Space Station. That SpaceX reused both the capsule and booster for the Inspiration4 mission added confidence to the overall outcome. And while it would be great to accept the reliability of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 and Crew Dragon as 100%, it would be foolish and unrealistic to expect no issues. In this aspect alone, SpaceX deserves respect because it appears to be operating rockets with humans on board safely. It’s so safe; it’s boring.
Comparisons and Caveats
Compare SpaceX’s mission to some of the drama coming from Virgin Galactic’s first commercial suborbital flight with passengers on board. Earlier in 2021, I analyzed what I perceived as a very lax safety culture in that company. The latest news and other of the company’s actions described in that article confirm that perception. Virgin Galactic’s management continues ignoring troubling safety indicators, normalizing deviance to eventually face a predictable surprise (hopefully with no passengers on board). Virgin Galactic’s fun-ride needs to be more tedious and could probably benefit from looking at SpaceX’s safety procedures, or, dare I say, perhaps those of Virgin Airlines.
In the meantime, there are other people with more money than the rest of us who apparently are interested in flying in a Crew Dragon capsule or Starship--at least, according to SpaceX. The company is, of course, being cagey with its statements, and any interest it gets it will spin in a positive, investor-attracting light. SpaceX could be referring to tweets from the myriad of Twitter denizens as a sign of interest. Whatever the source and definition of interest, though, it shouldn’t be conflated with market demand.
The Crew Dragon prices are still too high to court and build up a meaningful share of passengers. However, the fact that the service is available without any government intermediary and selection criteria is a step in the right direction. Starship must still reach orbit and then be thoroughly tested and proven before any person buys a billet on it. If things work out, flights of Starship passengers should be so safe that they’re boring, too.
DoD Ground Network Follies
I am not surprised by this SpaceNews story about the DoD’s ground system not working with commercial antennas. First, the DoD always gives short shrift to satellite ground systems, underestimating schedule, costs, and utility while pushing back their activation and capabilities to compensate for poor acquisitions practices and increasing budgets.
Second, I’ve worked with over four DoD/MDA space systems during my careers, and two of those four used different ground systems. All of them are older than the iPhone’s history. To be clear, while I worked with those systems, the lack of interoperability was a feature and not a bug. Back then, classified systems were secured through compartmentalization, never to see the light of day and certainly never to link with lesser classified networks.
According to the article, the Air Force Satellite Control Network (AFSCN) seems overtasked, as 190 DoD satellites communicate through 15 satellite dishes distributed among seven sites. And, yes, that’s not a lot and represents an apparent weakness in the DoD’s space segments (for example, only seven cruise missiles would need to hit the seven sites to cripple U.S. space capability).
Not that U.S. adversaries may need to worry about that, as the service is “trying to lower the demand signal.” Yes, that means the service is trying to get people to use the ground system less because routine traffic is becoming too much to handle. Imagine how much more data and traffic flows during combat. Could it be that the system just grinds to a halt when hostilities break out? Also, the AFSCN is old. When a general uses the word “venerable” to describe a communications system, that indicates it’s obsolete. These are a few of the reasons why the DoD is looking to update its ground system and why the topic of its ground systems being able to link to commercial communication satellite antennas is being considered.
If They Build It, The DoD Will Come (After Cleaning Up Culture)
But the conundrum (identified in the article) is this: does the DoD “invest” in what looks like the new hot technology and interoperability, only to be faced with this situation again in the next five to ten years? Or does it make more sense to see how far commercial companies can go and contract running the military space internet and communications out to them?
Is it wrong to assume that any government investment in manufacturing and building a new ground system with cutting-edge antennas will result in an obsolete ground system before the contracts are signed? Based on what seems to be going on today and the DoD’s program history, I don’t think it is. At the same time, the reluctance to “go commercial” also stems from attitude. From the article:
The issue is not just technical incompatibility between government and commercial systems, said Miller. “The Space Force’s biggest challenge is cultural,” he added. “It’s something senior leaders have publicly acknowledged and it remains an obstacle to taking full advantage of commercial capabilities.”
That statement is disheartening and again, not surprising. The U.S. Space Force is the newest branch but still saddled with the culturally ingrained risk-aversion it inherited from its Air Force parent. The Space Force, as a new(-ish) entity, squandered its opportunity to reject that baggage. I’ve written plenty about the cultural challenges in the DoD’s acquisitions processes, although I suspect a few more organizations are involved in the pushback against this initiative. It’s not clear what will get rid of the cancer that is that culture.
An observation I will make is that pursuing the commercial option gives our soldiers more capability, and therefore, more flexibility, possibly immediately, instead of waiting for a DoD program to lock in the next generation of soldiers to exquisitely made obsolescent tech. Moreover, it appears as if most of the work has already been done--at least according to Braxton. Flexibility and capability are needed to give U.S. soldiers options for winning wars. To provide less capability when more is easily and readily available unnecessarily hobbles the abilities of soldiers and others to impose the will of the U.S. on the battlespace.
A bonus from moving in that direction is that our space force could perhaps learn more about tactics and explore proper ways to fight wars in space without becoming telemetry babysitters and satellite switchboard operators. However...there is a “but” to this problem--the commercial ground system operators are facing similar challenges. Their ground systems aren’t interoperable. AWS Ground System and Azure Orbital are surely making inroads here, but so long as things are fragmented on the commercial side, it’s easier for the DoD to just say “no.”
In the end, it seems like the DoD, NASA, and commercial operators all need to get together and establish ground system standards for interoperability (or maybe use existing terrestrial ones). It won’t be a smooth road, but it might be worth the effort.