More Bang!

Space fairing nations tend to spend a large amount of their government R&D resources on space. For example, in Germany, this figure is as high as 10% of the total, making space the largest science topic of all. (Source)

While enjoying this privilege, should it not be the highest priority of the industry to use it in the best possible way? How can we deliver the biggest bang for the buck?

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Building a pyramid using thousands of people is a good idea…

Only until the invention of power tools, trucks and cranes

One can wonder, why is this idea: – more bang! – largely absent in the government driven space industry of today?

Its all about jobs!

I admit right away that when it comes to jobs, things tend to be highly controversial. So, before bringing out the pitchforks, it is important to read the full argument.

NASA: $1.35B spent – 8000 jobs created

In discussions with stakeholders from established space nations as well as emerging ones, I often hear the statement: we need to create or maintain workplaces in the space industry.

Australia: 20,000 jobs in the space industry by 2030

The problem is that it is not space industry jobs that you should be (primarily) worrying about. Granted, without a workforce you get nothing done but the value is in the results that can be achieved by the efforts that have been invested.

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We need to remind ourselves: the space industry is foremost a tool; it solves problems and serves a purpose. Without an end to justify the means, the whole thing is pointless – just mere enjoyment for space engineers (like me). 

It’s controversial, and that’s why we need to talk about it!

Essentially, it is the overarching topic that (space) jobs are being considered the core of the industry, which might not tell the full story. The applications and the things created by it should be the centerpiece. 

“persons have value, gainful employment has value, and this is not the article’s topic. The article is about setting (and achieving) goals by wisely allocating resources”

One part of the controversy is that when you say “jobs have no value – what they achieve has”, the second part is seldom heard. It can be understood as “the person that has the job has no value,” which is so obviously wrong, and it is not what I mean to say. I would normally not even touch on it. That said, it will inevitably come up, that is why I have set up above disclaimer (in really big letters). With that out of the way lets continue.

How to (not) set targets for the space industry

Instead making jobs the hallmark – decision makers should concentrate on vision and purpose. What do we – as a society – need (from space)

  • to have a better understanding of the global climate
  • to enable global communications
  • to have a tool that allows us to organize logistics and transportation better
  • to be able to defend ourselves against adversaries
  • to fill our desire for wonder by exploring the unknowns in the Universe

And if you want to be prepared for the unknown: 

  • we want to have a capability on standby that can be used to tackle urgent projects with a quantitative scope of “ABC”

Then, have a competition of ideas on how to best do that in the society at large and within the space industry. 

Why is it important to get more bang for your buck?

Maybe it is important to take a step back and look at the overall situation. As indicated earlier, Germany spends about 1.7 billion EUR or 10% of its government R&D budget on space.

Germany is the example, close to my heart

Other countries have very similar structures.

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This budget, fellow colleagues from DLR, ESA, Airbus, OHB and the 100 SME working in the sector in Germany is our priviledge. It is however also our responsibility to spend it wisely.

Already small improvements on the status quo add up. Imagine for a moment, there would be a way to get done what we want in space by spending 1/3 less.

With that amount Germany would be able (among many other things) to fund one major university! (450 MEUR: the annual Budget of Humboldt University, Berlin)

At this point it is time for another disclaimer:

 “I do not argue for less spending on the space industry, just spend it better.”

 We should not – in fear of progess – stop ourselves to get better. Did we properly justify the spending? Did we achieve what we asked for? Could we do better?

Yes, we can. Unfortunately, as explained in my article “Innovation Does Not Pay”, the desperately needed change in the space industry will not arrive until we start asking these questions. 

Where can the space industry do better?

There is plenty of low hanging fruit. Look no further than the magic of mass manufacturing, process automation, and testing. What will happen if we implement this Henry Ford Moment? Very likely, and without a loss on quality or performance, we will be able to build satellites at a drastically reduced effort.

If you want to get a taste of the disruption, look at Airbus. One part of the company (Airbus/Oneweb Satellites, 250 people) has the capability to build 1,000 satellites per year at the cost of a 1-2 MEUR per device, while the rest of the company (8,000 people) builds satellites at roughly 100-200 MEUR per unit in very small quantity. 

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Btw. in case you are wondering whether that is only true for small satellites. It is not. Go check out the costs per unit for an Iridium or a GlobalStar satellite. They weight 700kg, were built by Thales Alenia and came in at about $15M per device at less than 100 recurrent units.

The days of the 200 MEUR satellites are over

Why should one pay for one Airbus satellite only a few millions (currenly Airbus aims to sell each of the OneWebs for about 30MEUR in single quantity) while the other one (e.g. Sentinel) is is few hundred million.

I imagine it to be more and more tricky to explain that to the public and actually I expect them to catch up soon. In fact, they might already have.

As a reference, I would highlight an article from 2018, where the former head of the German Space Agency said the following: 

“The days of the 200 MEUR satellite are over. The days of the 50 MEUR satellite will likely end very soon.” – Gerd Gruppe

For another example, look at project Oberon. A high-resolution radar satellite constellation based on the Airbus OneWeb satellite bus. That is a far cry from Terra-Sar-X (120MEUR in 2007) or the ESA satellites Airbus used to build. My guess is that the entire Oberon constellation probably costs as much as one satellite of the old.

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Space industry at a crossroads

As an industry, we are at a crossroads: we can define new visions now using the current resources and build much greater things to the benefit of humanity, or we can wait until more innovative market participants have run us over, disrupting us by achieving what we ought to achieve with 1/10th of the expenditure. Latest at this point, society will wake up and ask us: what the hell are you doing with our money? We better have good answers then.






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