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Solutioneering: Shaping 'Necessity' for Satellite Missions on a Fixed Budget

Plato once said, “Necessity is the mother of invention.”

But when you look back to the very beginning of spaceflight, you will see that a little competition plays a big role in shaping this necessity. Competitors in the early days were primarily focused on two objectives: demonstrate impressive technological capability, and do it faster than the other guy. As national security was at stake, the cost of achieving these objectives was not a driving consideration. Good consequence? New consumer markets “feeding” on rapidly emerging space technologies; a healthy and robust economy. Bad consequence? A relatively poor understanding of how much achieving specific objectives would actually cost with inefficiencies stripped away.
If the early space programs taught us anything about the cost and timeline associated with specific space mission objectives, it’s that…well…space mission objectives, as they pertain to the interests of national security, cannot be scheduled, nor can they be priced with any reasonable accuracy. In these days, focus was on maximizing, not optimizing, capability—not the best model for future commercial (or government) space endeavors. And so a solution to this problem would need to be reinvented—by necessity—with competition again playing a critical role.

Newly branded space companies were handed a new engine, but now had to tune it for commercially driven goals. In addition, they would have to write the “break-in” procedure to achieve the best operational efficiency. For Surrey, the 80s and 90s were this break-in period. It would take several iterations and testing over a wide range of conditions to converge on a solution. Statistically speaking, a larger number of “samples” taken over a small period leads to more clarity in emerging patterns; and consequently, easier identification of “noise” contributors. The lessons learned in over 16 missions flown during this period helped mold an efficient infrastructure that now allows Surrey to tailor mission solutions to meet even the tightest of budgets. At the heart of this break-in procedure was an emerging pattern, simply stated as: 80 percent of a mission’s cost is driven by 20 percent of its requirements.

The 2000s would be the proving ground for this revelation, and the RapidEye constellation (launched in 2008) would be a clear example of Surrey’s ability to serve a new kind of customer in a growing market. Because the satellite industry was still being driven by large institutional customers for whom budgets and business cases have been secondary considerations, requirements were (and still are to some extent) written with a low priority of balancing ambition with cost. For RapidEye, this meant that the “norm” for satellite requirements was not only costly, but exceeded what was needed for a non-military, commercially focused customer. (No doubt this was the result of entrenched habits being carried over from an inefficient baseline…sound familiar?) Working with RapidEye to understand its priorities meant that some aspects of the original design could either be omitted or radically changed to fit its budget. We call this team-oriented shaping process “solutioneering.” In a time when budgets (commercial and government alike) now take more precedence, we believe this process to be critical for the long-term success of any program, but especially for entrepreneurial customers who might not be able to afford business crippling schedule overruns and operational issues down the line.

RapidEye satellites

While it would be easy to take a customer’s set of mission requirements, design a satellite or constellation that meets them, and let the customer deal with the results, we pride ourselves instead on working very closely with our customers, from concept to operations, to tailor a solution that achieves the intended goals of their business case and meets or comes in under their budget.

So while necessity may be the mother of invention, we at Surrey believe that necessity can be pragmatically shaped to make that invention not only more efficient, but more affordable. High five, Plato!


23 May 20160 Comments1 Comment

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