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Changing Course: Surrey Can Lead Space Industry Supertankers to Sustainable Satellite Development

“Doing more with less” is a recurring theme running through many of the talks at the 30th Space Symposium in Colorado Springs this week. Government agencies in both the civilian and military sectors are challenged with maintaining or raising existing levels of service and preparedness in the face of shrinking budgets. This situation isn’t expected to change, and some would argue that it’s here to stay.
The supertanker
The challenge is particularly acute for those agencies responsible for developing the satellite systems relied upon by their stakeholders, other government departments, and in some cases, the entire world. NASA, NOAA, the U.S. Air Force, and others are responsible for continuing to launch and operate a steady stream of missions for Earth observation, communication, and navigation despite funding cuts that indicate these programs can’t go on forever – regardless of how much they are wanted and needed.
The good news is that the leaders of these organizations are fully aware of the difficulties they face and the need to embrace change and find alternative ways to address their requirements. The bad news is that they are weighed down by their own institutions, with layers of cumbersome bureaucracy, and decades of established acquisition processes and “best practice.”  Some of these organizations can be likened to supertankers, with the leaders the captains on the bridge of the ship.  No matter how quickly they turn the helm, their ship's inertia limits the speed at which they can change direction. The question is, will they be able to change course quickly enough to avoid running aground?
The risk for many is that their own inertia is as much, if not more, of a challenge than the changing economic environment. They have to change. They have no choice. Most know it, and most want it. But they have been procuring, building, and managing satellite systems in the same way for many years.They don’t know any other way of doing business or are scared of change.
At Surrey, we view ourselves as the tugboat, much smaller than the supertanker, but much faster, much more maneuverable, with the ability to change direction. For over thirty years, we’ve been nudging the mighty supertankers -- in the form of enormous bureaucracies -- away from ineffective satellite development processes and setting them on sustainable courses. On behalf of private sector and government clients alike spanning 41 successful launches, Surrey has conceptualized and brought to fruition business models for many space programs that were otherwise considered impractical, if not impossible.
An example of which we are particularly proud is the GIOVE-A mission launched in 2005 following a thirty-month program. The European Space Agency (ESA) came to Surrey with an urgent need to build and launch a test-bed satellite in time to claim Europe’s signal frequency filings for future Galileo navigation missions. Recognizing that the risk of achieving their requirements was high if they adopted their usual approach, due to the inertia of their own systems and traditional supplier base, they chose to do things differently and contract Surrey for provision of the mission. Adopting streamlined contracting, procurement, and management processes refined over dozens of previous missions, Surrey completed the project on time and on budget, something that would have been unachievable if the customer had not decided to embrace Surrey’s alternative solution. 

GIOVE-A upper composite being tilted over just before being enclosed in the fairing at the launch facility

What Surrey accomplished with ESA and the GIOVE-A satellite can serve as a template for government organizations in the U.S. and elsewhere that want to change the processes they have traditionally used to develop missions in the past and start building satellites more quickly and at a lower cost.
One approach that our stakeholders have found valuable as an initial step to developing agile methodologies is to engage with Surrey to perform studies to investigate how their organizations can execute their satellite programs differently. While we can look at technologies that can possibly be replaced by alternatives at lower cost, we primarily focus on the overall approach to satellite development, such as procurement, contracting, and management techniques. When we spot inefficiencies or unnecessary complexity, we recommend new internal paradigms that sometime involve realigning roles and responsibilities within and among personnel and departments, removing some groups from the process altogether in some cases.
The anxiety and fear created by these necessary changes should not be underestimated, and are often the reason why the inertia exists, as it is more comfortable to stick with the known methods than it is to embrace the unknown. Working with an established non-traditional mission integrator and satellite manufacturer with a proven track record such as Surrey, and even embarking on a demonstration or evaluation test program, is a way in which risks can be managed and the adopting of change can be made more effective.
At Surrey, we’ve been developing cost-effective satellite programs for long enough to know that big organizations – the supertankers – usually can’t change direction on their own quickly enough. It takes a tugboat like us to guide them to a new course, one that we have traveled many times in the past.


20 May 20140 Comments1 Comment

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