Earlier this month, the Air Force’s first Space-Based Infrared Radar (SBIR) satellite was launched. You could almost hear the military space community breathe a collective sigh of relief. Although critical to national security, the SBIRS program had become a poster boy for government space programs out of control with cost over-runs approaching 400% and a final price tag that rose to an astronomical $17 billion.
Viewed from the private sector, such cost overruns are simply unimaginable. A cost overrun of this magnitude on a commercial company like Intelsat would have disastrous financial impact on our owners and our customers. When programs take this long to develop and launch, taxpayers take the hit, and we don’t even end up getting the latest and greatest technology, because what was the 110% solution eight years ago is no longer the case.
I’m sure there are many reasons for the schedule and cost overruns: unclear or changing requirements; scope creep; vendors running into developmental snags; the manufacturer throwing a massive number of people and process at the project to reduce risk; program managers not being held responsible or being changed out multiple times; no one having the guts to kill it; and playing the political game using jobs and other threats to keep the program going.
My personal opinion as a business person and taxpayer is that the United States can’t afford these types of programs. We need to develop better ways of achieving our objectives in space and defense. In the commercial world, we run a business case to determine if our investment is going to return enough value to the company. Would we be better off spending our money on something else? This process considers risks, turns over every stone, and puts other ideas on the table in a way that ultimately forces the critical thinking required in good decision-making. While the government doesn’t run commercial business cases, they should be conducting a similar process of critical thinking and considering different approaches and solutions.
Happily, we have seen a few signs in recent years that the Pentagon is getting serious about space procurement in an era when advances in technology always outrun long-range plans. The TSAT program was cancelled because there was great skepticism that the technology could be implemented at a cost that was affordable. The new National Space Policy DOES focus on making better use of commercial capabilities, such as hosted payloads, to get evolving technology into orbit more quickly. Hopefully, this focus on commercial approaches and solutions can help to change the way that the government buys its own space systems. Hopefully, SBIRs will be the last major government space program to grow so wildly beyond its original budget and scope.