Time is money. – Benjamin Franklin, Advice to a Young Tradesman, Written by an Old One.
This general truism also holds for satellites. George Leopold’s previous post on LOTRW capsulizes DARPA exploration of a novel idea: building satellites from space-based platforms. A key element of DARPA’s Phoenix program (and accounting for the name) involves harvesting and reusing still-functioning components from retired, non-working satellites for use in fabricating new satellites. In my youth, people used a less-classy language for this: we called it “cannibalizing systems for spare parts.”
[For example, old-timers at the National Weather Service may recall that delays in the development and deployment of the NEXRAD weather radar system in the 1980’s and 1990’s led to problems maintaining continuity of service using the aging WSR-57 radars (Weather-Surveillance-Radar, vintage 1957). These relied on vacuum-tube technology that was no longer available commercially. Failed vacuum tubes had to be rebuilt by hand. The rotating antennas were aging as well, and “freezing-up” on their pedestals. As the new NEXRAD radars came on-line, some of the older radars were cannibalized for the spare parts needed to keep the rest of the system up and running.]
As Mr. Leopold notes, a slice of the DARPA motivation is to reduce costs. But such efforts buy time as well. An anecdote:
In the 1980’s I was in NOAA’s first Senior Executive Service Candidate Development Program, known informally as the “SES-Pool.” I had a developmental assignment working for George Ludwig, who was then director of NOAA’s Environmental Research Laboratories, headquartered in Boulder. George had previously served as the deputy director of NESS, the National Earth Satellite Service, one of the two major building blocks that would later become today’s NOAA/NESDIS: National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Service (the other was the Environmental Data and Information Service, or EDIS). George had gotten his Ph.D. under James Van Allen, the discoverer of the eponymous Van Allen radiation belt. In one of our many conversations, George shared to me, with a cheese-eating grin, “Van Allen and I set a record that will never be broken.”
He went on to explain that together they’d gone from concept for a satellite instrument (to measure magnetospheric ionization) to launch in less than 90 days. By the time of our conversation, the interval from concept to launch had stretched to years. Today, government may commit to major system buys such as weather satellites for decades. Development and innovation can and does occur over the life of the program, but this extended time frame is mismatched with the accelerating pace of social change and advance of science and technology in other fields.
As a result, we risk attempting to solve tomorrow’s problems with yesterday’s tools. Therefore, any and all efforts to accelerate satellite instrument development and deployment, so long as they don’t compromise the continuity of observation this vital national interest requires, should be welcome. We need to be more nimble.
And records – even George Ludwig’s – were meant to be broken.