This issue of COTS Journal has a section devoted to space-qualified electronics where we highlight some key rad-tolerant products and get some insights from our friends at Aitech on what “space-qualified” really means. I’ve always been fascinated by space travel both real and fictional. As a kid in the 70s I was very much a pre-Internet child. But my best friend knew an address at NASA’s public relations department you could write to and request a stack of photos of spaceflight images for free-an exciting day at the mailbox for me when they arrived.

Fast forward to adulthood and more recently I had the opportunity to attend a Shuttle launch in person. Over the years my friends, Pete and Warren-both co-founders of COTS Journal-attended more Shuttle launches than they could count. And they invited me to join them for the Shuttle Discovery’s last launch (STS-133) in February 2011. It truly is unforgettable that feeling of the vibration in my chest, and the bright blast of engine exhaust experienced from the three-mile-away Press/VIP area at the Kennedy Space Center. In January of this year the annual Embedded Tech Trends event was held in Houston right near Johnson Space Center, and I got to do the tour with my industry colleagues and see many amazing sites like the original Mission Control room, the sprawling Vehicle Mock-Up Facility and more.

In comparison to space exploration, discussions about acquisition reform can seem about as exciting as watching paint dry, but especially in this era when budgets are under high scrutiny no one can argue that it’s not an important topic. And in the space segment of U.S. DoD acquisition there are some unique challenges. The DoD relies on space systems to provide critical capabilities that support military and other government operations, including but not limited to communications; missile warning; positioning, navigation, and timing; and intelligence information. These systems can be very challenging to develop and expensive to acquire and field.

DoD space systems are acquired under the same acquisition policies as other weapons systems. But there are some ways that space systems are different from other acquisitions: Space has more programs of joint interest than other areas, and includes varied stakeholders, such as civil agencies and multiple services. Unlike other systems when you’re developing space systems you have one shot to get it right. Once a satellite is launched, if there are problems it is essentially impossible to change the hardware, and software changes may not be an option.

Even given all those challenges a decades old issue with defense space acquisition is the fragmented bureaucracy. As is their role, the GAO has reported over the last 20 years about how the fragmentation and overlap in DOD space acquisition management and oversight have contributed to program delays and cancellations, cost increases, and inefficient operations. In 2012 the GAO for example reported that fragmented leadership contributed to a 10-year gap between the delivery of GPS satellites and user equipment. The list of stakeholders that are involved in defense space acquisition is a real eye chart, with over approximately 60 stakeholder organizations across DOD, the Executive Office of the President, the Intelligence Community, and civilian agencies.

As a result of several studies on this topic there have been 28 recommendations related to management and oversight of national security space, according to the GAO. These can be grouped into six categories: Space as a national security priority; Unified leadership and authority; Improved coordination between defense space entities; Budget issues; Planning and Acquisition process. Changes have been put in place to improve in all those areas, and DoD claims it’s too soon to see the results of those changes yet.

In a recent report the GAO did grant that there’s one of those areas where progress is clear. According to the report, the DoD, Congress, and the executive branch have made significant progress on the recommendations related to establishing space as a national security priority. In recent years, space has become a more visible national security issue. The two most recent National Space Policies (2006 and 2010) identified free access to and use of space as a vital national security interest, reemphasized the foundational contributions of space capabilities in supporting overall U.S. interests, and established overarching national policy for the conduct of U.S. space activities.

According to the DoD, space is now the only standing topic in DoD’s annual Strategic Portfolio Review process, whereas before it was only included occasionally. The department’s 2016 budget submission added over $5 billion in new investments in space. Recent public comments from high level DOD officials have also shown this increased emphasis on space protection. And the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2016 included a few provisions highlighting the importance of space, including directing DOD to establish a major force program for national security space programs and establish a Principal DOD Space Control Advisor.

Because it’s your job, you readers are well aware that the development and acquisition of military systems is a complex process. There’s no doubt that space-based military systems have whole different levels of challenges to deal with. Fortunately on the acquisition reform side of things, space acquisition is moving the right direction.