Escape From the Space Acquisition Death Spiral

Vol. 9, No. 1

Col. James D. Rendleman, USAF (Ret.), is Chief, Operations Law for the US Strategic Command’s Joint Functional Component Command for Space. Over the past 35 years, he has served in a wide variety of science and technology, engineering, management, policy, and international affairs positions within the national security space community, Air Force laboratories, and the Air Staff. An attorney and member of the State Bar of California, Mr. Rendleman engaged in law practice as a partner, solo practitioner, and associate with firms in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Napa, California. He is the chair of the American Institute of Aeronautics & Astronautics’ (AIAA) legal technical committee, a member of the AIAA international activities, public policy, and ethics committees, and an elected member of the International Institute of Space Law. J. Walter Faulconer is President, Strategic Space Solutions, LLC. He has spent more than three decades in the aerospace industry providing executive leadership, creative program management, systems engineering, and business development to civilian, commercial, and national security space customers. Mr. Faulconer is an Associate Fellow of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, a member of the board of directors for the American Astronautical Society (AAS), and a member of the International Astronautical Federation (IAF) and National Space Society. 

Throughout the recent era of space systems, spacecraft acquisition programs have struggled. Saddled with nonexecutable technical, schedule, and cost baselines, floundering programs become incredible resource “black holes” as problems spin out of control.1 These problems are endemic. For example, nine of the ten largest NASA projects in an implementation phase suffered cost increases ranging from 8 to 68 percent, and launch delays of 8 to 33 months. These projects incurred an average development cost growth of almost $121 million and average schedule stretch of 15 months.2 This phenomenon is not limited to US government space; commercial and international acquisition efforts confront the same failures. The financial and intellectual resources used to shore up these programs are diverted from agencies that could better use them to field exciting new space exploration systems, sustain a struggling US aeronautics and astronautics industrial base, and support important science and technology research to keep the United States globally competitive.

These acquisition failures occur because programs get trapped into what could be characterized as “death spirals,” a rapid compounding of external influences, systems engineering, process, and management failures. These factors drive the program to failure, as depicted graphically in Figure 1.

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