The space sector is still largely dominated by old, white men who are reluctant to venture outside the status quo. This is having an impact not only on innovation but also holding back younger, more-than-capable professionals entering the ecosystem who want to make a real difference.
The industry is hindering itself and stifling its own growth. We need to change things.
Old dogs vs. new tricks
The same people who have dominated the space industry for the last two decades remain in leading positions in most major satellite companies, such as Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Orbital Sciences Corporation, today. They generally go from one large company to another, or return to a previous large company as a consultant, giving and perpetuating the same archaic advice.
“Things that seemed completely impossible 15 years ago are not only now possible, but are often the best way forward.”
That’s not to say the industry is entirely made up of these people. The fresh, new people who embrace (and encourage) new, ‘risky’ ideas do exist – there are just far fewer of them and a lot more complexities that can frustrate their progress. These ‘Elon Musk’ types are trying to do things differently, but the ratio of them to the other, older types is unbalanced.
At the same time, those who are genuinely working to achieve innovation and are willing to explore outside the accepted paradigm don’t always find it easy to do so. Their supply chain, for instance, is often not capable of keeping up with the speed and scale of change required. With many of the large suppliers geared towards the traditional methods, it can be hard to source the necessary new parts, in quantity and for a reasonable cost. Some “disruptive”, “risky” companies, like ViaSat and SpaceX, have been able to solve this problem by taking control of practically all of the key elements of the procurement process. However, many startups cannot afford to do this, trapping them with higher costs that some cannot afford.
Ultimately, one of the biggest challenges is that the same people dominating the industry don’t realise some of the changes that have happened in technology; the things that seemed completely impossible 15 years ago are not only now possible, but are often the best way forward.
“Because a system works, it isn’t worth challenging”
One thing that the ‘old, white men’ leading the industry often ignore is that things have actually changed. What they fail to realise, however, is that these changes present a number of positive opportunities.
If you go back 15 years, for example, the Medium Earth Orbit (MEO) was deemed a difficult area for satellites to operate. Whilst useful in providing navigation (GPS) and connectivity to the polar regions, it put satellites in close proximity to the Van Allen radiation belts – a zone of highly-charged energetic particles which can affect the performance of satellites.
“I have lost count of the number of times I have been told ‘we’ve never done it like that before’.”
However, the technologies and methods available to overcome previous challenges have advanced dramatically; so why are so few satellite operators taking advantage of such opportunities? For instance, at Methera, we have an innovative technology that enables ultrafast broadband to be supplied from MEO based satellites flexibly and globally. I have lost count of the number of times I have been told “we’ve never done it like that before”. The problematic old way of working is stifling creativity and the acceptance of innovative and novel ideas by potential partners and the satellite manufacturing industry in general.
However, there is light at the end of the tunnel with companies like SSTL, Global Invercom and In-Space Missions leading with unconventional and exciting approaches towards developing space technologies. If not challenged, it will undoubtedly have a significant effect on advancements in space technology.
We’re stuck in old philosophies – ones that assign more value to improving well-established techniques and approaches than to making significant changes that could potentially unlock doors we didn’t even know were there.
Falling victim to the ‘echo chamber’ effect
While there are undoubtedly new, younger people coming into the industry from the bottom, what’s demotivating for them is they’re always going to be at odds with the imbalance – so long as there are the long-standing older men in high positions, progression will be slow or non-existent.
“Senior men will often have risen to the top from inside the organisations, with little experience from the outside.”
The problem is that senior positions in major space companies are hardly ever filled by people who have not been engulfed in the space industry for decades. This is generally because the senior men will often have risen to the top from inside the organisations, wielding a narrow-view of what’s required to perpetuate new ideas. By their very nature they’ll have little experience from the outside, so often it can even be less about a reluctance to embrace ideas than a general unawareness about how things can be done differently. Ultimately, therefore, we end up with a bad combination where you have those who are extremely intelligent with the technology and engineering side, but when they reach the senior positions, they do not naturally take a ‘helicopter view’ and embrace new ideas and ways of thinking.
It’s a paradox the space industry has created for itself, and one where there’s a reluctance to collaborate with other sectors that the industry could benefit from, like data scientists or even marketeers. Ultimately, innovation isn’t about doing what you’re told to do, it’s about finding different ways to do things better, or ways to do new things. Couple that with a severe lack of diversity, and we have ourselves a fundamental flaw where, instead of embracing new ideas and finding new areas for research and development, the industry remains homogeneous.
Maybe these senior teams are scared about the idea that things have changed so much. Or, maybe it’s just about playing it safe and coasting. But this isn’t good enough. If we’re to really move forward at a good, progressive pace, we need to face up to the fact we’re no longer living in the 20th century.
Chris McIntosh is the CEO of Methera Global, an UK satellite communications company that is developing broadband satellite services for underserved regions of the World.