Navy’s sea mission doesn’t keep it out of the space business

The new director of the lab's Naval Center for Space Technology, Steven Meier, joined the Federal Drive with Tom Temin in studio to talk more.

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One might not think of the Navy as being in the space business, yet the Naval Research Laboratory has a mission that spans pretty much every domain from underwater to space. In fact, there’s a new director of the lab’s Naval Center for Space Technology. Steven Meier joined the Federal Drive with Tom Temin in studio to talk more.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Dr. Meier, good to have you with us.

Steven Meier: Thank you very much for having me here today, I’m looking forward to the opportunity to share what we’re doing over and NCST and NRL.

Tom Temin: Tell us about NCST, what is the mission and what’s the Navy’s concern in space? And then we’ll get into how you interact with the other space domain agencies.

Steven Meier: Our main goal is really to envision rapidly develop, deploy and operate space systems. And in addition to that, I have three ground stations where we carry out all of that on the operation side. So it truly is starting from basic concepts and designs in orbitotology, working through the build of a satellite, anything from the size of a thermos, which they are viewing as a CubeSat, all the way up to, say 15,000 pounds. So we do everything from that range, we have full end-to-end testing facilities where you do things in space, such as shock, like when the rocket takes off; vibe, when it’s rattling back and forth; thermal vacuum, when you get into space it’s a vacuum; and these other ones called electromagnetic interference and coupling chambers where there’s a lot of electrical components that are interacting with each other. So we have full end-to-end test capabilities to do that. So yeah, I view us as really to provide the nation with new capabilities. We are really a first mover. We do one of a kind, we do high-risk-type of projects. And that’s our job. And then once we’re successful at that, we transition these programs over to the national space community, who then might put out a bunch of carbon copies of them. But we’re the ones that burn the risks down and do a lot of the hard work, it’s actually quite hard to do something that’s never been done before.

Tom Temin: Or especially in space. And what is the Navy’s use of these? Is it primarily navigation? Is it weather and oceanography? Is it surveilling the enemy or all of the above?

Steven Meier: Sure, it’s several different areas I’ll run through. One is communications, because of course, you need to be communicating globally with the other ships around the world, and other services as well. So communication satellites is one. And number two would be weather. We need to figure out where you’re getting into a storm, and it’s hot, it’s cold, whatever, other things along those lines. So that’s very important. But with the weather, also, I’ll say is space weather as well. If the Sun has a solar flare, or coronal mass ejection, those electrons and protons, everything comes down, and they disrupt communication.

So there’s kind of two components to weather. ISR, which is intelligence, surveillance reconnaissance, that’s essentially what we use to identify anything from a canoe to a freighter. Who is it? Who are they, friend or foe, along those lines. So that’s ISR. Long-range fires are something that’s new. Most people might not have heard of that. But there’s a lot of emphasis in these precision missile attacks, which are about anywhere from 500 kilometers or greater, where an adversary would launch it out of and 500 kilometers is about 300 miles or so. So anything 500-plus kilometers, long range fires, space situational awareness. We need to understand where our adversaries are. If we want to do a mission or an operation, boy, if we have three or four adversarial satellites looking on us, it’s going to be kind of an unsuccessful operation. And then last, I would say is more proximity, missile warning, offensive-defensive ship to ship, which are much shorter scales. So that’s how the Navy really utilizes space. We need it for our operations. It’s critical for the service in order to be successful at their mission.

Tom Temin: We’re speaking with Dr. Steven Meier, director of the Naval Center for Space Technology, part of the Naval Research Laboratory. And how do you avoid duplication with all of these areas of operation? NOAA, you’ve got the Air Force, you’ve got Space Force, you’ve got the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency, or does the Navy contribute data to that effort?

Steven Meier: Yes, I’d say we avoid duplication by focusing on some of the Navy’s maritime needs, some of the things that I just mentioned. But the other services and agencies also leverage off of that just as much. We leverage off of their satellites and they leverage off of ours. And quite honestly, there’s a lot going on in space. And I’ll just be honest, there is a certain amount of duplication that goes on. You just can’t help it. And when you have many large federal agencies, NASA, the NRO, NGA, everyone, NOAA, doing these types of satellites, you do your best. It’s a pretty large organization. I have roughly about 1,000 people, government contractor, and into the couple hundred millions in terms of budget. So we have our tentacles in a lot of different places. So we have a good sense, I would say, where we’re going to be avoiding duplication with other agencies.

Tom Temin: And I suppose you could argue that within the limitations of the particular sensors on a particular bird, that that redundancy is probably resiliency also, and failover capability among the different components. That must come up also.

Steven Meier: Yes, I mean, we build in resiliency, I guess through redundancy and proliferation of different sensors, other things along those lines, the ability to maneuver. All of that kind of to me is under the resiliency part. Yes, most of the components on a satellite are, or have some type of redundancy associated. If the first line fails, so to speak, you have a backup system in place.

Tom Temin: But what I mean is, if needed, the Air Force could perhaps provide conductivity for the Navy and vice versa, if something happened to a particular asset in space.

Steven Meier: Sure, now I understand your question a little more in depth. Yes, that is true that we do share information between all the different services. But here’s where I’m gonna throw in the big kicker: So ultimately, the commercial space is spending more money in the U.S. and globally than the U.S. government is in space. Just some statistics, right now, this is FY ’20. I think that the global space economy, and that is every country’s investment in aerospace industries, rocket launchers, payloads for satellites, is about $450 billion. And the prediction up to 2030 is $1-$3 trillion of a global space economy. So it’s a pretty large range, one to three, because they just don’t know, it’s increasing exponentially. As I’ve mentioned in the past that you always will see something going on with space in the newspaper or the TV every day. In this country alone, venture capital has invested in $28.9 billion into venture capital space companies. And that’s up from $5.8 billion in 2019. So we’re talking like a 50% or 60% increase in venture capital investment. The other areas that have really reduced the entry barriers are, as everyone knows about SpaceX, and putting on launch vehicles, they have made launch vehicles used to be a lot of – there’s cost relationships and there were roughly 20 years ago, about $10,000 per kilogram, and a kilogram is 2.2 pounds. So just thinking rough numbers, it’s going to be $5,000 a pound. Now we are down to about $100 per kilogram, which is about $50 per pound.

Tom Temin: Or two orders of magnitude less.

Steven Meier: Yes, two orders of magnitude, huge drops. And those are like entry barriers to get into the system. The other part is ground systems. There are – Amazon has ground systems all over the area. One web, other zone, and the U.S. services can leverage that as well. So there’s a lot of that, and then also all of the satellites that are going up there. And as we’ve seen from, I mean I’m not trying to put a plug in for any company, but Starlink, Amazon, Kuiper are putting them up. The services can leverage those just as much as they can leverage in other services. They probably actually have even more opportunity to leverage commercial space. And if you look at the war in Ukraine right now, a lot of the imagery, a whole lot of it is all coming from commercial satellites that were all once in the DoD world. Now, commercial kind of owns that.

Tom Temin: So fair to say that the lab that you run, then, and the Naval space enterprise in general, like the NGA for example, is looking to leverage those commercial services where it makes sense, and then concentrate your efforts on what might be uniquely military.

Steven Meier: Yes, that’s exactly right. There are specific military operations that I believe such as space control, or space situational awareness, they’re gonna stay in the military regime, because a lot of the other satellites that I’m mentioning are essentially communication satellites. They’re sending down bits, it’s all about bits. It’s all about video. It’s all about, getting your communication spending, all that to get underserved areas, connectivity to the rest of the world. There will be for example, in those two areas that are going to be kind of just staying in the defense, but then for basic communications, for weather, for imagery, it’s all going to be kind of moving towards commercial. A lot of organizations I work with closely. I mean, just, I was at two conferences recently, the NRO and NASA, and their mantra is buy first, build it second. So that’s the kind of the direction that we’re going in.

Tom Temin: Yeah, the old COTS preference is now moving into space.

Steven Meier: Yeah, I mean, five or six years ago, nobody was investing in space. They didn’t think it would give you an ROI or net present value, whatever you want to use. So yeah, we at NTST then are grabbing that and working with commercial companies, several of them in order to leverage our capabilities and also understand their business models.

Tom Temin: Right, so Amazon’s network, then, for example, is a lot more than just trying to track shipments of Chinese-made hair curlers to the Midwest. All right, again, my guest is Dr. Steven Meier, director of the Naval Center for Space Technology. And you bring a lot of experience to this job, duly appointed as director. You’ve been in other space agencies, in particular NASA, and also with commercial world itself, the contractor world. Tell us a little bit about your own background.

Steven Meier: Sure, sure. I’d love to. Yes, I have spanned both sides of the coin. In my private industry I worked at Lockheed Martin at Perspecta, at Raytheon, so I have some experience each of those. And then I’ve also done a lot in the government with NGA, NRO, CIA, NASA, the Naval Research Labs. So it’s, it’s actually I feel a really good balance to have, so you’re not just looking at a system from one perspective, particularly when you’re putting out a request for proposal, or writing a request for proposal being on both sides of the coin, understanding how because there’s a huge space industrial base. Government and the U.S. space industrial base will always be coupled together, and create jobs and technologies and economies. So I at least have that experience. And most of it has been in the space world in terms of that.

So I have a really good understanding about all the technologies going on one side. And also really how it operates. It’s been interesting, NRL – I’ll tell you something is we have a business model that’s like a private industry business model. And all my experience there has helped actually joining NRL because we have something called the Navy’s Working Capital Fund. So the way we work almost all of our money at NRL, outside of a small amount for buildings comes from external sponsors. So I essentially have a revenue stream. I am not a congressional line item, that has zero congressional line item. So we have to go out and fight for our money. And we write proposals to all the space agencies, we write white papers to generate new ideas, we have to bring in money at the end of the day in order to be successful. So I have like a [profit and loss statement]. And granted, we’re a federal agency so our goal is to break even for the most part, a couple million above, couple million below that’s okay. But at least marrying those two up it’s it’s quite good, the experiences on both sides.

Tom Temin: But all the money you take in I guess they’re grants maybe but they have to come from federal sources, correct?

Steven Meier: Actually, there’s not much on grants, it’s work. We are an actual performer is what we are. So we are building satellite buses, which is kind of the structure the mechanical, the electrical, the thermal around, kind of like your car has an engine –

Tom Temin: The chassis?

Steven Meier: The payload, yeah, and then the rest is the chassis around it. So no, we’re building actual satellite, a full thing. This is very small amounts of grants that’s there. It’s mainly all work focused on actual builds.

Tom Temin: And just a question on the talent question. If you look at another domain, cybersecurity, the government endlessly complains and rightly so in many cases, they can’t compete with industry for talent in the space domain, where you have this burgeoning industry with all of this money flowing in to form new companies and new capabilities. Do you find it’s tough to get people to work in space technologies from the inside of government?

Steven Meier: The answer I’d say is yes, in my organization, and that’s a good and a bad thing. The bad thing is I lose people. The good thing is my people are sought after. I have people that try to cherry pick from honestly SpaceX, Amazon other places, because I do feel and I’m not just saying this, I’ve been on both sides of the coin, traveled 25, 30 years of experience. The people in NRL are really top notch at NRL in general and also at NCST, my organization. So a lot of them will come out of school, they’ll spend a couple years in NCST and then they get job offers from somewhere and it’s hard to compete with those salaries, to be quite honest. But a lot of the private industry companies know that, hey, if I get someone from NRL, NCST they’re going to be top notch. And the talent wars are out there.

Right now, it is truly a job seeker’s market, still. All these 25-, 30-year-olds, younger millennials yeah, they’re in very good position in order to get what they want in terms of telecommuting, in terms of salary and other benefits along those lines. Yeah, there is a bit of a talent war and space has gotten so exciting and so much opportunity that it is a bit of a challenge. So we try to create more of a balance of life. It is the government, you do have a good vacation, you have separate sick leave, there’s 11 paid federal holidays. So it is really truly as more of a quality of life. And that does count for something. Having worked in private industry, when sometimes you might work 60, 70, 80 hours a week that happens. So, but we offer that. But I would say a lot of my leadership team is still on board. And that’s what makes us unique. I have two divisions, I have division heads, four division heads and deputy and nine branch heads. And all of them have spent their entire career at NRL. So they’re very deep, they’re very good and they have done everything, like I said, the end-to-end side of orbitalology and the concept and the design all the way to build, test and operate. So there’s a lot of depth at the organization.

Tom Temin: And on a summer night that’s clear, do you ever run out with binoculars and try to look at your satellites going by?

Steven Meier: I wish but the D.C. light scattering and humidity unfortunately don’t make it the best viewing opportunities. So the best place you might be able to see something is at the U.S. Naval Observatory. They’re a little bit up on the hill. And if it’s a clear night, they actually make observations there of stars every once in a while, but even then they said they get maybe one or two months out of the entire year, where they can do some viewing. So it’s possible, but they also have a really big telescope compared to some binoculars.

Tom Temin: Well, I recommend the Mojave Desert.

Steven Meier: Yes, yes. When you’re further down south, I mean, I used to do infrared and visible astronomy. I worked at like Kitt Peak [National Observatory], Mt. Lemmon [SkyCenter] and places down in Arizona. And yes, the way the planet is where the upper part of the Milky Way Galaxy we’re looking down, you do see an amazing amount of things. It is really dark, pitch black. You see the satellites, you see the stars, there’s – and it’s clear, particularly if you’re on a mountain top at about 8,000 or 9000 feet. So it’s awe inspiring.

Tom Temin: It’s dark, but it’s alive, isn’t it?

Steven Meier: Yes, very much.

Tom Temin: All right. Dr. Steven Meier is director of the Naval Center for Space Technology, part of the Naval Research Laboratory. Thanks so much for joining me.

Steven Meier: Oh, you’re welcome. Glad to be here. I appreciate the time.

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