RESTON, VA – The US satellite industry must embrace modern software design practices like Agile and DevSecOps if America’s space efforts are to stay ahead of foreign competitors like China, Nicolas Chaillan, the recently departed software director of the US Air Force told CyberSatGov this week.
He said in his opening speech at noon Thursday that many traditional providers of national security satellites are stranded in a Department of Defense (DoD) which is burdened with enormous technical debt and unable to scale “at the speed of relevance”.
One of the consequences of this type of technical debt, he said, was the decade-long dependence of the United States on Russian Soyuz rockets, launched from the former Soviet Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. , to route personnel to and from the International Space Station (ISS). After the Space Shuttle program closed in 2011, the United States had no domestic capability to reach the ISS, until EspaceX developed the Dragon and successfully launched it earlier this year.
“I would say it’s a bit of a shame that we had to wait for SpaceX to bring in a capability that allows us to send Americans back to the ISS and not depend on the Russians,” he said.
The capacity gap is worse with the Chinese, he warned. “I would say they are in front of us, not behind us, both on AI and ML [Artificial Intelligence/Machine Learning]. Once you are a leader in AI and ML, you can end up learning things and enabling things that the human brain cannot even understand. By definition, we’ll end up falling even further behind.
To emphasize his point, he compared SpaceX with the Department of Defense. SpaceX has 200 full stack engineers, he said, while DoD has 4,000 developers working on the F-35. SpaceX operates nine platforms, including different versions of Falcon and the drone that allows reusable return rockets to land at sea.
Up to 80% of the source code used on each of these platforms is shared among them all, said Chaillan: “Compare that to… 4% of the F-22. [code] is shared with the F-35.
SpaceX used a modular approach to the software that Chaillan compared to Lego blocks.
“They can swap Lego blocks inside or out. They can build the whole stack [thousands of] times a day; they can test it automatically to see if their new features break anything; look at the software [to check it’s] behave as it should.
Integration is often a major challenge for traditional satellite manufacturers – verifying that new or updated software works properly on the esoteric hardware in which it is often integrated. Because SpaceX chose to use basic hardware, the company is able to test much more easily, Chaillan said.
“They can actually have a complete on-site hardware looping process where the software they create that day is tested on the hardware in real time, three times a day. They are now able to deploy this software in production. They can upgrade the software the day before launch.
The key decision SpaceX made, he said, was to build its technology stack using commodity central processing units. [CPUs]. “Nothing of the sort [specialized] space hardware, we’re not going to use any secret sauce, we’re just going to use commercial processors. And we’re going to go open source with Linux. This allows [SpaceX] to effectively use all the tools that companies use today to create software. They are not stuck in this very niche market space where they have to deal with a very small number of players, with vendor lock-in left and right and IP limitations.
Chaillan compared this to the F-35 program, “which effectively takes a year to seven years to upgrade the software, depending on complexity, and without the ability to do end-to-end testing. [before deployment on the actual hardware.]”
Understanding the difference, “we start to realize the technological debt,” said Chaillan.
He later added that things aren’t much better among traditional defense contractors. “The [defense industrial base] is mostly made up of former public servants who don’t really know the pace of the industry. They are often stuck in a bubble which is the DoD bubble, where indeed there is no competition and where we do not need to bring in talent from outside.
Chaillan, a French-born tech entrepreneur brought in to help shake up the Air Force’s squeaky software acquisition mechanism, resigned very publicly last month in a “drop-the-mike” post on LinkedIn, in which he said the Air Force was not “walking the march” on computer upgrades.
When he joined the Air Force department, Chaillan said he was “shocked” by the way things were going. “If I send some of these [Air Force acquisition] executives for two weeks at Google or SpaceX, their heads would explode, ”he said.
In fact, he noted, one problem with the programs that allowed DoD executives to work temporarily in the private sector was that “when we send people to these companies they end up seeing the light and not coming back. “.