By Dan Dumbacher|June 2019
Society today and into the future is crucially dependent on a successful and safe aerospace industry. To retain strategic and technological preeminence, and truly lead from a position of strength, adjustments in our risk tolerance will be mandated. It is clear that our industry is moving rapidly, necessitating speed, agility, and faster implementation. No segment of aerospace is untouched. We can see an emerging private enterprise space arena and the development of autonomous air mobility. Potential adversaries are taking aim at our technological advantage. Transportation technologies are developing quickly to move people around the globe at higher speed, and with less environmental impact. We have a directive to return Americans to the moon in 2024. To remain truly nimble, it is clear that our tolerance of risk and failure must be recalibrated to better account for our society’s desired outcomes.
Our current acquisition and risk approaches must adjust to meet these rapid advances. Systems and approaches must be modernized and implemented to meet the timescale of the evolving demands. What does this mean in practice? From an acquisition standpoint, we need a shift in culture to allow us to build new capabilities with less than ideal performance and to be able to implement an initial level of performance that meets the near-term need, recognizing that we can improve performance in future iterations. For example, can we ultimately view our technology-laden aerospace systems in the same way we view our technology-laden mobile phones? Meaning, when we lose or break a mobile phone, we quickly replace it. If a technology-laden CubeSat fails, can we simply launch another from the assembly line, and then do the failure investigation in parallel, rather than impeding progress pending a mishap investigation. Of course, a fair question remains — how does this altering of tolerance and thought affect safety and risk? That answer is totally dependent on situation and application. At all costs, we must prioritize the protection of human life — in aircraft, spacecraft, or on the battlefield.
From a commercial, private enterprise perspective, success in the market place is at least partially driven by timeliness. Yes, the product must work and be viable; however, time-to-market is an extremely important factor. For national defense there is a different risk acceptance calculation to meet the threat — the “benefit” of protecting our way of life. For space exploration there is another and different risk calculation. The farther humans venture beyond Earth orbit, the less we know, the more we learn about living and operating in new environments, and the more we learn about our home spaceship, Earth. The urgency in space exploration arises from the leadership learning how to go beyond current human limits while establishing the “rules of the road” in space.
We are obligated to question what we do, how we do it, and, most importantly, why each step matters. The conscious questioning, professional debate, and thoughtful implementation will transport us to better and more efficient ways to meet our needs. Status quo thinking often leads to stagnation. We must learn from our failures, recognize the lessons, and, crucially, communicate all to our colleagues. Only then can we say we are truly preparing the next generation. And, we must not allow the scar tissue of past failures to hold us back from meeting the complex challenges of the future. We must test our ideas, not only talk about them. We must understand what is possible, along with limitations and constraints. Finally, we must work to critically evaluate and eliminate non-value-added activities that so frequently find their way into our processes.
If we wish to stay relevant, the industry, and AIAA, must choose balanced risk over scar tissue — only then will it be poised to remain at the forefront of aerospace. We owe it to society, our investors, and our industry’s future workforce to broaden our minds. ★
... we must not allow the scar tissue of past failures to hold us back from meeting the complex challenges of the future.Dan Dumbacher