Disruptive Space Technologies

Disruptive Space Technologies

Egbert Jan van der Veen (Institute of Space Systems, German Aerospace Center (DLR), Bremen, Germany), Dimitrios A. Giannoulas (Institute of Space Systems, German Aerospace Center (DLR), Bremen, Germany), Marco Guglielmi (European Space Research and Technology Centre, European Space Agency, Noordwijk, The Netherlands), Thijs Uunk (Delft University of Technology, Delft, The Netherlands) and Daniel Schubert (Institute of Space Systems, German Aerospace Center (DLR), Bremen, Germany)
DOI: 10.4018/ijstmi.2012070102
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The theory of Disruptive Technologies explains the evolution of technologies that disturb the status quo of both dominant technology platforms and competitive market layouts. In this paper, the theory of Disruptive Technologies for the space sector is explored. This exploration is required because the Disruptive Technology theory is currently based upon the innovation dynamics of mass consumer markets, which are significantly different from the dynamics of the low volume, highly governmentally influenced space sector. The objective is to clarify the dynamics of innovation in space (with particular respect to technological disruptions) in order to help decision makers in their effort to support innovation in the development of space technologies. This is done by analyzing the dynamics of the space sector and the theory of Disruptive Technologies in respect to its applicability to the space sector. The result of these analyses leads to the creation of a theory that is tailored to the specific innovation dynamics of the space sector. The theory is termed Disruptive Space Technologies. Key element of this theory is the fact that Disruptive Technologies in the space sector focus mainly on technology disruption rather than market disruption.
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The exploration (and exploitation) of space has resulted in many technological advances for humanity in areas such as materials, navigation, telecommunications, medicine and many others. Improving the capabilities of space technologies, in order to increase the benefits that the utilization of space can offer, is a major goal of all space faring nations. Since the Apollo age, the space sector has concentrated mainly on a conservative method of technology development, focusing on low risk incremental innovations, rather than breakthrough, radical or disruptive innovations (Summerer, 2009). One of the reasons for this situation is the fact that space technology requires long and costly development phases with strict performance and environmental requirements. Another reason that can justify this situation is the very high cost of space transportation. These two factors have resulted in very stringent quality and flight heritage requirements. This situation, in turn, has created a paradigm, where the usage of technologies with meager or non-existing flight heritage is discouraged and, consequently, new technologies do not gain flight heritage because they are not selected (Szajnfarber, Grindle, & Weigel, 2009). Despite the existence of several projects that are trying to bridge this valley of death within technology evolution, many technologies still end up in the dust bin after substantial investments. The valley of death is the gap of funding between basic technology development (push technology development up to Technology Readiness Level (TRL) 4/5) and application specific technology development (pull technology development after TRL 6/7). Because of the need to overcome the valley of death, there is a clear requirement for an early stage identification of technologies that could significantly improve the capabilities of space applications by disrupting the state-of-the-art. This early stage identification leads to the nurturing and protection of the right technologies against the valley of death and a resulting improvement of the capabilities of the space sector. This identification of potential high-gain technologies can be achieved by mapping the factors that determine and influence the market potential of a technology. The most successful technologies will be disruptive to the state-of-the-art of space technologies and will therefore be called Disruptive Space Technologies (DSTs).

The aim of this paper is to create an understanding of the underlying processes that govern technology disruptions in the space sector. This understanding allows for an adaptation of the theory of Disruptive Technologies (DTs) to the unique market dynamics of the space sector. To gain this understanding, first the theory of DTs is subjected to a critical review. Different aspects of this theory are examined and evaluated with respect to their applicability to the unique market dynamics of the space sector. A new concept for evaluating technologies using a mix of performance attributes is also introduced here. Second, an analysis of the space sector is conducted. The factors that differentiate the space sector from conventional, terrestrial markets are discussed and the peculiarities of the space sector are explored. Third, the process of disruption in the space sector is investigated by analyzing a number of technologies that have been disruptive to the space sector in the past. The analysis of past DT’s and their predecessors is done by using a mix of performance attributes for each technology, which is then evaluated by experts of the field. This leads to an insight into technology developments and disruptions in the space sector.

The research presented here was conducted at the German Aerospace Center in Bremen in cooperation with the European Space Agency (ESA) within the framework of a DLR project supported by ESA (Contract 4000101810/10/NL/GLC).

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