April 1, 2004

Space exploration is a human endeavor that involves imagination and determination

In the January issue of Military & Aerospace Electronics, I found Michael Corder's letter (p. 20) amusing and interesting in light of John Rhea's "Welcome to moonbase" column in the same issue (Report from Washington, p. 15). Both seem to indicate that space exploration is for robots and consortia.

In the case of moonbase, the concept that the U.N. should be the lead is troubling. The fact that the U.N. is incapable of making important political decisions should be a comfort to those of us who still believe in national sovereignty and the U.S. Constitution.

Still, a complex technical and political undertaking like a moonbase will need sound financing and strong leadership. Currently, only America has the resources necessary. The Chinese may be the only other country capable in the near future to mount a serious expedition to the moon.

Robots and the U.N. do not command the inner pride and determination necessary to carry mankind into space. To follow the suggestions presented, Columbus' journey would have been written as a gaggle of pontificators in rowboats never straying beyond the sight of land.

Man's destiny is to explore, not send out robots. Imagination provides new opportunities and sets the stage for more adventures. If we are to take Mr. Corder's and Mr. Rhea's advice seriously, then we should be trying to establish remote bases in the inner cities and exploring the far reaches of poverty, all financed and approved by the U.N. of course.

America is unique in sharing and developing new technology and the ensuing benefits thereof. The curse of the commons (U.N.) will always limit new developments for the common man. Governments do not develop for you and me, space exploration will set the forces of young imaginations free to explore and develop in contrast to established bondage — oops, I meant concepts — by the now over-30-year-old generation. America is composed of individuals striving to better themselves. American government is unique in that it is the people.

Ed Mitchell, Senior Engineer
Boeing Aerospace
Long Beach, Calif.

Military, industry are repeating some of the same old COTS mistakes

I read with great interest your column on page 1 of the February issue of Military & Aerospace Electronics, "The Case for COTS: follow the money."

Having worked in the defense industry for more than 25 years as both a government and commercial engineer, COTS is a topic of interest. Many of the points you raised relating to the proper focus of COTS reminded me that current generations seem to learn little from past generations.

The COTS predicament today is very similar to one experienced by the developers of the Polaris/Poseidon/Trident ballistic missile systems in the early 1960s.

In a quest for highly reliable electronic systems some very smart people in the Strategic Systems Program Office (SSPO) developed an electronic building-block system. Electronic function modularity was "standardized" with emphasis on re-use of existing building blocks.

Electrical interfaces were "standardized." Mechanical components were "standardized." A complete system could be designed and built from a catalog of "standard" electrical and mechanical parts.

New technology and innovation was introduced carefully. That is not to say that new technology or innovation was stifled; it was focused on the important issues of performance and reliability. This approach was not applicable to every situation, but it worked very well in many systems as it expanded to the entire Navy.

Initial opponents became some of the most ardent supporters. Hundreds of millions of dollars of cost avoidance was documented. Former Defense Secretary William Perry should have been impressed. Unfortunately, the rush to COTS he started in 1994 caused the baby to be thrown out with the bath water.

The U.S. military's Standard Hardware and Reliability Program (SHARP, which ran from the 1960s to the 1990s) was already on the path to adapting lessons learned over 30-plus years to the COTS world. The very concerns you expressed in your article were predicted by SHARP officials many years ago because, in fact, very similar issues had been faced and solved as the program grew from infancy.

SHARP managers tried to share their wisdom gained over 30 years; some of the most important lessons learned came from mistakes. Unfortunately, the COTS steamroller was headed downhill, intent on repeating the same mistakes.

Mr. Perry had at his disposal a government and industry infrastructure with a proven cost- savings track record that should have been given the task of developing a sensible COTS strategy. SHARP was killed because of many misperceptions held by inexperienced people looking for a quick fix that did not cost anything.

SHARP worked very well in part because there was strong government technical involvement. Navy technical management at high levels mandated the use of SHARP unless it could be well justified that it was not applicable to a particular project.

Contractors were not allowed to re-invent the wheel; they had to re-use the axle, hub, spokes, and only add new tread. Each new system development effort stood on the shoulders of prior efforts.

I frequently chuckle when current COTS vendors tout their "standardized" connectors, form factor, bus structure, enclosure, power supplies, etc., etc., acting like they have invented something new. Instead of really being "standard" and re-usable by anyone, little proprietary niches are being carved out by each vendor that change with each updated bigger and better product.

Mr. Perry may have had good intentions with a good idea, but it has turned into a genie that will not go back in the bottle. This may sound harsh, but too many current U.S. Department of Defense officials are too stupid to realize that today's COTS is just a disguise for unique and proprietary. The COTS Industry is laughing all the way to the bank.

Jim Garten
Systems Design and Analysis Inc.
Indianapolis, Ind.

COTS column hits the mark

I would like to congratulate you on your piece on page 1 of the February issue of Military & Aerospace Electronics, "The Case for COTS: follow the money."

The piece regards another roadblock to the insertion of COTS that few have thought about. Usually it is the Defense Supply Center that is the roadblock to COTS, but now it is the equipment suppliers themselves, with reasons that can only be related to greater profit.

Ed Hakim
President, The C3I Inc.
Spring Lake, N.J.

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