Mitchell Walker: Aligning Propulsion Innovations with Market Pressures

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It takes more than a great idea to make an impact in today’s space technology market. Just ask Prof. Mitchell Walker.

As the chair of the “Government Investments Enabling Advancement of In-space Propulsion” panel at AIAA’s recent Propulsion and Energy Forum 360 (July 27-29), Walker brought together several industry and government experts for a robust discussion of the future.  All seemed to agree: market pressures must be incorporated into any innovation strategy.

“Competition in the global space-propulsion market continues to increase as industry continues to invest in technology and strategy and agencies are using technology programs to push the boundaries,” Walker said.

“It is very important to align the focus of government-funded technology with the needs, requirements, and commercial opportunities of industry. This will support the critical commercial infusion and eventual sustainability of in-space propulsion technology developed with government funding.”

Joining Walker in the AIAA panel were Google + Skybox Imaging’s chief engineer Jonny Dyer; the Institute for Defense Analyses’ director of science and technology policy Dr. Mark Lewis; Space Systems Loral’s advanced solar electric propulsion programs manager Peter Lord; Aerojet Rocketdyne’s executive director for advanced in-space systems Roger Myers; and NASA’s senior technical officer for the Space Technology Directorate Dr. Jeffrey Sheehy.

Although early investments in space-propulsion systems have bolstered national defense and space-exploration programs, the emergence of public-private partnerships has made the market more complicated, according Myers.

One thing thwarting advances in propulsion technology? The need for the investment to take into account both the cost and the risk of the new technology.

“If it can’t do that,” Myers said, “The system will most likely be rejected.”

Myers pointed out that time-tested technology holds the edge for approvals while the potential benefits of new technology are overshadowed by system uncertainty. Myers said electric propulsion systems and solar electric power systems receive the majority of investment dollars.

Investment in this area is also impeded by the size of the market and the time it takes to bring a new idea to market. The longer the development period, the more likely it is to fail.

Dyer pointed out that the delays inevitably make it harder to market up and coming innovations:

“We are flying 50-year-old technology exclusively, with thrusters going back to Apollo. Imagine if I tried to sell you a 50-year-old telephone. Nobody is going to buy a 50-year-old telephone.”

View the entire panel discussion.


  • Workflow Status:Published
  • Created By:Sapna Mistry
  • Created:02/17/2016
  • Modified By:Fletcher Moore
  • Modified:10/07/2016