The service design of spaceflight

As technology gets smarter, engineers have developed a fresh approach to building satellites, replacing the giants of the past with constellations of cheaper, shoebox-sized satellites that work as an array.

These arrays of mini satellites are more resilient and easy to upgrade - simply add a new satellite to the constellation.

Because the satellites are small, the rockets required to launch them are small, too, allowing new players to come into the commercial spaceflight market.

The UK Government wants Britain to be among the foremost of those players - with Rockets launched from remote sites across the UK as soon as 2020.

To do that, though, the UK needs to regulate how rockets can fit within its already crowded airspace.

And to make spaceflight commercially viable, the documentation can’t be anything like the thousands of pages required for a traditional satellite launch.

Somehow the UK needs to find a simple way to licence every link in the chain: the spaceport, range control (essentially the radar that allows you to define a safe corridor within which your rocket can fly), the launch, and the satellite itself.

Of those four licence types, the UK currently only issues the final one - the licence for the satellite.

In 2017 cxpartners began working with the UK Space Agency. Our mission was to take all of that rocket science, ill-defined and complex as it was, and make it simple enough for a new industry to thrive.

Designing a service before the legislation is in place

The first challenge we faced was that the landscape was fluid and often undefined.

Each potential mission was (and is) different. The technology continues to evolve so there was no understanding of a ‘typical application’. Regulators didn’t yet know how they were going to regulate ‘space’.

We needed to be comfortable iterating our design for the service while the landscape around was changing.

That meant getting close to the stakeholders who were working on the legislation. We made sure we had a good grasp of the legislative process, and the indicative regulatory requirements - the landmarks that were unlikely to shift, even as the rest of the landscape changed.

Our ‘Discovery’ process of interviewing all the potential users of the service also enabled us map out the satellite licensing journey.

We’d spoken to enough stakeholders and identified enough landmarks to come to a hypothesis: we could use the satellite licensing journey, with a few tweaks, as the basis for each of the four licence types - spaceport, range control, launch, and satellite.

As you’ll see, that didn’t mean the original process was perfect, just a useful place to start.

Even though the regulation was undefined, we were ready to think about how the licensing process would work.

Finding users before they’re users

The next challenge we faced in designing a service that didn’t yet exist, was that our users also did not yet exist. Many of the people who would likely go on to become users of the service didn't yet realise they would be able to launch satellites in the near future.

Fortunately, again, we had some existing stakeholders to fall back on - existing satellite operators and regulatory assessors were well-known.

That left the users of the future. The new ‘front stage’ users of the service would be the launch service providers, range control service operators, and space port operators. Meanwhile ‘backstage’, the UK Space Agency staff would be joined in evaluating licences by the Civil Aviation Authority, the Health and Safety Executive, and fifty third-party assessors.

Our key stakeholder here was our Service Manager from the UK Space Agency. He helped us to define these different groups and identify representatives from each one.

But we still needed to identify potential users who didn’t yet know they’d be engaging with the service.

We created a map of potential users that enabled us to define potential personas and their characteristics, and from there we could work out how to identify individuals to talk to. That led us to speak to potential users in startups, incubators and university programmes.

Speaking to those users helped us identify just how much support and education would be required around the licensing service.

A path through complexity

Spaceflight is complex and technical. As one engineer told us ‘it could take an entire career to assess just one spaceflight licence application’.

Somehow we needed to grasp all of that complexity and find a simple path through it.

That meant immersing ourselves in the subject matter, learning the jargon, and being able to converse confidently with the experts. Having an outsider’s perspective still helped, but our job was to talk our users’ language - which was precise and technical.

Embracing the technical subject gave us credibility which helped open doors when talking to stakeholders, and also enabled us to go deeper into the research and design process and deliver a better result.

Future proofing

All that hard work had a number of benefits.

First, we were able to prototype a licensing service confident that it would stand up in the face of all the changes that would take place before and after the legislation was put in place.

Second, our work helped influence the emerging policy. The licence process that we started with, as depicted by the Outer Space Act of 1986, was inadequate - just four steps. The process that we developed and validated was more nuanced, with nine steps. These went on to be incorporated into the Space Industry Act of 2018.

Even in an undefined landscape, research and service design can pave the way to define policy and improve legislation.

The final frontier

But our work went beyond that. News of our work reached the US regulator, the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA).

Their licensing process is even more complex than the UK’s had been. Some licence sections require 10,000 pages of technical information.

They were also keen to ensure their licensing process could be simplified - and the UK provided a template.

A thoughtful, disciplined approach to service design could teach something to even the most advanced player in the market.

Industrial designer turned service designer. Alex employs research and design thinking to help make the complex simple; validating and delivering services that meet users needs.