COTS in space: decisions making

Space Station Launch Orbiting Earth. 3D Scene.

Source: Intelligent Aerospace article

Another COTS related article published by Dan Friedlander. Retired, following 44 years in component engineering.

Decisions are the hardest thing to make, especially if it is a choice between where you should be and where you want to be. You should be in a position to secure your designs by securing electrical, electronic, and electromechanical (EEE) components availability. You tend to resist changes to secure your present position.

EEE components availability is driven by business decisions, not by wishful thinking of EEE components users and policy makers. Don’t entrust your future on others’ hands.

Technically, nobody contests the viability of the proven methodology of using space/military-grade components in space and military applications. However, this methodology is not immune to global developments, which impose a new methodology of using selected commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) in space applications. To implement the COTS methodology across the board, timely decision making is requested.

The hardest decisions in life are not between good and bad or right and wrong, but between two goods or two rights.” — Joe Andrew

Delaying inevitable decision making may prove to be critical.

Shelving hard decisions is the least ethical course.” — Adrian Cadbury

This article points to needed decision making, based on the already gained heritage of using COTS in space and military applications.


We should start from the premise that circumstance might change. We are not in the prophecy domain. Whatever decision is taken, the selected EEE components shall meet the space mission requirements. There are various space missions, with different requirements to be met.

The main parameters to be considered in a risk management regime:


Decision 1: Overcoming the fear of risk

Are you ready to take manageable risks in order to adapt to global developments?

If the answer is “NO”, don’t do anything and hope for the best. If the answer is “YES”, overcome your fear of risk.
Prepare the tools to meet the requirements of the space industry in a worst-case situation.

“Ask yourself if what you are doing today is getting you closer to where you want to be tomorrow.”

A strategy to reach the target shall be planned and implemented.

The only way a strategy can get implemented is if we dedicate resources to it.” — Clayton Christensen.

Use of COTS in space dictates culture change. It is worth considering, better sooner than later, such a change.

If the risk is fully aligned with your purpose and mission, then it’s worth considering.” — Peter Diamandis.

A decision to be taken is not free of risk.

Risk comes from not knowing what you’re doing.” — Warren Buffett

The risk of a wrong decision is preferable to the terror of indecision.” — Maimonides

Risk Management is a process of finding ways to mitigate assessed risks.

Enough is enough and it is time for change.” — Owen Hart


Decision 2: EEE components market trends

Is it acceptable to overlook the global EEE components market trends?

If the answer is “YES”, don’t do anything and hope for the best. If the answer is “NO”, realize that the market is shaped by business decisions.

In view of the two-plus decades of official use of COTS in military applications, it is obvious that the apocalyptic prophesies did not materialize. The military-qualified and space-qualified EEE components’ share in the EEE components global market is less than 0.5 percent in dollars.

Nobody can stop a manufacturer from leaving a market found not to be profitable. Keeping the traditional approach means that we learn from history that we do not learn from history. The future EEE components availability has to be secured for military applications and for space applications, as well. The business decisions are invincible.

Be aware: “We can ignore reality, but we cannot ignore the consequences of ignoring reality.” – Ayn Rand


Decision 3: EEE components availability security

Is it acceptable to continue exclusively with the traditional methodology — authored by space agencies and the Department of Defense (DOD) — to prefer using space/MIL components in space applications, regardless of their availability security status?

If the answer is “YES”, don’t do anything and hope for the best. If the answer is “NO”, the COTS methodology shall be adopted, using the framework of the traditional methodology and the acquired knowledge.

“I can’t change the direction of the wind, but I can adjust my sails to always reach my destination.” — Jimmy Dean.

Resistance to change cannot beat reality. The right thing to do is to adapt to reality in an educated, controlled manner. Committing new designs to the traditional methodology is risky. It may mean that at the end these designs cannot be materialized as is.

Decision 4: Reliance on Statistical Process Control

Is it acceptable to rely on first priority focus on Statistical Process Control (SPC) as per the COTS methodology?

If the answer is “NO”, don’t do anything and continue on the road of intensive components testing and misuse of unreliable reliability prediction models. If the answer is “YES”, go for the COTS philosophy, based on the principle of process (design followed by manufacturing) building reliability into the component. Reliability cannot be tested into the component.

The traditional methodology focuses on component testing, and much less on process control. The Statistical Process Control does not work for a low-volume production, like space/military EEE components production. The testing mitigates the lack of statistics value. The testing addresses the issue of quality.

In the environment of high-volume commercial EEE components production, the SPC works well, resulting in very low failure rates at start of use timing.

The qualification and screening are not considered as a substitute for manufacturing control, but rather as risk mitigation measures. That does not mean that the component testing is worthless.


Decision 5: Use of PEMs

Are you ready to use Plastic Encapsulated Microcircuits (PEM) in space applications?

If the answer is “NO”, don’t do anything and follow the PEM penalizing traditional methodology. If the answer is “YES”, ask for timely formalization of usage of PEMs in space applications, based on multi-years successful heritage in military and space applications.

The superiority of a hermetic package vs. a plastic package is not arguable, at least in terrestrial environment. The problems encountered in early stages (from the 60s) with non-hermetic plastic encapsulated semiconductors caused the military and space components policy makers to taboo their use in military and space applications. Of course, the “hermeticity” of the plastic components cannot compete with the hermeticity of the hermetic components. Don’t try to do better than good enough.


Decision 6: COTS Radiation Resistance

Are selected COTS capable to meet needed radiation requirements?

If the answer is “NO”, don’t do anything and hope for the best. If the answer is “YES”, create and implement a policy for proper Radiation Hardness Assurance (RHA). Existing RHA can be tailored for the purpose.

In addition to the component selection process, concentrate also on the way the predicted radiation levels are established. Based on multi-years studies and flight experience radiation models are improving for more accurate prediction. Consequently, Radiation Design Margin (RDM) can be reduced to allow a usage of more and more COTS. Radiation databases and more relaxed RHA rules can minimize the need for duplicate testing.



The above mentioned major decisions are mainly psychological in nature. However, they are vital for acknowledging the immediate need for culture change.

Change before you have to” — Jack Welch

Many additional decisions are necessary to overcome the technical obstacles within a regime of Risk Management, on the road to the usage of selected COTS in space applications.

Transition to usage of selected COTS in space is a complex process, requiring open mindedness.

The measure of intelligence is the ability to change”  — Albert Einstein

A mind is like a parachute. It works best when it is open.” — Dalai Lama

We cannot follow the traditional way of thinking, regardless of the global developments. Methodology change invokes change of thinking.

We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” — Albert Einstein
The world as we have created it is a process of our thinking. It cannot be changed without changing our thinking” — Albert Einstein

Action is needed.

Sit down before fact with an open mind.” — Admiral Hyman Rickover

Don’t push out figures when facts are going in the opposite direction.” — Admiral Hyman Rickover

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