SpaceDev: Focus on Core Space Technologies
While SpaceDev has been around for a decade, its January 2006 merger with Starsys Research Corp. shifted everything into a higher gear, says SpaceDev Managing Director Scott Tibbitts, who founded Starsys in 1987 and pioneered thermal actuator technology as an aerospace alternative to conventional explosive actuators.
Over those 20 years, ?we just started moving up the food chain,? Tibbitts told Space News in a Sept. 13 telephone interview. Since its founding Starsys has developed more than 2,500 devices of various types that have flown on more than 250 spacecraft.
The merger blended SpaceDev?s expertise in advanced prototyping with the Starsys heritage in space hardware, Mark Sirangelo, SpaceDev?s chairman and chief executive officer, said in an interview.
Sirangelo said he is positioning the small Poway, Calif.-based company as a provider of affordable and innovative space services. Products in development include such things as low-cost satellites and a passenger-carrying space plane. Its focus now is on six core technology areas: small satellites; hybrid propulsion; advanced systems; structures; electromechanical systems; and components and mechanisms.
The company now has facilities at three locations: Poway, Calif.; Louisville, Colo.; and Durham, N.C. The diverse trio of locales in three states also helps garner political support when needed, Sirangelo said.
SpaceDev is gearing up for the likelihood that NASA will go ahead and hold a competition for the $175 million in unspent funds that the agency previously had awarded to Rocketplane Kistler under the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) agreement.
NASA selected two companies in August 2006 to split $500 million in funding under the COTS program:
Rocketplane Kistler of Oklahoma City, and Space Exploration Technologies Corp. of El Segundo, Calif. The money is intended to help each company build and conduct test flights of their respective launch systems to deliver cargo to the international space station.
But Rocketplane Kistler has been unable to meet some of the financial and technical milestones spelled out in its COTS agreement, which prompted NASA officials Sept. 7 to notify the company that its contract would be terminated. Rocketplane Kistler has 30 days from the date of that letter to convince NASA otherwise.
?We?re gearing up for what might come next,? Sirangelo told Space News in a Sept. 16 telephone interview. The SpaceDev team proposed its Dream Chaser space plane for the initial COTS competition, but came in third, he said, losing out to Rocketplane Kistler.
Dream Chaser is based on the NASA HL-20 lifting body space plane and Sirangelo said SpaceDev has been putting its own money into the concept since the COTS awards were made, pushing the space plane forward on several technical tracks. ?We?ve kept in shape, if you will, because we thought that this was going to come around,? he said.
Sirangelo said NASA recognizes that it needs to do something quickly because time is passing, and the agency ?can?t wait another year to make this happen.?
SpaceDev signed a memorandum of understanding with United Launch Alliance in April to evaluate human-rating the Atlas 5 launch vehicle and configuring it for use with Dream Chaser. The first phase of that work, Sirangelo said, is about to be completed showing that Dream Chaser can ride on an Atlas and attain the orbit desired. ?It?s actually pretty good news,? he said.
Dream Chaser is a multi-purpose vehicle, Sirangelo emphasized, that not only will be able to handle international space station work, but also will be capable of serving as an orbital platform for space operations, including satellite servicing. In addition, its design can handle the emerging space tourism marketplace, either in suborbital or orbital mode, he said.
A fourth utility for Dream Chaser might involve the military by supplying point-to-point travel anywhere around the globe, Sirangelo said.
?We are a revenue and profit-producing company,? Sirangelo said, adding that the company will bring in more than $35 million in 2007 revenue, from a dozen clients and about 30 ongoing programs.
SpaceDev has the ability to take some of its money and invest in research and development, Sirangelo said. A case in point is the SpaceDev docking and capture hardware that was built for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency?s recently completed Orbital Express mission.
While that was government-funded as a Small Business Innovation Research program, Sirangelo said that SpaceDev put its own time and money into the project to give it a proprietary interest in that technology should it be utilized again.
Similarly, SpaceDev?s U.S. Air Force work on hybrid rocket motors is being leveraged for similar motors for the Dream Chaser space plane. Sirangelo said that this type of bootstrapping is akin to a triple word score in the game Scrabble.
Earlier this month, SpaceDev announced it had been awarded three contracts to deliver more than 200 satellite components to Mitsubishi Electric Corp. In total, the contract is valued at $800,000 and will provide hardware in support of several commercial satellites while expanding SpaceDev?s business in Japan.
SpaceDev also has provided key mechanisms for NASA?s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, such as the items now aboard the Mars Phoenix Lander, which is en route to the red planet. The company?s hardware also can be found on the long-lived Mars Exploration Rovers Spirit and Opportunity.
For the long-term, Sirangelo said he envisions SpaceDev becoming a larger aerospace company that could be an active partner with major aerospace firms, ?by virtue of giving them a faster, more economical research arm.?
Tibbitts said a powerful growth area for the company will be putting large deployable structures on microsatellites. New and spacious SpaceDev facilities in Louisville, for instance, are being used to design and develop deployable boom structures for satellites under subcontract from the Air Force Research Laboratory Space Vehicles Directorate.
Tibbitts said the company sees great promise in building hardware for small satellites. ?Technologically, there are things that are changing very quickly, particularly in the area of memory and processor speed ? making small satellites more and more capable.?
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