SpaceDev: Focus on Core Space Technologies

WhileSpaceDev has been around for a decade, its January 2006 merger with StarsysResearch Corp. shifted everything into a higher gear, says SpaceDev ManagingDirector Scott Tibbitts, who founded Starsys in 1987 and pioneered thermalactuator technology as an aerospace alternative to conventional explosiveactuators.

Over those20 years, ?we just started moving up the food chain,? Tibbitts told SpaceNews in a Sept. 13 telephone interview. Since its founding Starsys hasdeveloped more than 2,500 devices of various types that have flown on more than250 spacecraft.

The mergerblended SpaceDev?s expertise in advanced prototyping with the Starsys heritagein space hardware, Mark Sirangelo, SpaceDev?s chairman and chief executiveofficer, said in an interview.

Sirangelosaid he is positioning the small Poway, Calif.-based company as a provider ofaffordable and innovative space services. Products in development include suchthings as low-cost satellites and a passenger-carrying space plane. Its focusnow is on six core technology areas: small satellites; hybrid propulsion;advanced systems; structures; electromechanical systems; and components andmechanisms.

The companynow has facilities at three locations: Poway, Calif.; Louisville, Colo.; andDurham, N.C. The diverse trio of locales in three states also helps garnerpolitical support when needed, Sirangelo said.

SpaceDev isgearing up for the likelihood that NASA will go ahead and hold acompetition for the $175 million in unspent funds that the agency previouslyhad awarded to Rocketplane Kistler under the Commercial Orbital TransportationServices (COTS) agreement.

NASA selected twocompanies in August 2006 to split $500 million in funding under the COTSprogram:

RocketplaneKistler of Oklahoma City, and Space Exploration Technologies Corp. of ElSegundo, Calif. The money is intended to help each company build and conducttest flights of their respective launch systems to deliver cargo to theinternational space station.

ButRocketplane Kistler has been unable to meet some of the financial and technicalmilestones spelled out in its COTS agreement, which prompted NASA officialsSept. 7 to notify the company that its contract would be terminated.Rocketplane Kistler has 30 days from the date of that letter to convince NASAotherwise.

?We?regearing up for what might come next,? Sirangelo told Space News in aSept. 16 telephone interview. The SpaceDev team proposed its DreamChaser space plane for the initial COTS competition, but came in third, hesaid, losing out to Rocketplane Kistler.

DreamChaser is based on the NASA HL-20 lifting body space plane and Sirangelo saidSpaceDev has been putting its own money into the concept since the COTS awardswere made, pushing the space plane forward on several technical tracks. ?We?vekept in shape, if you will, because we thought that this was going to comearound,? he said.

Sirangelosaid NASA recognizes that it needs to do something quickly because time ispassing, and the agency ?can?t wait another year to make this happen.?

SpaceDevsigned a memorandum of understanding with United Launch Alliance in April toevaluate human-rating the Atlas 5 launch vehicle and configuring it for usewith Dream Chaser. The first phase of that work, Sirangelo said, is about to becompleted showing that Dream Chaser can ride on an Atlas and attain the orbitdesired. ?It?s actually pretty good news,? he said.

DreamChaser is a multi-purpose vehicle, Sirangelo emphasized, that not only will beable to handle international space station work, but also will be capable ofserving as an orbital platform for space operations, including satelliteservicing. In addition, its design can handle the emerging space tourismmarketplace, either in suborbital or orbital mode, he said.

A fourthutility for Dream Chaser might involve the military by supplying point-to-pointtravel anywhere around the globe, Sirangelo said.

?We are arevenue and profit-producing company,? Sirangelo said, adding that the companywill bring in more than $35 million in 2007 revenue, from a dozen clients andabout 30 ongoing programs.

SpaceDevhas the ability to take some of its money and invest in research anddevelopment, Sirangelo said. A case in point is the SpaceDev docking andcapture hardware that was built for the Defense Advanced Research ProjectsAgency?s recentlycompleted Orbital Express mission.

While thatwas government-funded as a Small Business Innovation Research program,Sirangelo said that SpaceDev put its own time and money into the project togive 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 forsimilar motors for the Dream Chaser space plane. Sirangelo said that this typeof bootstrapping is akin to a triple word score in the game Scrabble.

Earlierthis month, SpaceDev announced it had been awarded three contracts to delivermore than 200 satellite components to Mitsubishi Electric Corp. In total, thecontract is valued at $800,000 and will provide hardware in support of severalcommercial satellites while expanding SpaceDev?s business in Japan.

SpaceDevalso has provided key mechanisms for NASA?s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, such asthe items now aboard the MarsPhoenix Lander, which is en route to the red planet. The company?s hardwarealso can be found on the long-lived Mars Exploration Rovers Spirit andOpportunity.

For thelong-term, Sirangelo said he envisions SpaceDev becoming a larger aerospacecompany that could be an active partner with major aerospace firms, ?by virtueof giving them a faster, more economical research arm.?

Tibbittssaid a powerful growth area for the company will be putting large deployablestructures on microsatellites. New and spacious SpaceDev facilities inLouisville, for instance, are being used to design and develop deployable boomstructures for satellites under subcontract from the Air Force ResearchLaboratory Space Vehicles Directorate.

Tibbittssaid the company sees great promise in building hardware for small satellites.?Technologically, there are things that are changing very quickly, particularlyin the area of memory and processor speed ? making small satellites more andmore capable.?

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Leonard David
Space Insider Columnist

Leonard David is an award-winning space journalist who has been reporting on space activities for more than 50 years. Currently writing as's Space Insider Columnist among his other projects, Leonard has authored numerous books on space exploration, Mars missions and more, with his latest being "Moon Rush: The New Space Race" published in 2019 by National Geographic. He also wrote "Mars: Our Future on the Red Planet" released in 2016 by National Geographic. Leonard  has served as a correspondent for SpaceNews, Scientific American and Aerospace America for the AIAA. He has received many awards, including the first Ordway Award for Sustained Excellence in Spaceflight History in 2015 at the AAS Wernher von Braun Memorial Symposium. You can find out Leonard's latest project at his website and on Twitter.