While a difficult time for many, aerospace had a busy year. There were 18 acquisitions, 2 SPACs announced, and nearly 1,300 satellites launched—to name a few.
Atomos’ year began as nearly everything begins in start-up land: with a flurry of activity. We had just started our Phase I AFWERX contract, a three-month sprint to secure a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) from a government end-user and customer for our orbital transfer vehicles. It was a number of meetings, even more emails, a flight, and a precarious drive to Colorado Springs through a blizzard to meet the Chief Data Officer of the newly formed United States Space Force.
In Q1 2020, we hired another engineer, responded to the Defense Innovation Unit’s Multi-Orbit Logistics Vehicle solicitation (DIU mOLV), submitted a strong AFWERX Phase II proposal, hosted Chief Architect of NASA Space Technology Mission Directorate in Denver to discuss our thoughts on the state and future of space nuclear, and watched the world enter lockdown. The team transitioned well to remote work. As of today, no one on the Atomos team, thankfully, contracted COVID-19—though William’s multi-month recovery from pneumonia, trips to the hospital, and chest x-rays question the accuracy of the early antibody tests.
Though we had made it to the final round, having presented in-person to the reviewers in March, DIU did not move forward with our mOLV solicitation (we’re still unsure if anyone won in the category to which we proposed). Our main detractor was the relative size of the team at the time, but DIU applauded our technical choices and unique solutions to the challenges of spacecraft rendezvous and scalability. It was not news for which we had hoped, but it confirmed that we were moving in the right direction.
We planned to raise $5M during the spring, but COVID made the world uncertain. When we learned that we won an AFWERX Phase II ($1.5M) and would receive PPP and EIDL loans through the CARES Act, we chose to focus on building. Within days of PPP clearing the bank, we hired three amazing summer interns. We built mission simulation tools, designed hardware, finished a propulsion system test, and completed our Conceptual Design Review for the first mission. A few weeks later, it was time for Vanessa to overtake William in accrued hospital bills; we welcomed our daughter, Adelaide, into the world.
Maternity and paternity leave for co-founders is code for: check emails and Slack, but no calendar invites. With a newborn on our laps and a coffee table checkered with index cards, we mixed and matched engineers we had interviewed in the prior weeks—balancing experience, potential, attitude, and budget against what we wanted to achieve in the coming months. Offers went out and were accepted. The Slack directory was now double digits.
Our AFWERX contract was going well; each review with our Technical Point of Contact (TPOC, or tee-pock, in DoD parlance), ended with “you guys are doing a bang-up job.” Interest grew with other government agencies, and in the last few months we had a number of meetings with NASA, Space Force, and the Air Force Research Laboratory. We’re formalizing outcomes from those meetings, which we’re excited to share once it’s made public.
Space nuclear has always been Atomos’ long-term goal, and while current engineering work is on non-nuclear systems, our regulatory activism has paid dividends. Our involvement is why the NASA Chief Architect flew out to meet with us; we secured our AFWERX MOU from connections made at nuclear policy meetings. When Atomos began in 2018, regulation around commercial space nuclear systems was nebulous.
We worked hard on this issue, with our first victory last summer with the _Presidential Memorandum on Launch of Spacecraft Containing Space Nuclear Systems_. Another victory arrived when we received an invitation from the a to attend a private, government meeting (virtual, of course) to discuss questions related to Space Policy Directive 6, Memorandum on the National Strategy for Space Nuclear Power and Propulsion. Momentum for space nuclear technology continues, and Atomos remains at the vanguard of these conversations.
Despite a world-wide pandemic, Atomos had a successful year. Yet, none of this would have been possible without the incredible support and effort of our investors, advisors, consultants, and, most importantly, team: Sandy Pitzak, Wayne Boncyk, Dave Hodge, Chad Smith, Sam Piper, Scott Piggott, Isabella Katzman, Lucas Beveridge, and Kieran Wilson.
We’re funded until Q4 2021 with no additional capital or revenue, but we are ready to grow and put stuff into space. As such, we’re pursuing new contracts related to our AFWERX Phase II. These opportunities are in three forms: Tactical Funding Increase (TACFI), Strategic Funding Increase (STRATFI), and Phase III. The first option is a sub $2M award while the second and third range from $3M to $15M each (a Phase III could go much higher with the right government support). We have a number of interested parties and are currently working to capitalize on the opportunities. It’s important to note that the two larger contracts are not mutually exclusive, and we will pursue both simultaneously. Combined with a $5M private investment fundraise, on which we are currently working, we feel confident in our first mission reaching orbit on-time.
By the end of 2021, we expect to have a team of 20 – 30, depending on contract success. Most will be technical (hardware and software), but we’ll add business development and operations support as well. The expanded team will help us complete our Critical Design Review and qualification tests for both Quark and Gluon spacecraft this year. This sets us up for launch in early 2022.