While most immediately think of NASA and astronauts, civil space accounts for just a third of all government space activities in the U.S. Satellites are critical infrastructure for the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD), and investing in technologies to support that infrastructure is one of the catalysts behind the launch of the United States Space Force, USSF. As such, opportunities with government funding for development and testing has never been higher for Atomos—in civil or defense.
Satellites support nearly every DoD operation. From communication, to navigation, to GPS, to Earth observation, space provides valuable information to decision makers. When satellites that are able to perform these tasks are in the wrong orbital position, unable to cover an emerging conflict zone, the ability to communicate, gather intelligence, or have reliable navigation is compromised. To fill all potential gaps, the DoD would need to greatly increase their satellite fleets. Their budget may have more zeros, but even the DoD doesn’t have infinite resources. They, too, need lower costs to place satellites in space, particularly beyond low Earth orbit (LEO), which is strategically important as LEO has vulnerabilities. As is true with our commercial customers, placing satellites in higher orbits costs considerably more. This cost-benefit trade compromises the performance of DoD satellite systems.
“Virtually every major U.S. military space system is facing a planned upgrade or replacement over the coming decade, at an estimated cost of some $60 billion… All of these options are competing for scarce resources within the Air Force budget, and hard choices will have to be made and impediments removed if those options are to be realized .”
Atomos’ Orbital Transfer Vehicles (OTVs) address these shortcomings through launch cost reduction, increased launch flexibility, and our unique ability to rendezvous with and relocate satellites already on-orbit. Atomos provided and received input from various DoD stakeholders on how our commercial solution fill various mission needs. In the last few months, we’ve received a Letter of Support from the U.S. Space Force, participated in the U.S. Airforce’s National Security Launch Architecture study, proceeded to the second round for a Defense Innovation Unit proposal to develop an OTV prototype, and spoke to Air Force units in the U.S. during our Phase I AFWERX SBIR Contract, which culminated with an Memorandum of Understanding with the Space Development Agency.
Beyond in-space transportation, Atomos’ long-term goal of space nuclear has increased interest at the DoD, particularly with DARPA’s DRACO program. We’ve had several meetings with the program director on how Atomos can play a part in this large initiative.
Atomos’ power and propulsion technologies is an obvious solution for deep space and exploration mission for NASA, but our systems also solve NASA’s needs nearer to Earth. Similar to the Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) that enable commercial companies to fly cargo to the International Space Station , NASA wants commercial companies to fly cargo to the future Lunar Gatway This $7B program, which seeks repeated cargo delivery of 4,400kg to the Gateway in lunar orbit, is a perfect fit for Atomos’ Proton and Neutron OTVs .
Like the DoD, NASA is giving space nuclear a renewed look and renewed funding. The NASA budget, issued by The White House, allocated $100M to space nuclear—now its own line item. This amount increases to $257M by 2025. As stated in the Congressional Justification:
The foundation for these capabilities is in focused technology development across four major elements:
(1) nuclear fission power to establish electric power reactor designs to support Artemis; and within Nuclear Propulsion:
(2) nuclear fuel and reactor development,
(3) nuclear fission power and propulsion study assessments, and
(4) nuclear fission propulsion subsystem development.
Working with the U.S. Government
Agencies are shaping procurement around existing or planned commercial products and services, reducing the need for commercial companies to tailor products for a government buyer. Incumbent, Prime Contractors aren’t the only ones winning contracts now. From 2000 to 2018, entrepreneurial space companies received $7.2B in public funding. The U.S. Government, and the DoD especially, realize that reinventing the wheel is expensive and see that it’s more cost-effective to find existing or emerging solutions that can solve their problems from non-traditional suppliers.
Funding cycles driven by politics can add uncertainty and deters reliance public funding, but a balanced approach of commercial and government markets diversifies the risk of both and increases our chance of success. There are many examples of how successful this has been, but most notable among entrepreneurial aerospace companies is SpaceX. NASA funded a significant portion of SpaceX’s Dragon Capsule and Falcon 9 development and SpaceX continues to earn nearly half of their launch revenue from the U.S. government .
We are cautious to pursue opportunities that closely align with our commercial development plans. In these early years, it’s important to avoid distractions and remain focused. But if there is money on the table, we’ll certainly evaluate the risks and benefits. We’re always looking for interesting opportunities that provide dilutive capital to move the mission forward. Here are some upcoming opportunities we’re exploring.
“US satellites and military space systems should be designated a critical infrastructure” – Commercial Spaceflight Federation Annual Members meeting 9/17/2019, guest speaker JP Parker, Intelligence Community Space Executive, ODNI.
U.S. Government Accountability Office. (2014). “The Air Force’s Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle Competitive Procurement.” Retrieved fromhttps://www.gao.gov/assets/670/661330.pdf
Fmr Airforce Secretary Heather Wilson, Keynote at 35th Space Symposium, 04/09/2019https://spacenews.com/air-force-secretary-wilson-fires-back-at-sda-satellites-in-leo-cant-replace-legacy-systems/
Memorandum, Long-Term S&T Challenges, AFSPC, 08/05/2016https://www.afspc.af.mil/Portals/3/documents/CC Sign – Long Term ST Challenges Memo 2016 (hi-res).pdf?ver=2016-08-16-145448-310
RAND Space Commission Report, p. 15. 146 Mastering the Ultimate High Ground, MR1649https://www.rand.org/pubs/monograph_reports/MR1649.html
Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency