Taking the Entrepeneurial Spirit to the Stars

Taking the Entrepeneurial Spirit to the Stars

By Chad Morris

Scott Tibbets is the founder of Starsys, the creator of the Robotic Chemical Analysis Laboratory, which contains one of the most sophisticated autotomated soil sampling and analysis systems in the world.

Scott Tibbets is the founder of Starsys, the creator of the Robotic Chemical Analysis Laboratory, which contains one of the most sophisticated autotomated soil sampling and analysis systems in the world.

Despite the recent announcement that Boeing would, by 2007, close its Pueblo, Colo., operation, where the Delta 3 and 4 rockets are manufactured, Colorado’s space economy continues its skyward trajectory with numerous small to midsize companies picking up where the major aerospace companies have left off.

According to a report created by the Colorado Space Council, a department of the Colorado Technology Alliance, Colorado’s space industry currently generates approximately 38,000 direct industry jobs and about 75,000 indirect jobs. According to the council’s executive director, Trip Carter, this total of 113,000 jobs can be expected to increase to 232,000 jobs by 2010, despite the sluggish economy.

“The space industry, because it’s still largely based on government contracts, tends not to track with the general economy,” says Carter.
Current Colorado space industry revenue and government expenditures are expected to increase from the current level of at least $3.3 billion to nearly $7 billion by the year 2010, according to Carter. [pic}

There are more than 100 companies in the state of Colorado that comprise the state’s space industry, providing materials, equipment, software and services for the space infrastructure, such as rocket boosters and satellite components, and to end users of space applications, such as satellite television and imagery.

Companies such Lockheed Martin, maker of the Titan rocket booster, and Ball Aerospace fall into the former category, while EchoStar and Digital Globe, which provides a variety of Earth imagery to private companies and governments, fall into the latter.

Several key military organizations, like the Space Command in Colorado Springs, which provides national security functions using space assets and the space infrastructure, have over the years acted as a magnet for attracting the space industry, said Carter.

And, thanks to the number of universities and research facilities, Colorado has performed exceptionally well in procuring NASA funding for a wide variety of projects. Despite the lack of a major NASA facility in the state, Colorado ranked eighth in 1999 among recipients of NASA funds and first among state without NASA facilities. Moreover, Colorado ranked third in NASA funds received by educational institutions during 1999, with more than $68 million flowing into educational coffers.

Starsys: An interplanetary success story

On the outside, it doesn’t look like much: a cylindrical metal container about nine inches wide and a foot tall with a small grated opening sprouting off one side of the top. But inside this innocuous looking object is one of the most sophisticated automated soil sampling and analysis systems in the world. And by 2007, it may be the only automated soil sampling and analysis system on Mars.

Officially named the Robotic Chemical Analysis Laboratory, but called “Rascal” by most people, the device was developed by Starsys Research, a 100-person aerospace engineering firm located just outside of Boulder. Created through a Small Business Innovation Research contract for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Rascal is designed as a component of an as-yet unassigned unmanned exploration vehicle. The company hopes it could be part of an actual mission as early as 2007.

A robot arm on the vehicle would scoop soil into the RCAL, which uses a series of filters to sort the soil and then adds water and chemicals to perform a variety of tests to determine the composition of the Martian landscape. The results of the tests can be beamed back to Earth, enabling scientists to analyze the data immediately instead of waiting months or years for samples to be returned to Earth.

“The idea of performing ‘wet’ chemistry isn’t really something that’s ever been done in space,” says Scott Tibbitts, who founded Starsys in 1988 and today serves as the company’s president. “And we’ve created a commercial version of this device that can be sold to anyone planning a mission to Mars.”
To date, the company has two orders for the RCAL, which sells for around $150,000, and a third order pending.

And, as if developing the first wet chemistry set for use on another planet isn’t enough, Starsys recently announced it would provide the articulated antenna mount for the Deep Impact Mission, to be launched in 2004. The mission will send an unmanned spacecraft to within about 65 miles of the comet Tempel 1, where it will launch a sensor-loaded “impactor” into the comet. The antenna must have extremely accurate positioning in order to transmit data back to Earth and the Starsys antenna pointing system (APM) will be a critical piece to its success.

Carter said that the idea of developing a viable commercial business model has been a perennial goal of the space industry for decades. A lot of the barriers to succeeding comes from the way most government contractors have operated for decades—waiting for the government agency to issue a request for proposal and then responding to it. This isn’t the private sector model of determining market needs, then proactively developing a product to meet that need and marketing to the target customer.

But, in a business known more for cost overruns and few consumer by-products, Starsys has succeeded where even the industry’s giants have failed, largely by failing to fall into the classic model of a government contractor.

The company achieved financial breakeven in 1993, and had estimated revenues of $14 million in 2002. Its supplied components, from hinges that deploy solar panels to articulated antenna mounts, for more than 200 spacecraft, boast a 100 percent operational success rate.

In 2000, it acquired the American Technology Consortium, a manufacturer of motors for robot arms and other mechanized spacecraft systems. The acquisition has enabled Starsys to provide more end-to-end products to the aerospace industry.

The secret to their success? According to Tibbitts, it’s the company’s commitment to what it calls “fixed-cost development.” In short, fixed-price development means creating a product that meets the contractor’s requirements while staying within the contractor’s budget. While that’s a fairly standard practice in private industry, NASA and others involved in the space business have rarely been required to operate under such constraints.

While cost was of little concern during the early days of the space program and even into the early era of the space shuttle, it’s become a paramount concern at NASA in recent years as the agency worked to create a “faster, better, cheaper” system of delivering people and materials into orbit. And it’s sought out people who can help them learn to operate in a cost-sensitive environment.

“I believe the basic concept of fixed-price development work is sound,” says Tibbitts. “Despite the recent shift in NASA away from the faster-better-cheaper philosophy of the 1990s, there continues to be a drive to rein in the costs of space flight development.”

Tibbitts was recently invited to address NASA’s Masters Forum, a meeting of NASA’s top program managers where best practices from within the agency and from outside companies are shared.

“The program managers who can succeed in this environment are the ones who love the business side of a program more than the engineering,” says Tibbitts. “They’re the ones who’ve developed an entrepreneurial attitude about program management as opposed to the ones who just want to focus on the engineering aspects.”