Can Truck Stops in Space Drive Colorado’s Economy?

Orbiting truck stops were just one of the ideas pitched recently at a downtown event in Colorado Springs as startup space companies worked to woo military and defense megafirms to invest in their plans.

by Tom Roeder, The Gazette / November 5, 2019
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(TNS) — It’s all part of the revolution that U.S. Space Command and the Pentagon’s venture-capitalist approach to satellites is bringing to the Pikes Peak region.

But it sure sounds like Colorado Springs is getting a couple of additional truck stops, with plenty of gas and a fleet of tow trucks. In space.

And those orbiting truck stops aren’t a science fiction fever dream. They are some of the ideas pitched at Catalyst Campus downtown as startup space companies wooed the military and old-school defense megafirms to buy into their plans.

Rich Burchfield, who heads Catalyst Accelerator, a tech incubator focused on space, said Colorado Springs is finding its future in those wild ideas.

“This community wants to support these companies and help them be successful,” he said.

The military is increasingly pinning its hopes on startups, too. The U.S. Space Command is led by Gen. Jay Raymond, who has made a mantra out of telling the military and the defense industry to go faster.

Companies from startup rocket builder Space-X to three-piece-suited Lockheed Martin have answered the call with new satellites and faster and cheaper ways to launch them off the planet.

And with Catalyst, new firms are joining the fray and gaining considerable attention.

“The force of innovation that’s being driven here attracts us,” said Brandon Florian, a business development expert with the California-based aerospace accelerator Starburst, who traveled to Colorado Springs to check out the ideas brewing at the foot of Pikes Peak.

“It’s an innovative culture here,” he said.

Colorado Springs has been home to the military’s space efforts since the 1970s.

Air Force Space Command and U.S. Space Command are housed here along with the Army’s Space and Missile Defense Command.

The military’s space defense headquarters is at Peterson Air Force Base, and most of the military’s satellites are flown from Schriever Air Force Base. The military has driven much of Colorado’s space economy, which is the nation’s second-largest.

To help new businesses cash in on the space economy, Catalyst opened its doors in 2016 off Pikes Peak Avenue. It spans several buildings, including an old train station that once welcomed adventurers with dreams of riches from the Cripple Creek gold strike.

Daniel Faber, CEO of California startup OrbitFab, brought his dream of riches to the station, too.

“Companies in space are looking for innovation,” Faber said.

His idea: Orbiting gas stations to refuel satellites and space vehicles.

“There are actually 30 companies that are building tow trucks in space,” Faber said. “Even the tow trucks have only one tank of gas.”

Putting a Conoco in orbit may sound strange to the uninitiated. But satellites have had fuel issues since Sputnik.

Now, satellites are launched from the Earth with a fixed amount of fuel for maneuvers in space. Satellites have to move to avoid space junk, redirect their antennas, or to overfly a new part of the planet.

But when the machines that cost millions or even billions to put into orbit run out of maneuvering fuel, they go from high-tech tool to orbiting trash instantly.

Faber’s plan is to have a supply of fuel in orbit that can be used by a robotic space repair vehicles to keep satellites running indefinitely.

“One potential future is the immortal satellite platform,” he said.

Faber made friends at the Colorado Springs conference, buddying up with a firm that plans to build orbiting tow trucks.

For Eric Brown, who heads military space mission strategy for Lockheed Martin, the new ideas are exciting. His firm is America’s largest defense contractor, with contracts ranging from fighter jets to GPS satellites.

But the military, which used to wait years to take delivery of new satellites, is telling contractors to pick up the pace.

“We can’t afford to be slow,” Brown said.

The new pace of military space is being driven from the top.

President Donald Trump has taken an interest in military space programs that’s unprecedented.

He’s ordered the creation of U.S. Space Command in Colorado Springs and is pushing Congress to approve a new armed service branch, which will oversee satellite missions.

“We have the Space Force happening,” Trump said, after talking to astronauts at the International Space Station this month. “That’s going along very nicely, as you know.”

The urgency in Washington is pushed by rivals, including Russia and China, that have shown off anti-satellite capabilities that could counter America’s decades-long hammerlock on the use of assets in space to help troops on the ground.

The American military relies on satellites to navigate, communicate, gather intelligence and provide precise targeting of bombs, missiles and even a new class of artillery shells.

Leaders worry that losing a battle in space could mean losing a war on the planet below.

And that’s given an urgency that’s even cutting through the Pentagon’s legendarily strong red tape.

“The defense community has been historically reliant on a rather rigid requirements process,” Brown explained. “With the new environment, you see a lot of that diversity coming in.”

Diversity includes companies such as Xona Space Systems, a startup with offices in Canada and the U.S. that’s hoping to launch up to 300 miniature satellites that would be a backup for the Global Positioning System.

Xona sent a team to Catalyst to pitch its plans. Brian Manning, co-founder of Xona, said the idea centers on cheap satellites built in big numbers.

The commercialized version of GPS, something the Air Force offers for free, could have a market with companies, including those inventing self-driving cars that need a higher degree of accuracy than GPS offers and reliability even if a war hits space.

“It is arguably cheaper for us to keep putting satellites up than it is for someone to shoot them down,” he said.

And with more than a billion GPS users worldwide, Manning predicts a gold rush in his sector of the satellite business.

“There is a tidal wave coming to the high-performance navigation market,” he predicted.

The Air Force has a new program aimed at getting cash to small startups quickly to take advantage of new ideas like Manning’s.

At the Space Symposium in Colorado Springs this year, then-Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson said her troops were spending money in such an unprecedented fashion that new rules for putting massive purchases on government credit cards had to be enacted.

Catalyst’s Burchfield is working to make sure that the gold rush that has ensued comes home to Colorado Springs.

The two-day conference was about linking the small contractors with big firms. Brown from Lockheed was in a crowd that included scouts for tech giants, including Microsoft.

It was also about getting those startups to plant roots in Colorado Springs.

“My hope is that through these two days, we really want you to feel like you are part of town,” Burchfield said. “You plug in and you are part of something incredibly successful.”

©2019 The Gazette (Colorado Springs, Colo.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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