Sierra Nevada Corporation’s Space Systems

By Eric Peterson | Sep 15, 2015

Company Details


Louisville, Colorado

Employees: Space Systems: 330 (280 in Colorado); SNC has more than 3,000 employees

Privately owned by Sparks, Nevada-based Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC)

Founded: 1963 (SNC); 1997 (Space Systems, as SpaceDev, acquired in 2009)

Corporate VP Mark Sirangelo is launching the business into orbit -- and beyond -- over and over again.

SNC's Space Systems has been to space on more than 400 missions, and all over the Solar System.

In all, the company has sent 4,000 -- and counting -- devices to space, including the landing mechanism for the Curiosity rover on Mars. "We've been to Mars more times than any other company," says Sirangelo.

And that's just the first of numerous superlatives. "We just finished our mission to Pluto," he notes. "We were on New Horizons." Another upcoming mission will head in the other direction: towards the Sun. "We went from the furthest you can go to the closest you can go to the Sun."

Sirangelo likens the mechanisms that SNC's Space Technologies division makes for such spacecraft to "the brakes and transmission." But that's just the simplest way to describe the company's catalog of systems and subsystems that have to be both perfectly precise and able to withstand extreme conditions.

And that's one just one of three business segments in Colorado, along with Spacecraft Systems and Space Exploration Systems. "We are one of the leading manufacturers of small satellites in the world," Sirangelo says of the former.

With these "washing machine-sized or refrigerator-sized" satellites, "We're getting significant performance in a much smaller package," he says. "We will be able to cover the world 24/7."

The big client in 2015 is ORBCOMM, a data collection and management company, with a notably large order. "We are finishing the build and single launch of 11 satellites this fall," says Sirangelo. "It's not unprecedented, but it's pretty unique."

He says these next-generation satellites could catalyze new industries. "We are building the infrastructure not only for what we know today, but we could open up doors for people. We might be able to create whole new businesses."

From the Space Exploration Systems division, the Dream Chaser is the other marquee project at SNC.

Losing out on the NASA contract to transport commercial crew to the International Space Station last year -- ultimately awarded to Boeing and SpaceX -- was a setback, but Sirangelo sees a silver lining: "It was a challenge, but because we're very well diversified, we're able to weather that loss." It was a call to action, he adds. "We made the vehicle better."

A second test flight is slated for late 2015 to test the atmospherics as well as the software. "It basically flies itself," says Sirangelo. "It's fully automated -- it's not ground-controlled."

SNC has partnered with Lockheed Martin to build a second Dream Chaser as the vehicle is a finalist for NASA's cargo contract. Landing it "would mean a substantial amount of work for Dream Chaser and accelerate that process," he says.

When he's not manning the controls of SNC Space Systems, Sirangelo volunteers as Colorado's Chief Innovation Officer. "Colorado is in a fairly unique position," he says. "We have got a lot more substance than we talk about. From government to medical to aerospace, there are all types of innovation here."

"We're trying to highlight what's special about the state," he adds. "It's the people, really."

Challenges: Sirangelo says "the predictability of the U.S. government" is SNC's primary challenge. "There's a lot of paralysis becauses of the way we govern right now." Without a federal budget for 2016, "It's very difficult for people to plan. Ours is a business you can't run year to year."

But that's the nature of the industry, he adds. "We've been around a long time. This is our 25th year in space and we've weathered lots of ups and downs."

Opportunities: Growing demand for small satellites. "That market is going to grow substantially," says Sirangelo.

And of course the Dream Chaser: SNC is working with partners in Europe. Sirangelo says the company's best opportunity with NASA is as a cargo craft. "It's not theoretical anymore," he says of the vehicle.

Needs: Sirangelo again highlights "predictability from global clients” and notes, "We need to predict out years in advance. It's very difficult to predict out months now."

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Sierra Nevada Corporation’s Space Systems