Voice of the Modern Manufacturing Economy Since 2013

Deep Space Systems

by Eric Peterson on November 11, 2018, 10:40 am MST


Littleton, Colorado

Founded: 2001

Privately owned

Employees: 60

Industry: Electronics & Aerospace

Products: Spacecraft design, engineering services and support, and spacecraft camera systems

Founder and President Steve Bailey is a leading innovator in spacecraft design, and he's now moved into manufacturing.

Bailey has long had his eyes on the Red Planet. After working on the Space Shuttle program for NASA in the 1980s, he got involved with a series of Mars projects, beginning with the Mars Sample Return mission in 1990. "That got me hooked on Mars, and hooked on exploration," he says.

A few years later, Bailey turned down the opportunity to design the photovoltaic array for the International Space Station. The native Texan instead took a position as a systems engineer on the Mars Pathfinder at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California. "I wanted to build spaceships," says Bailey. "To the horror of my friends and family, I moved to Pasadena."

It was the era of "faster, better, cheaper" at NASA, he says, and the start of "a sustained assault on Mars."

When Lockheed won the contract for the Mars Polar Lander, Bailey first moved to the Rockies. "The next week I was on my way to Colorado to be embedded with Lockheed Martin working for the JPL," he says. Working as design lead for the lander "was my dream job."

There were several big projects underway at Lockheed's Deer Creek Canyon facility at the time. Bailey was involved in two of them, both Mars-related: the polar lander and Deep Space 2, a sub-surface probe.

Both failed. Neither made it to Mars in working condition.

"That left me reeling," says Bailey, who subsequently left NASA to work for a space-travel startup, BlastOff!, around the turn of the millennium. "When the bubble burst, we couldn't afford to make payments on our Lockheed Martin Athena II launch vehicle," he says.

In the early 2000s, Bailey landed a contract with Lockheed to help develop the proposal for the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) as an independent consultant.

There was an ulterior motive: "We were looking for redemption," he says.

And they found it: "We built that spaceship and launched that spaceship, and it's still orbiting Mars." The MRO has provided Earthlings with stunning, high-resolution images of Mars since 2005.

Bailey's design represented a milestone for reconnaissance satellites. "I came up with this design at 3 a.m. in the morning and everybody knew that was what would be built," says Bailey. "I was staying up all night looking at every design I could think of, and building little paper models of them."

The key innovation? "You will not see a spy satellite with that level of articulation on it. It shattered expectations of what could be done."

Bailey says the MRO "ushered in for Lockheed Martin a new generation of avionics" in the form of such projects as the Juno mission to Jupiter -- altogether, "$1 billion worth of wins for Lockheed Martin."

"That was the start of Deep Space Systems," he notes. The company was a one-man shop for several years. By 2004, Deep Space Systems hired its first employees, but needed a revamp to handle big contracts with numerous vendors.

"I had been fleeing project management," says Bailey. "I had an epiphany and sold the company for a song to my wife [Michelle Bailey] so she could start doing all the hard work and I could continue doing technical work ."

With Michelle as CEO and Karl Lauffer as vice president and CFO, "The three of us started to grow the company," says Bailey.

Part of that growth has remained tethered to Mars. Case in point: In 2006, Lockheed Martin won the contract for the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle with Deep Space System's help on the proposal. "It was a surprise to a lot of people that Lockheed Martin won that contract, but not to us," he says.

In 2009, Deep Space Systems was named NASA's Johnson Space Center Small Business Subcontracor of the Year, largely for its work on Orion's avionics system. "The avionics were too heavy and too big for the capsule," says Bailey. Deep Space Systems "completely re-architected the avionics," porting boxes to cards.

The design change had a $100 million-plus impact. "It proved to be the salvation of the program," laughs Bailey. "In a slightly different universe, we all got fired."

In 2013, Deep Space Systems again pivoted with an opportunity to help Lockheed Martin manage its supply chain. Hundreds of vendors were consolidated under a group of eight subcontractors, including Deep Space Systems.

The move propelled more growth: Revenues grew from $3 million in 2014 to $12 million in 2018 as the staff likewise quadrupled from 15 employees to 60.

While collaboration with Lockheed Martin drives the business, Deep Space Systems diversified with the development of satellite-ready cameras that matched the performance of consumer electronics in 2016. NASA "couldn't get the performance levels people were getting," says Bailey. Deep Space Systems subsequently took GoPro cameras, solid-state memory, and Wi-Fi radios to prototype ruggedized, space-ready camera systems for Orion and other spacecraft.

That's since turned into a full-fledged manufacturing operation. "For these cameras, we do everything," says Bailey. "We design the hardware. We build the chassis. We build our own electronic boards."

GoPro "have given us permission to hack the cameras," he adds. "They are very heavily modified."

The systems not only take amazing pictures, but they can also take "high-precision measurements of position and velocity," says Bailey. "In effect, it can fly itself home."

Deep Space Systems has since delivered hundreds of units to Lockheed, Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems, and Sierra Nevada Corp.'s Space Systems' Dream Chaser. The camera business now accounts for about a quarter of the company's revenue. "We're now out there now competing for and building hardware for multiple companies," says Bailey.

In October 2018, Deep Space Systems moved into a new 19,000-square-foot facility in southwest Littleton, consolidating five separate addresses into one in the process. The space encompasses offices, an electronics lab, production, testing for optical calibration and vibration of cameras, and a fully equipped machine shop.

Says Bailey: "It's very vertically integrated. We design here, build here, and test here. We try to minimize the stuff we don't do. . . . That helps us contain costs."

He also  touts the company's rapid prototyping capabilities. "All of the ideas go from brains to silicon to reality as fast as possible," he says. "We can do stuff here I didn't think was possible."

Which brings us back to Mars.

"All my life, I've been waiting for the future," says Bailey. "I'm really big into Mars exploration."

To date, he has worked on six different Mars projects, not to mention the missions in planning. Orion is at the center of all of the latter.

"We're aligned with Lockheed Martin because they're the thought leadership for Mars,"says Bailey. "A lot of people want to go to Mars, but if you want to look at things that have actually gone to Mars, that's all Lockheed Martin and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory."

After the Orion's successful uncrewed Exploration Flight Test-1 (EFT-1) in 2014, NASA has Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1) on the schedule for June 2020. Likewise uncrewed, Orion will spend three weeks in space, including six days orbiting the Moon.

The first crewed Orion mission, Exploration Mission-2 (EM-2), is currently planned for 2023. The mission has a crew of four on a three-week journey into space, including a lunar flyby.

Humans could walk on Mars as soon as 2033, and Bailey aims for Deep Space Systems to be a big part of the mission. The vision involves a Mars Base Camp of an orbiting spacecraft and sortie lander.

It's largely about harvesting a key ingredient from the Martian surface. "Water is what drives this whole economy," he says. "Water is everything you need for life -- for breathing, for drinking, for propellent."

The concept animation developed by Deep Space Systems "has been catching the imagination of space intelligentsia, and the public's imagination," says Bailey. "It's all about funding and money, but technology-wise, this is all doable right now."

Challenges: Getting the new facility up to speed. With AS9100B certification completed, there are still a few more hoops. "Each of our customers needed to review and approve the facility where their flight hardware is built," says Bailey. "We've just about finished that process."

Opportunities: "We're looking to grow the market for space imaging and in-space surveillance," says Bailey. To this end, Deep Space Systems is working on a pair of CubeSat missions: a Mars orbiter and a lunar satellite with ground-penetrating radar.

Another opportunity: "We're competing for a NASA contract called CLPS [Commercial Lunar Payload Services]," says Bailey. If the company wins, it will be in the "catalog" to provide design and development services to ferry small payloads to the Moon. CLPS is NASA's lunar counterpart to COTS, which offers transportation to and from the International Space Station.

Deep Space Systems is also in the midst of negotiations for a technical services contract with Lockheed Martin. "We're negotiating a separate contract that's outside the previous contract we had," says Bailey.

Needs: "It really is all about people," says Bailey. "It's almost 100 percent about the people. The technology is neat, the hardware is neat, but without people to breathe life into that, you don't have anything." He says Deep Space Systems is always looking for two kinds of engineers: "absolute experts" in one area and "jacks-of-all-trades."

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