Industry: Electronics & Aerospace
CEO Dirk Wallinger aims to drive down costs with standardized small satellites that build on the model of an American manufacturing icon.
When Wallinger talks about the small satellite company he co-founded in 2015, he likens it to another company with a similar mission but in a completely different era. York Space Systems, he says, is like Ford Motor Company was in the early 1900s, making a new kind of travel possible for millions of people.
Ford, of course, created the mass-produced Model T that made auto travel possible for the average man on the street. York Space Systems' satellite version of the Model T is the S-1, which will go into production in 2017. Wallinger hopes it will make space missions more widespread.
"York is delivering a standardized platform," Wallinger says. "We're the Model T [of the satellite industry]. We're going to give more people access to space with a complete system. Our value add is the standardized platform. We'll have a complete solution by partnering with others [for components like launch vehicles, communications, and payloads].
"In the long term, it is a distinct possibility of 'everyman' access to space. But in the short term it is governments and industry. We want to be a standard folks can count on. We want to lower the barriers."
The first satellite with the S-1 platform is scheduled for launch in the third quarter of 2017, as part of the Harbinger Mission. The inaugural satellite will demonstrate an optical communications capability made by BridgeSat and also carry a synthetic aperture radar (SAR) system developed by Finland-based ICEYE. It is expected to eventually be part of a 10-satellite constellation, can be used to monitor climate, agriculture, disaster relief efforts, and general space data.
Another partner in the Harbinger Mission is Braxton Technologies of Colorado Springs, which Wallinger says provides software and operations strengths for mission operations and training. AAC Microtec is supplying the advanced command and data-handling avionics.
York Space Systems has more than 30 contracts and letters of intent to produce similar satellites for government and commercial customers using the S-1 platform. Among these is a $60 million deal with Vector Space Systems of Tucson, Arizona, for six satellite missions. Vector, founded by veterans of Elon Musk's SpaceX and other space companies, is making rockets to launch small satellites. The contract could be extended to 14 more missions.
Wallinger has an extensive background in the space industry. He was the lead engineer on a number of space vehicles, including DigitalGlobe's GeoEye-1, and has worked on several projects for Orbital Sciences, General Dynamics and Lockheed Martin, as well as NASA, the U.S. Air Force and Department of Defense.
York Space System's small satellites will be built in a manufacturing facility York Space Systems plans to open near York's downtown Denver headquarters. Details of the manufacturing plant's location have not been announced but the facility is expected to add about 10 employees when it starts building satellites in February or March.
When it is up and running, the manufacturing plant will be able to build at least one satellite every week, Wallinger says. He says the company built a prototype in just one day with two technicians working on it.
"Our competitors will never be able to do that," he says. "We've designed [the S-1 platform] for the smallest amount of labor, the fewest part counts and efficiency. We demonstrated it at the Tucson facility of [metal fabricator] Caid Industries."
The York satellites are larger than the tiny Cubesat satellites some other Colorado companies are working on. Where Cubesats are about the size of a tissue box and weigh 3 pounds, the S-1 satellites will weigh from less than 100 pounds to nearly 200 pounds and carry a much larger payload.
"I prefer to call [the S-1] a small satellite," Wallinger says. "The S-class will be our smallest and we can go up from there."
The biggest value of the S-1, he reiterates, is its standards-based platform that can be mass produced. "If you look at the car, if there is only one car built for one customer, it might cost $20 million, but if the design costs can be amortized across a wide base the cost for each one is much less. Our design costs are for hundreds."
Challenges: "The main challenge now is getting word out that there is a standardized spacecraft out there," says Wallinger. "Companies don't have to build and spend a lot of money on something that already exists. The challenge is getting people to stop recreating the wheel."
Opportunities: Wallinger notes, "Right now, we have a pretty mixed customer base, but it's also nontraditional. Our team has done this a lot before. We have the skill sets to solve the really difficult problems and we can do it again. We have a lot of customers because we've worked for them before. We have great relationships with government and are developing commercial [relationships]."
Needs: "We're focused on expansion," says Wallinger. "We have a mission next year and need to grow a little bit for that. We're focusing on capital and employees to launch. We're focusing on raising capital. A public IPO might be in the future but we're focused on executing now. That's the best way to make your company more valuable."