Seeding the future of space warfare

Tyler Mitchell By Tyler Mitchell Jul5,2024

As the United States and China compete for space dominance, the Pentagon is tapping the private sector to maintain its edge. Enter SpaceWERX, a relatively unknown entity within the U.S. Space Force that is serving as the military’s bridge to cutting-edge commercial space technology.

Based in Los Angeles, SpaceWERX is making bets on startups and small businesses to the tune of about $460 million a year in research and development contracts.

“We are not just building widgets or just doing studies. We’re actually trying to build end-to-end capabilities,” says Arthur Grijalva, director of SpaceWERX. 

Grijalva joined the organization last fall. Since then, “my focus has been on how we can bring more commercial capabilities into the programs of record,” he tells SpaceNews.

SpaceWERX has set a goal to help guide promising space technologies through the “valley of death,” he adds, referring to the gap between early-stage funding and the point where a technology becomes commercially viable or ready for large-scale government adoption.

Small business funding

Projects run by SpaceWERX leverage SBIR/STTR funds — short for Small Business Innovation Research/Small Business Technology Transfer. These are U.S. government programs set aside for domestic small businesses engaged in research and development with commercialization potential. 

Before joining SpaceWERX, Grijalva worked on multibillion-dollar military space programs under the Space Systems Command. 

“In my experience working with the big primes, they’re really integral to U.S. efforts. But if we can tap into the innovation that’s coming out of small businesses, there’s just so much ingenuity there that you could get a lot more bang for your buck,” he says. “So you might be able to get 80% of your requirements for 20% of the cost. So that’s what I’m trying to bring in.”

SpaceWERX, with a staff of about 50 people, operates under the Space Systems Command’s Commercial Space Office but its corporate parent is AFWERX, the Department of the Air Force’s tech investment arm that doles out about $1.4 billion a year in SBIR/STTR contracts.

With China making strides in space technology, the U.S. military is under pressure to accelerate its innovation cycle. The Space Force is targeting key “mission areas” that it wants to modernize such as in-orbit surveillance, in-space data communications, on-orbit logistics and advanced satellite maneuvering.

SpaceWERX is trying to tackle these priorities “by taking bite-sized chunks out of each mission area, and teaming with government entities to see how we can transition technologies out of R&D,” Grijalva says. 

Strategic funding available

SBIR/STTR agreements act as a springboard, offering seed funding that starts at $250,000, but can lead to much larger endeavors, the largest of which are STRATFI (Strategic Financing Initiative) deals, which bring as much as $30 million in additional government funding. 

Only a handful of companies get STRATFI deals, which are made possible by program offices interested in accelerating particular technologies. Typically they include $15 million from AFWERX and $15 million from a program office, and these funds are then matched by private investors.

Otherwise, “it’s really hard to get past the valley of death,” says Grijalva. “Even if you get a STRATFI, it only maybe gets you up to a tech demo in space, but there’s still a lot of work that needs to be done to operationalize those tech demos to get into a program.”

SpaceWERX so far in 2024 has announced five STRATFI agreements:

Satellite-servicing startup Starfish Space will perform a mission in geostationary orbit by 2026, docking and attaching to a military client satellite to provide maneuver capabilities.

Lunar Outpost will develop software that enables advanced robotic systems and spacecraft to act as autonomous swarms. 

Defense Unicorns will develop software and cybersecurity solutions for U.S. launch systems that support the Eastern and Western launch ranges.

Skyloom will develop optical communications infrastructure in support of a mesh network in space to connect U.S. military and allies. 

Satellite communications specialist Astranis will develop a software-defined radio capable of performing signal processing tasks and change its configuration so operators can reroute a signal around adversarial interference. 

SpaceWERX is also supporting space projects in partnership with the Defense Innovation Unit, a Pentagon organization that identifies promising technologies with potential military applications and fast-tracks prototypes in a streamlined acquisition process.

For example, both organizations collaborated on a “tactically responsive space” demonstration awarded earlier this year to Rocket Lab and True Anomaly.

DIU helped fund a $32 million contract for Rocket Lab to design, build, launch and operate a rendezvous and proximity operation-capable spacecraft in late 2025. The startup True Anomaly got a $30 million contract to build a second rendezvous and proximity operation-capable spacecraft for the demonstration. The company was selected from a pool of SpaceWERX-funded businesses that participated in a tactically responsive space challenge competition.

In the tactically responsive space challenge, SpaceWERX received 302 submissions and ended up awarding $34 million to 17 companies.

Aligned with operators’ needs

Grijalva notes that SpaceWERX is being strategic in how it selects projects based on actual operators’ needs. “We work with the program offices, we ask them what they need help with,” he says. Combatant command organizations, particularly U.S. Space Command and U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, are increasingly informing SpaceWERX priorities.

Soon after taking over SpaceWERX, Grijalva says he heard from senior leadership in the Space Force that they had concerns that SBIR/STTR efforts were not aligned with service needs. “Even though we were making lots of investments throughout the ecosystem, we weren’t putting enough focus on the top priorities for the Space Force,” and that needed to change, he adds.

Whereas traditional military programs work on 10 to 20 year timelines, Grijalva says, SpaceWERX is focused on “now to five years out, on capabilities that we can deliver to the warfighter.”

Lessons from Orbital Prime

One of SpaceWERX’s early projects is Orbital Prime, launched in 2021 with a focus on in-space mobility and servicing technologies. 

Grijalva says the program has provided useful lessons on the Space Force’s capabilities and limitations in trying to “birth a commercial market by making strategic investments into an area that we care about,” Grijalva says. 

He cites Starfish Space as a notable success story from Orbital Prime, as the company is now working under a STRATFI agreement on a servicing vehicle for an on-orbit demonstration. 

More than three dozen startups are still working on projects under Orbital Prime SBIR/STTR contracts.

SpaceWERX hired Ellen Chang, head of ventures at the consulting firm BMNT, to advise a cohort of Orbital Prime startups and help them network with government buyers and private investors. BMNT also provides SpaceWERX with a portfolio view of how the cohort companies are performing, assessing risks to fundraising, product development and commercialization opportunities.

Chang says SpaceWERX’s leadership has shown a “willingness to try things” rather than adhering to business as usual. “They don’t think about just commercialization, they’re thinking about market creation,” she tells SpaceNews.

However, Chang cautions that despite some success stories, the broader impact of Orbital Prime in creating and “priming” a market remains to be seen. “I think we’re halfway. We still don’t have a vibrant commercial model funding all these companies yet. It’s going to take a while.”

The Orbital Prime initiative has sparked important discussions about SpaceWERX’s potential role in shaping market sectors, with emphasis on understanding the private investment climate, Chang says, warning that premature venture capital investment “before there is a market could be a disaster.”

Challenges in transitioning

The most frequent question Grijalva gets from startups and venture investors is about the transition process: What does it take for a small business that has scored SBIR/STTR wins to reach commercial viability and military programs of record?

He acknowledges that there are no easy answers. “A lot of these investments take time to mature and for us to actually pull those in.” Grijalva says he consistently emphasizes the importance of commercial viability.

“What I tell them is that while we appreciate what they do to help the Space Force, it’s crucial not to rely solely on government contracts,” he says, noting that SpaceWERX also wants to know if a company has a viable commercial strategy.

This thinking aligns with senior Space Force leadership’s vision of partnering with dual-use companies rather than expanding the traditional defense contractor base. Grijalva adds. “This is where we can provide the greatest value. Beyond providing contracts and resources, we facilitate connections to private capital and diverse customers, helping companies develop and showcase their innovations.”

As military spending tightens, the Space Force is counting on SpaceWERX to develop useful tools and technologies, he says. In that vein, the Space Force intends to leverage investments made by SpaceWERX, DIU and the Commercial Space Office “to pull commercial technologies into the missions.”

SpaceWERX meanwhile is trying to improve how it communicates “demand signals” to industry so private investors can better support companies that are seeking government contracts.

“Quantifying demand signals and converting future needs projections into tangible data is complex,” says Grijalva. “We’re implementing initiatives to track how expenditures translate into venture capital investment.”

Despite the challenges, Grijalva remains upbeat about SpaceWERX’s future. “These investments will pay off and make a tangible impact,” he predicts. “Our goal is to harness American innovation and channel it into Space Force programs. The opportunities ahead are significant.”

This article first appeared in the July 2024 issue of SpaceNews Magazine.

Tyler Mitchell

By Tyler Mitchell

Tyler is a renowned journalist with years of experience covering a wide range of topics including politics, entertainment, and technology. His insightful analysis and compelling storytelling have made him a trusted source for breaking news and expert commentary.

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