ORBITEC’s future points to commercial space stations

Branch Rickey, the man who brought Jackie Robinson to the major leagues, is famous for that pioneering move and some other things, including the following bit of wisdom: “Luck is the residue of design.”

What luck has to do with the growth of Orbital Technologies Corp. (ORBITEC) is anyone’s guess, but there’s no doubt design has a great deal to do with it. With roughly 50 engineering and scientific minds focused on problem-solving, the Madison-based aerospace company has a very product-oriented future. Increasingly, those products are produced as much for commercial aerospace companies that want to build a space station as they are for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

If at the outset of the company in 1988, the three original founders had been told that ORBITEC someday would compete with aerospace giants for NASA business, or partner with them on NASA’s behalf, they might have recommended therapy. Along the way, however, it has won numerous Small Business Innovative Research contracts for engineering services and research and development, primarily for NASA and the military. Nearly 300 contracts worth over $170 million have been awarded to ORBITEC to date, including 15 current SBIR grants.

“Every contract we have, we have a deliverable that is sometimes something as simple as a report, and in most cases includes prototypes, software, or other deliverables,” said President Tom Crabb, one of the original founders.

But a new chapter, one that has been unfolding for the past five years, has commercial space work competing with government work – it’s now a 50-50 split – a trend that is likely to continue.

Propelling growth

ORBITEC has developed propulsion systems, environmental controls, and life-support systems for human space flight, and it is moving toward propulsion, life support, and transportation vehicles for the next generation of low-earth-orbit commercial space stations. It is bidding against what Crabb calls “some major aerospace primes” to win space station developments.

Marty Gustafson, commercial applications research manager for ORBITEC, said there are 15 to 20 commercial space companies that will provide launch vehicles, cargo vehicles, and crew modules for commercial space stations. “These opportunities didn’t exist before, so it’s a brand-new market for ORBITEC, and for a lot of the things that we do,” Gustafson said.

Those companies include Bigelow Aerospace, which is one of ORBITEC’s largest customers, and organizations like SpaceX, Sierra Nevada Corp., and Blue Origins. All are companies started by millionaires like Elon Musk (best known for co-founding PayPal), Microsoft’s Paul Allen, and Richard Branson of The Virgin Group. Robert Bigelow, who started Bigelow Aerospace, is a billionaire Las Vegas real estate developer starting his own aerospace company.

“Once we got into growing plants in a controlled environment, we saw we could grow biomass in plants up to 50 times more productively than any field crop on earth.” – Tom Crabb, president, ORBITEC

Not that work for NASA and others has become an afterthought. ORBITEC has been involved with closing the “loop of life support,” which still is an engineering challenge for the space agency. The loop involves keeping life support activities going without any resupply of water, food, and air. Crabb does not believe that a 100% closed system will be achieved, but he believes the mid-90s is possible. “We’re much further along in understanding how to do that with a very hyper-biologic approach than we’ve ever been,” he said.

That concept is not only applicable to space, and it’s the investigation of broader applications that give ORBITEC so much growth potential. “So you look at that problem and say, how can this benefit other places?” Crabb asked. “This is where we got into controlled environments. Once we got into growing plants in a controlled environment, we saw we could grow biomass in plants up to 50 times more productively than any field crop on earth.

“Then we started getting into thinking that pretty soon we’ll be able to grow salads and gardens locally, but it’s really expensive right now. It’s cost prohibitive, so from a commercial market perspective, the costs are going to have to balance themselves with supply-and-demand issues.”

In the same orbit

ORBITEC’s founders, who also include Eric Rice and Ronald Teeter, were lured from Columbus, Ohio to UW-Madison in the mid-1980s to start a technology center for astronautics. The center evolved to the point where they formed the company, and the UW continues to provide a broad area of technology to tap into. Its agriculture and life sciences bases help ORBITEC’s life-support applications and products, and that broad base of technology makes it easier to commercialize products in many markets.

“We always had it in our mind that we could create something, create a product, and create technologies,” Crabb recalled. “I don’t know that we knew we were ever going to be head-to-head competition with some of the big aerospace companies, but in general we’re in more of a partnership with some of the big aerospace primes than we are in competition with them.

“There have been times when we’ve competed with them. Sometimes we’ve won and sometimes we haven’t. But at this point, we’re looking more at how we partner with them and get our products and technology integrated into their systems than we are going head-to-head with any single large company.”

ORBITEC now has products going into the various markets from spin-off companies like HMA Fire. In the propulsion area, it worked to deliver substances at high pressure through a nozzle, which led to a new, ultra high-pressure (upwards of 1,400 PSI) fire-suppression application that can be placed on very small vehicles and put out fires in half the time, while using one-third the water. Researched in conjunction with the Air Force, it could eventually replace the “surround and drown” approach fire departments have been using for 150 years. Through HMA, the fire-suppression equipment is being sold domestically and overseas.

ORBITEC’s work with environmental controls led it into plant growth and growing protein molecules for plants, creating spider silk protein and future pharmaceuticals in the process. It is working on research to extract spider silk protein to make a substance that is similar to teflar, a coated fabric used in body armor. The company also is looking to expand its plant growth and agricultural manufacturing systems into products like structural fibers and pharmaceuticals.

It also hopes to develop energy products in space and on earth. ORBITEC is working with the Midwest BioLink Commercialization and Business Center, a 31,000-square-foot facility for biotech and agricultural companies located in Madison’s Bio-Ag Gateway, to help identify the next biofuels. It has designed an aquarium LED (light-emitting diode)lighting system, and is studying LED lighting as horticulture and an urban agriculture application. And it’s developing LED lighting that can work underwater to grow algae, a biofuel source.

“LED lighting is a big one for me because the primary application for aerospace was twofold: vehicle lighting and plant growth research lighting, where we use LED lighting,” Gustafson said. “Both of those exist on earth in terrestrial applications.”

Even things like lunar and reddish Martian soil simulant (regolith), collected from volcanic areas of Arizona and Hawaii, respectively, have created sporadic revenue streams from scientists, movie studios, and students conducting research. NASA analyzed soil brought back from the moon and geologists and scientists have found places on earth with similar mineral structures that are close to the soil at the Apollo 14 landing site. The Martian soil simulant is based on the information garnered from the Mars rovers and probes, and analysis of Martian meteorites found in Antarctica.

Thanks to the renewed interest in planetary subjects, ORBITEC has made 32 tons of lunar simulant and nine tons of the Martian soil. “Dust is one of the biggest problems with space, so we won a Phase II commercial contact to produce it in larger quantities,” Gustafson noted.

Gustafson, who has a degrees in aerospace engineering and master’s degrees in marketing and engineering management, said the fun part for her is making initial contacts with potential customers, conducting research online, and attending trade shows and technical conferences to find partners that can use the products, or that ORBITEC can collaborate with to find additional funding.

As Crabb notes, ORBITEC doesn’t always choose the markets it gets into. Rather, it follows the technology and finds industry partners who want to tag along.

In terms of product direction, the common denominators would be identifying a market need, determining whether something works in the commercial market, and whether it works at a cost point the market is willing to bear. “It doesn’t have to be immediately cost effective, but you have to see a path for it to get there, either through improvement and development and production costs, or with a product like the LEDs,” Crabb explained. “They just got cheaper as we made more of them.”

Partnerships between large companies and small innovators are more prevalent these days because fewer corporations can afford big R&D shops, “so they can tap into the small R&D guys,” Crabb notes. It’s also hard for one company, no matter how large, to specialize in each individual subsystem that goes into larger equipment. Sometimes, they look for particular system expertise, and the smaller organizations can provide these products at a much lower cost than larger businesses with high overhead.

“We intend to stay smaller and more agile. We can do things more quickly at less cost, so it’s actually a benefit for them to have us as a partner in many cases.”

Sign up for the free IB Update – your weekly resource for local business news, analysis, voices, and the names you need to know. Click here.