In light of NASA’s Artemis program, Vertx Partners shines a spotlight on specific small business success stories that helped make this landmark mission possible.
This guide is a special entry in a series that seeks to inform and inspire (read part 1 here). This series examines a few businesses and research institutions that have reaped the rewards of keeping their finger on the pulse of federal contracting. Every year, more and more success stories come out of businesses and their partners utilizing the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR)/Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) award to innovate and even change the world.
In this entry, we explore six small businesses that are exploring other worlds through the NASA Artemis space program, a mission that seeks to put humans back on the Moon this decade.
1. Protoinnovations, LLC
As early as the Summer of 2020, NASA had eyed Pittsburgh-based Carnegie Mellon spin-off Protoinnovations as a valuable contributor to their Artemis initiative. Founded in 2005, the company has focused on developing robotics and automation for commercial, defense, and space exploration – it’s in the latter category that their work in advanced traction control will come in handy.
On the highly variable terrain of the Moon, Protoinnovations’ work in robotics and rover development will help ensure lunar missions are safe and reliable. Whether for crewed or uncrewed rovers, proper traction on a body with one-sixth Earth’s gravity is paramount for success. Protoinnovations’ work will be put to the test in missions to come.
2. Astrobotic Technology
Another Pittsburgh business, Astrobotic, entered NASA’s radar more recently but will play a similar role to Protoinnovations in developing robotic rovers. Rather than traction control, however, Astrobotic is working to improve power and communications for these special rover missions.
The Moon is a harsh and foreboding environment; large chunks of the environment are permanently shadowed at the poles and within deep craters. In these “habitats,” precious resources like frozen water are often found, so robust power and communications that can survive these conditions are necessary. With the funding of a Phase II SBIR, Astrobotic has developed a technology that can withstand the lunar temperament and relay valuable intel to NASA control.
3. Fibertek, Inc.
Fibertek’s technological aims shoot for the stars – on some level, literally. Rather than the small-scale communication efforts of Astrobotic, this Virginia-based company has developed an advanced optical communications system using lasers to transmit large packets of information from lunar landers to lunar satellites and back to Earth.
Because of the sensitivity and pure data load of space missions, quick and efficient communication is essential. With Fibertek’s laser-based intelligence relay, information can be transmitted at the speed of light between various arms of the lunar mission to ensure decisions can be made with the precision the mission demands.
4. Deployable Space Systems Inc., A Redwire Company
As part of its Artemis program, NASA is developing the Lunar Gateway. This “apartment-sized” lunar space station will serve as a crewed habitat, laboratory, and staging area for missions to the surface. In order to keep size and weight down, Deployable Space Systems (DSS) has developed its Roll Out Solar Array (ROSA) technology. While other solar arrays fold out in an accordion fashion, the ROSA ensures that the Gateway will achieve the compact size its designers are aiming for.
DSS has been funded by the SBIR and STTR programs since 2009 to develop their ROSA technology, performing validation testing ten years later in 2019. With the success of ROSA, the Gateway now has access to a simple, efficient, and lightweight power source to fuel the advanced operations engaged in by its crew.
5. Busek Company, Inc.
Hall-effect thrusters are like something out of Star Wars – these electric propulsion units are small, lightweight, and precise in the way space missions demand. In keeping with the design philosophy of the ROSA technology, Busek’s thrusters will be powered by solar energy and will be easier to maintain than traditional chemical-based propellants.
Although Hall thrusters have been in use since the 1970s, Busek acquired SBIR/STTR funding from NASA to develop special thrusters that will keep the Gateway in its highly specific orbital trajectory throughout its lifetime mission.
6. TMC Technologies
NASA’s Artemis Program casts a wide net over the United States to bring together the best and brightest innovators. That net landed in Fairmont, WV, snagging TMC Technologies of West Virginia as a valuable asset to the Artemis initiative. TMC began in 2010 and has grown tremendously with the recent win of a multi-million dollar contract with NASA.
For the Artemis Program and sending humans back to the Moon, a group of TMC software and systems engineers designed NASA’s first integrated simulation software they’ve dubbed ARRISTOTLE. (That’s “Advanced Risk Reduction Integrated Software Test & Operations Tri-Program Lightweight Environment” for those intrepid enough to memorize the full name.) ARRISTOTLE integrates the NASA Space Launch System (SLS), the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle, and the Kennedy Space Center’s Ground Launch Software into “the only high-fidelity integrated environment for the various programs for crewed spaceflight,” according to TMC Chief Engineer, Scott Zemerick.
This program is comprehensive and can be executed on a laptop, giving NASA access to various simulations at a low cost. ARRISTOTLE will prove invaluable to NASA scientists as the Artemis Program progresses.
These are just six more examples of innovative problem-solving funded in part by the Small Business Innovation Research/Small Business Technology Transfer programs. As you can see, many of these companies started in an Appalachian state, received an SBIR/STTR award, and diversified to other areas through their success. Programs like NASA’s Artemis initiative provide ample opportunities for small businesses to make big contributions.
Vertx Partners will continue to bring you stories of small businesses making big strides with SBIR/STTR funding. Inspired by what you see here? Contact Vertx Partners today with our 6-minute survey, and one of our experts will be in touch within 48 hours.
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