The Space Force Bets Big on Small Businesses

Within the innovation arm of the United States Space Force there exists a division titled SpaceWERX that is attempting to revolutionize key technologies that it sees as critical to the future of space warfare. SpaceWERX is given a $457 million dollar budget that it distributes to the burgeoning space industry through Small Business Innovative Research contracts. This is a unique approach to technology innovation as the U.S. military is used to relying on its big prime contractors for new technologies. This signals an overall change in attitude in the relationships between the usual suspect contractors and the military branches they rely on. By working with dual-use companies that are not only working on a contract, but only have a business strategy the Space Force hopes that they will not only be able to encourage the development of new technologies, but also help spur the creation of new companies that will then compete commercially to drive technology development themselves.

Some of the technologies that the Space Force is hoping to develop through SpaceWERX are Rendezvous and Proximity Operations spacecraft, autonomous spacecraft swarms, and optical communication meshes. All of these capabilities are being developed by different companies that hope to also utilize the technologies commercially for their own business use cases.

The aspect of this type of contracting that we have not yet seen is whether these awards will result in any tangible developments. These contracts are usually an order of magnitude smaller than what is paid to the larger defense contractors who we had previously only seen this type of work be done by. Since these companies will be restricted to more modest budgets, at least for the initial development, there is the question of whether they are considering some of the lesser thought about aspects of developing a spacecraft such as cybersecurity. If the Space Force is going to be utilizing the products of these contracts to conduct the future of warfare in the space domain, then I would hope that all aspects of the design were thought through.

In a rapidly changing space environment and industry, where the threats are changing from one day to the next, it seems as though the Space Force is attempting to stay ahead by looking toward the smaller, however possibly more passionate, startups and small businesses that are becoming all the more prevalent in the industry.