Colorado Tech Roundup: Dream Chaser, Mars Mission, Web Security

There was some big news—and bad news—for Colorado’s startups and tech companies this week. The biggest was NASA’s decision to cut off funding for the Sierra Nevada Corp.’s Dream Chaser spacecraft, putting the future of the program in doubt. Meanwhile, a Colorado-built satellite is about to enter orbit around Mars, security experts gather in Denver, and a Techstars company raises more than $100,000 on Kickstarter.

Dream over for Sierra Nevada? NASA made a big announcement this week, picking capsules made by Boeing and Elon Musk’s SpaceX to become the new “space taxis” that will ferry astronauts and cargo to the International Space Station.

NASA’s decision was a big blow for a company with deep Colorado roots. Sierra Nevada Corp., a Nevada-based aerospace company that is developing a spacecraft of its own in Louisville, CO, is now out of the running.

SNC’s entry was named Dream Chaser, and unlike Boeing’s CST-100 and SpaceX’s Dragon, Dream Chaser was a space plane that looked like the now-retired Space Shuttle’s little brother. The three craft were competing to win a $6.8 billion contract from NASA.

The competition isn’t over—both Boeing and SpaceX will have to prove their capsules in several flight tests—but NASA has decided where the money will go. Boeing will get $4.2 billion, SpaceX will get $2.6 billion—and Sierra Nevada will get nothing.

Prototypes of the Dream Chaser have passed a few flight tests, but the program did have one public blemish on its resume. During a test flight last year, the vehicle’s landing gear failed to deploy, leading it to skid off the runway.

Sierra Nevada has been quiet about its plans this week, but there’s a chance its dream is still alive. Since the beginning of the project, Mark Sirangelo, the SNC exec heading the Dream Chaser program, has talked about the company’s goal to make a spacecraft that could be operated for commercial flights. SNC also has signed a number of partnership deals with international space agencies that showed some interest outside NASA.

As recently as a month ago, Sirangelo reportedly said at an industry conference that going on without NASA remained a possibility.

With the funding decision made, it’s tempting to speculate whether SNC was an underdog from the start. NASA has financed the competitors with grants, giving Boeing $460 million, SpaceX $440 million, and SNC $212.5 million.

Sierra Nevada also would seem to be at a disadvantage when it comes to the power politics and PR battles a program like this would face. Boeing (NYSE: BA) is one of the largest aerospace and defense contractors in the world, and it has the political clout and historic ties to NASA. SpaceX is an upstart, but it is led by a charismatic billionaire who has little trouble keeping the company in the spotlight. Crucially, SpaceX also has functional unmanned spacecraft that already have made flights to the space station.

Sierra Nevada, on the other hand, is a privately held company based in Sparks, NV. It doesn’t publicly report revenue, and it generally keeps pretty quiet. A BloombergTV profile recently deemed it the “billion-dollar space company you’ve never heard of.”

But that doesn’t mean it’s a small player. According to the federal government, SNC has $1.57 billion in government “dollars obligated” to it through federal contracts, while Washington Technology, which covers government contractors, reported it had 2014 revenue of $482 million.

Mars or bust: There’s still some good news for the Colorado space industry—hopefully. On Sunday, NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution satellite, or MAVEN, is set to enter orbit around Mars.

MAVEN has several ties to Colorado companies. Lockheed Martin Space Systems, which is in Littleton, built the spacecraft and is handling mission operations. The United Launch Alliance, based in Centennial, launched the craft last November aboard one of its rockets. Finally, the University of Colorado at Boulder is the project lead in charge of science operations. CU’s researchers also built two of the instruments aboard MAVEN.

The spacecraft will study the Martian atmosphere and try to provide researchers with new information about how the Red Planet’s climate changed from being warm, wet, and potentially habitable billions of year ago to the cold, dry, and desolate place it is today.

CU is hosting a watch party that the program’s chief scientists will attend, while representatives of Lockheed Martin and ULA will attend an event at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. NASA also will broadcast the maneuver live on NASA TV and on its website.

Security conference wraps up: A few hundred computer security experts and software developers spent the week in Denver at the annual AppSec USA Conference. The Open Web Application Security Project, a global nonprofit group, ran the event.

The goal of AppSec and OWASP is to bring the latest in security to non-expert developers, said Mark Major, head of the Boulder OWASP chapter and one of the organizers of the event.

The conference featured numerous keynotes and workshops, and while those are over, OWASP does publish many resources on the Web, most notably its technical report on the top 10 threats Web application developers should be aware of. The report is here.

Loop Labs clears $100K: It looks like one company currently in Techstars’ Boulder program isn’t waiting around for Demo Day to make a splash—or raise money.

Loop Labs, doing business as Notion, launched a Kickstarter campaign this week and already has doubled its $50,000 goal. As of noon Friday, the company raised more than $109,000, and the campaign still has 26 days to go.

Notion is a multifunction home intelligence sensor. According to the Kickstarter page, it can tell users things like whether they’ve left a garage door open, there’s a water leak, or a liquor cabinet or gun safe has been opened.

Check out the page for more details.

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One response to “Colorado Tech Roundup: Dream Chaser, Mars Mission, Web Security”

  1. Stewart Lowe says:

    Struck me as a “civilian” that the dream chaser at least kept pace with the Shuttle in being a plane that could use runways but with the bonus of burning safe fuels.Using a space capsule seems like a step back 50 years to the Mercury days. Still if dream chaser is right for the job, time will prove that.