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 … Next Page »

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  • Stewart Lowe

    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.