SwRI Restructures to Continue Growth in the Satellite Industry

When James L. Burch joined the space science program at Southwest Research Institute in 1977, a small team of engineers and scientists were working on NASA contracts to build data collection instruments for satellites.

After founding the nonprofit institute’s space science division in 1985, the growing team began working on revenue-generating payloads for the space agency and private sector customers.

A decade later, it began manufacturing its own small satellites and has since worked on various projects for NASA, the International Space Agency, the US Department of Defense and others in a global race to launch communications systems into low earth orbit.

“Now we’re building multiple starship constellations,” Burch said this week. “We can do the whole science mission, from instruments to payloads to spacecraft, and then analysis.”

READ MORE: San Antonio SwRI wants to make a name for itself in the small satellite market

Already a force in the small satellite industry, SwRI, as the San Antonio-based research and development organization calls it, announced a restructuring this week aimed at better positioning it to keep pace with industry growth in full swing. boom.

Burch is now senior vice president of SwRI’s new space sector, which includes three divisions: solar system science, space systems, and space science. He is also vice president at the head of the Space Science division.

The new Space Sector employs 465 people across all divisions, who often work together on space-related projects. Most staff will be in San Antonio, with 100 in Boulder, Colorado.

An engineer works next to a model of a Southwest Research Institute (SWRI) satellite called the Cyclone Global Navigation Satellite System (CYGNSS) satellite as he works on another future satellite called Polarimeter to UNify the Corona and Heliosphere ( PUNCH), which will track and measure the solar winds that emanate from the sun. The Southwest Research Institute (SWRI) has nearly completed construction of a $35 million, 74,000 square foot facility slated for completion in June. For years, SWRI has been developing satellites for NASA missions.

San Antonio Express-News/Staff photographer Kin Man Hui

“The space sector just gives us a bigger footprint,” Burch said. “We can focus on small and medium-sized projects and when we have a big one, we can manage it by joining forces.”

He hopes the new organization will also help meet the staffing challenge. Although SwRI’s retention rate is strong, recruiting is difficult amid heightened competition in the satellite industry. In part to help meet the challenges, SwRI has opened labs in Austin and Massachusetts near college campuses in hopes of attracting new workers.

“We don’t have enough people to do our job,” Burch said. “We are constantly looking for talent.

New Divisions

The new Space Science Division headed by Burch was previously known as the Space Science and Engineering Division. It develops instruments and spacecraft.

Among its outputs is CubeSat – a small satellite weighing a few pounds – one of which will hitchhike in orbit on the Orion capsule when NASA’s Artemis I mission finally lifts off.

RELATED: NASA’s Artemis program has connections in San Antonio, South Texas

Michael McLelland, who has more than 30 years of experience in research and development of spaceflight systems, leads the new Space Systems Division. Its goal is to develop “next-generation space observation missions and enabling technologies to support basic space science research, national security and commercial applications,” SwRI said.

There will be a lot of collaboration between the two divisions: while the space science division builds small satellites, the space systems division can focus on larger ones “the size of small cars”, as recently put it. Burch.

“We’re going to work a lot together,” he said. “Space Science may build the space instruments and systems to build the spacecraft. In the meantime, Space Systems can build the spacecraft for the US Air Force or someone else.

Engineers are monitoring test results from a satellite called Polarimeter to UNify the Corona and Heliosphere (PUNCH), which will track and measure solar winds emanating from the sun.  The Southwest Research Institute (SWRI) has nearly completed construction of a $35 million, 74,000 square foot facility slated for completion in June.  For years, SWRI has been developing satellites for NASA missions.

Engineers are monitoring test results from a satellite called Polarimeter to UNify the Corona and Heliosphere (PUNCH), which will track and measure solar winds emanating from the sun. The Southwest Research Institute (SWRI) has nearly completed construction of a $35 million, 74,000 square foot facility slated for completion in June. For years, SWRI has been developing satellites for NASA missions.

San Antonio Express-News/Staff photographer Kin Man Hui

In Boulder, Robin Canup, who specializes in the study of planet formation, will lead the new Solar System Science Division. He recently worked on two notable NASA missions.

Since 2019, the Colorado team has been building small satellites for NASA’s mission called Polarimeter to Unify the Corona and Heliosphere, or PUNCH.

Focus on NASA

For years, SwRI has entered into bidding wars to win contracts with NASA to build small satellites and the science instruments attached to them. The traditional process can be expensive, time-consuming, and unsatisfying, as most nonprofits and private businesses lose out.

Burch said he’s noticed a “transition” in the burgeoning small satellite market: competitors are dropping bids from NASA and instead moving closer to the Department of Defense, which is stepping up efforts to send small satellites into low Earth orbit. .

“I see more and more people leaving the NASA arena and giving us more opportunities,” Burch said.

So, for now, SwRI plans to focus on getting NASA offers.

“We still want to compete,” Burch said. “Our primary mission is the science mission and that’s NASA.”

Still, the nonprofit is looking to capture a share of the rapidly growing small satellite market. The global small satellite market reached $3.1 billion in 2021 and could reach $7 billion by 2026.

Antonina Brody, principal engineer and acting head of spacecraft integration and testing at the Southwest Research Institute, with a test model of the Cyclone Global Navigation Satellite System (CYGNSS) satellite used to measure the surface wind speed of hurricanes from space.  For years, SWRI has been developing satellites for NASA missions.

Antonina Brody, principal engineer and acting head of spacecraft integration and testing at the Southwest Research Institute, with a test model of the Cyclone Global Navigation Satellite System (CYGNSS) satellite used to measure the surface wind speed of hurricanes from space. For years, SWRI has been developing satellites for NASA missions.

San Antonio Express-News/Staff photographer Kin Man Hui

In April, SwRI announced plans to build a $35 million, 74,000 square foot space system integration system facility where engineers will work on small satellite projects for the Department of Defense and private companies, such as Virgin Orbit, based in California, by Richard Branson. SwRI began work on the building in January 2021 and expects to complete construction this year.

With the new facility, SwRI plans to do more work for the military.

“The DoD is doing more and more space projects and bigger starship constellations,” he said.

She also wants to work with private companies. SwRI last year sign a memorandum of understanding with Virgin Orbit to partner on plans for “multiple specialist mission opportunities”: Virgin Orbit could potentially launch SwRI-built satellites into orbit for U.S. and foreign governments to monitor large wildfires and firefighting efforts.

“We will continue to invest in next-generation small satellite technology and demonstrate these key elements so that industry and governments can take advantage of them,” McLelland said.

And then there’s the big bass: Elon Musk’s company SpaceX, which has its Starbase launch complex in South Texas, is building and launching its own Starlink satellites into low Earth orbit. But just because SpaceX and SwRI are neighbors in the Lone Star State doesn’t mean they’ll be teaming up on missions anytime soon.

“Space X is a vertically integrated company,” Burch said. “They do everything themselves from scratch. We get big subcontracts from big companies… But we can’t do that with SpaceX. They don’t subcontract anything. »

Still, Burch thinks SpaceX could one day change its business practices.

“Eventually they will be like everyone else,” he said. “They’ll get too big” and might start contracting out to private companies and nonprofits like NASA does today.


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