NASA spends $45M to seed tech from hundreds of space businesses

Hundreds of small aerospace businesses will receive grant funding from NASA to accelerate their technologies, as part of a wider government program to seed cutting-edge American enterprises.

A total of 249 small businesses and 39 research institutions received Phase I grants under the space agency’s Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) programs, NASA said Monday. Each award includes $150,000 for a total investment of $45 million.

Among the awardees are a handful of space startups that have also pursued venture capital to fund their businesses. Those include Starfish Space, who received SBIR grant funding to develop its Nautilus in-space docking and capture mechanism, and Argo Space Corporation, for its small reusable spacecraft transfer vehicle called the Argonaut.

NASA issues solicitations for SBIR and STTR proposals annually, with a focus on choosing technologies that align with the agency’s mission requirements. While the grants are relatively small, the SBIR/STTR programs are an important part of the overall space startup ecosystem, Carissa Christensen, CEO and founder of analytics firm BryceTech, explained in a recent interview.

“Winning an SBIR grant, in addition to the resources that it brings in, can connect the company to an agency like NASA, [which] builds relationships, provides access to experts and insight,” she said. The award also acts as a signal that NASA is potentially interested in purchasing this technology in the future, she said, though it’s no guarantee of a contract.

“It’s a demand signal that I think is relevant and that I think investors value.”

Among the businesses highlighted in NASA’s own press release on the news are Huntsville, Alabama–based nou Systems Inc., which is developing a technology to monitor the microbial environment in spacecraft, and HyBird Space Systems, a two-person company developing a retrobraking propulsion system for de-orbiting space junk in low Earth orbit and other applications.

The government has provided critical funding to many of the most profitable space companies today. The world’s most successful space company, SpaceX, received millions in government funding to develop its core technologies, including the Raptor rocket engines, Dragon spacecraft and Falcon 9 rocket — technologies on which NASA now depends for astronaut transportation, launch and other services.

“NASA has a key role to play in growing the aerospace ecosystem in our country,” Jenn Gustetic, director of early-stage innovation and partnerships for NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate, said in the press release. “Through these early-stage small business awards, we are inviting more innovators into this growing arena and helping them mature their technologies for not only NASA’s use, but for commercial impact.”

Based on their progress during Phase I, companies have the option to apply for an $850,000 Phase II grant and subsequent Phase III and beyond opportunities.