Growing commercial activity in space is a sign that a major industrial revolution is underway, said Sierra Space CEO Tom Vice, and the Louisville-based company is poised to be a leader in building the foundation for a new economy “250 miles above our heads.”
Vice said in an interview that the company he has headed since July 2021 is uniquely positioned to fill the role. The company’s space plane, Dream Chaser, will ferry its first cargo to the International Space Station in 2023. The winged craft, whose design harks back to the space shuttle’s look, is set to carry out at least seven missions for NASA. It will be able to land on runways on its return.
Sierra Space has teamed up with Blue Origin to build a space station, Orbital Reef, a commercially owned and operated venture that’s been called a kind of “mixed-use business park” in space.
The company plans to train crews to fly the spacecraft that will be needed to take people and cargo back and forth. Sierra Space President Janet Kavandi leads the company’s space flight center and astronaut training program. Kavandi, a former astronaut, was director of NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland and was director of flight crew operations at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.
Sierra Space expects to announce its first astronaut trainees in 2023.
The company’s vision is to provide the platform for the industrial revolution of the “orbital age,” Vice said. Sierra Space is building an end-to-end technology platform that Vice said includes transportation and space stations. They will be destinations for companies that want to take advantage of the near-vacuum state, high radiation levels and microgravity, or low gravity, found in low Earth orbit.
The conditions can enable easier manipulation of materials, speed up development cycles and provide new insights into research on cures for diseases because cell cultures grow differently. The consulting firm McKinsey and Co. said in a recent article that more and more businesses are interested in taking advantage of the unique properties of space.
“That’s what excites me, is that we’re going to develop drugs and material systems that you can’t produce on earth but you can produce just 250 miles above our heads,” Vice said.
Sierra Space’s goal is to build a platform that enables companies to develop or build those new products, Vice said.
“They don’t necessarily want to be a space company. They just know that microgravity factories are where they have to produce their next product sets,” Vice added. “We see a major industrial revolution occurring. The industrial revolution is going to space to benefit life on earth.”
The way to think about Sierra, Vice said, is as a real estate developer in space. “We’ll build out a constellation of stations over time.”
Vice said NASA had the foresight to promote the commercialization of low Earth orbit. The region extends to about 1,200 miles above Earth.
NASA’s policy is playing out today with companies like Elon Musk’s SpaceX, Vice said. A SpaceX rocket launched NASA’s flight Wednesday of a crew to the International Space Station.
Sierra Space and Blue Origin, founded by Jeff Bezos, received a $130 million contract to develop the Orbital Reef space station. It is expected to be up and operating by 2027.
“NASA will transition from the International Space Station onto a commercial space station and then be an anchor tenant,” Vice said.
That will free up funds for NASA to focus on the moon, Mars and beyond, he added.
Vice believes it’s an inspiring time to be in aerospace and aviation. Even with a tight labor market, Sierra Space roughly doubled its workforce in a little over a year, growing from about 900 employees in July 2021 to the current total of approximately 2,000. About 1,100 of the full-time employees are in Colorado.
The company has other facilities in Denver, Broomfield, Madison, Wis., Brevard County, Fla. and Durham, N.C.
Vice said the company is assembling a team with deep experience in the industry and strong skills in such areas as engineering and technology. Sierra Space announced Thursday that Ken Venner is the new chief information officer, the position he held at SpaceX.
Before joining Sierra Space, Vice was chairman, CEO and president of Aerion Corp., which is developing supersonic aviation, and was president of Northrop Grumman’s aerospace systems sector. His background includes work on stealth bombers and the James Webb Space Telescope.
Vice has known Eren and Fatih Ozmen, the owners and leaders of the Sierra Nevada Corp., an aerospace and national security contractor, for several years. Sierra Nevada spun off Sierra Space in 2021, establishing it as an independent business, and is now a shareholder in the company.
“There’s still a big part of our company that does deep-space exploration. We’ve been to Mars 14 times, six diff planets,” Vice said.
However, the driving force is thinking about commercializing low Earth orbit so people can build things that will improve life on Earth, Vice said.
“Our company is not focused on trying to escape Earth,” Vice said.