Blue Canyon Technologies helps launch small satellite industry

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Blue Canyon Technologies helps launch small satellite industry

BOULDER — Boulder entrepreneur George Stafford helped launch Blue Canyon Technologies LLC more than a decade ago, when the U.S. government was the only customer for any type of aerospace product.

Now, the small satellite manufacturer has multitudes of government, commercial and academic customers in a rapidly evolving and dynamic new market.

“The dynamics changed because of the entrance of more countries, companies and outside investment money for commercial enterprises. A lot of that has been driven by launch costs going down,” said Stafford, president and CEO of Blue Canyon Technologies and cofounder of the company with Matthew Beckner, chief operating officer, and Stephen Steg, chief technical officer.

Initially, a launch could cost $60 million and up, but with the advent of small rocket launches in the past 10 to 15 years, costs for those enterprises are significantly less — up to about $6 million. 

When Stafford cofounded the company in 2008, large rockets began including secondary payloads, which are essentially small aircraft on the bottom of a rocket that is carrying a larger satellite, he said. The industry further evolved with rockets being designed for smaller aircraft and the reuse of rocket components, he said. 

“They can launch a rocket and use a large percentage of what they launch instead of it going to waste, instead of the rocket going up and basically burning up in the atmosphere or landing in the ocean and sinking,” Stafford said, adding that the major pieces of the rocket that land back on the earth can be refurbished for reuse. 

Stafford and his partners initially thought the small-satellite industry wouldn’t be able to take off due to a lack of mass production capabilities, but now NASA, the U.S. Department of Defense and others in the industry moved to smaller systems. 

In line with that trend, Blue Canyon Technologies started with navigation and power systems components for small spacecraft, then began high-volume manufacturing of entire satellite systems. The company now sells cutting-edge spacecraft and subsystems that support lunar, interplanetary, GEO, or geosynchronous, and LEO, or low-earth orbit, missions, as well as small satellites that include nanosatellites and microsatellites.

“We are totally vertically integrated,” Stafford said, explaining that it’s rare for a company to make in-house all the parts and pieces required for satellite manufacturing. “A lot of spacecraft manufacturers are integrators. They buy components from multiple companies from around the world.”

Blue Canyon Technologies manufactures CubeSats, which are miniaturized spacecraft, often consisting of off-the-shelf parts to be more cost-efficient and faster to manufacture, as well as a line of Microsats called X-SAT that are slightly larger than CubeSats.

For a Mars mission in 2018, Blue Canyon Technologies provided attitude control systems, essentially the brains of a spacecraft that tells it where to point or position itself within orbit by using a map of the constellations. The company manufactured XACT Attitude Determination Control systems for MarCO A and MarCO B CubeSats accompanying the NASA Insight Lander as it made its way to the Red Planet and that are credited with being the first interplanetary CubeSats. Blue Canyon Technologies earned the prestigious Tibbetts Award for exemplifying Small Business Innovation Research for its development of XACT, the company’s first component funded by the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory.

Currently, the company is working on more than 50 different missions, most of which will be located within earth’s and lunar orbits and near asteroids, which are small rocky bodies orbiting the sun. The company aims to reach an output of 20 satellites a month by the end of the year.

“Since the company’s founding, George’s leadership has always pushed technological innovation and mastery,” said Steg, chief technical officer of Blue Canyon Technologies. “Instead of trying to develop a broad swath of different products off the bat, the company spent its early years focusing on improving its proprietary attitude control systems. Today, those same systems are best-in-class, which is a result of George’s keen focus on developing and improving state-of-the-art components that put us ahead of the cutting edge.”

Hayle Bell, senior marketing and public relations specialist and export compliance manager for Blue Canyon Technologies, points out how Stafford turned his company into an industry leader in aerospace.

“George combined his strong business acumen with his lifelong passion for outer space, building the company to be an industry leader,” Bell said. “His leadership allowed BCT to develop as a vertically integrated company, reducing the barrier of entry to space while making Colorado the place to be for aspiring aerospace professionals.”

As the company grew over the years, it had to move several times into larger and larger spaces. Initially, Stafford and his partners worked out of Peet’s Coffee in Boulder, where they could access free wifi. They moved into their first location in 2010 and since then have moved every two years to accommodate the company’s growth. Initially, the company operated out of one office building and now operates out of three office buildings equaling 40,000 square feet and an 80,000-square-foot manufacturing facility in Lafayette, which opened last year.

With the company’s growth came an expansion in staffing — the company now has 305 employees.

“Colorado is well positioned to grow with the industry because it has … the talent, investors and universities,” Stafford said. “Colorado is one of the few areas, the few states that has a focus of aerospace talent.”

The aerospace market has outpaced that talent with companies hiring up available skilled employees, Stafford said. Smaller companies with a small number of talented staff still can start their businesses but face difficulty with any kind of expansion or growth, he said.

“It’s those companies that can grow with a limited number of people that will be able to take off,” Stafford said, adding that for his own company, “It’s definitely far beyond what I was expecting. …To have come that far in 12 years is pretty extraordinary. It certainly exceeded my expectations.”

Stafford earned a master’s degree in aerospace engineering from the University of Colorado Boulder in 1997. While there, he met his partners while working on a Student Nitric Oxide Explorer project to build a small satellite on a minuteman rocket. He also created a business plan to create an aerospace company.

“It was very much a homegrown product, and we created a lot of the pieces that went onto the satellite from scratch,” Stafford said.

After graduating, Stafford worked as a principal engineer at Ball Aerospace in Boulder from 1997 to 2010. 

“I’ve always been interested in space and flying hardware in space, seeing the rockets launch, putting things we created into space and pushing the edge of performance and technology that we do at Blue Canyon,” Stafford said.

BOULDER — Boulder entrepreneur George Stafford helped launch Blue Canyon Technologies LLC more than a decade ago, when the U.S. government was the only customer for any type of aerospace product.

Now, the small satellite manufacturer has multitudes of government, commercial and academic customers in a rapidly evolving and dynamic new market.

“The dynamics changed because of the entrance of more countries, companies and outside investment money for commercial enterprises. A lot of that has been driven by launch costs going down,” said Stafford, president and CEO of Blue Canyon Technologies and cofounder of the company with Matthew Beckner, chief operating officer, and Stephen Steg, chief technical officer.

Initially, a launch could cost $60 million and up, but with the advent of small rocket launches in the past 10 to 15 years, costs for those enterprises are significantly less — up to about $6 million. 

When Stafford cofounded the company in 2008, large rockets began including secondary payloads, which are essentially small aircraft on the bottom of a rocket that is carrying a larger satellite, he said. The industry further evolved with rockets being designed for smaller aircraft and the reuse of rocket components, he said. 

“They can launch a rocket and use a large percentage of what they launch instead of it going to waste, instead of the rocket going up and basically burning up in the atmosphere or landing in the ocean and sinking,” Stafford said, adding that the major pieces of the rocket that land back on the earth can be refurbished…

 

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