Altius Space Machines: Sticklers for Innovation

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SAN FRANCISCO — In 2010, when lead propulsion engineer Jonathan Goff left Masten Space Systems to form Altius Space Machines, he intended to design and develop reusable launch vehicles for small satellites. However, Goff and Altius co-founder Ian Garcia, who led Masten’s guidance navigation and control work, quickly realized that with little money to invest in the venture, developing new launch vehicles was out of the question.

“When we started the company, we only had about a thousand bucks to put in,” Goff, Altius president and chief executive, said. “So we had to bootstrap the whole way.”

That bootstrapping is starting to pay off. Goff and his Altius colleagues are beginning to win contracts and attract investors for their effort to develop equipment capable of reaching out and grabbing objects in space. Their invention, called Sticky Boom, is a metallic arm that latches onto any surface using electrostatic adhesion technology developed by SRI International, a nonprofit research institute based in Menlo Park, Calif.

Altius is working under a NASA Small Business Innovative Research contract awarded in December to study the use of Sticky Boom technology to assist spacecraft in capturing martian rock samples. The technology also could be used to grab space debris, transfer propellant in orbit, simplify spacecraft rendezvous and docking, or deliver small satellites to and from space stations, Goff said. Altius also is developing guidance and control applications for the Centaur upper stage under a contract with Denver-based United Launch Alliance and working with the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to build avionics components for a small-satellite launch vehicle, Goff said.


Altius Space Machines at a Glance

Mission: To lower the barriers to space commerce by simplifying the way things connect in space.

Parent Organization: N/A

Top Official: Jonathan Goff, president and chief executive

Established: 2010

Location: Louisville, Colo.

Personnel: Six full-time and part-time


On July 30, Altius won the $25,000 grand prize in the Heinlein NewSpace Business Plan Competition, which was held during the Space Frontier Foundation’s conference at the NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif. For that competition, Goff submitted a business plan focused on providing frequent delivery of small packages to the international space station. The service, which Altius calls Direct to Station, would assist companies that operate small launch vehicles in offering just-in-time delivery of materials or equipment to the space station by giving them access to Sticky Boom technology to simplify rendezvous and docking.

Instead of conducting complicated operations to move launch vehicles close enough to the international space station for safe docking, Sticky Boom would allow launch vehicles to remain at a safe distance and transfer packages to and from the space station with the extendable arm, Goff said. “Just-in-time package delivery is widely used by terrestrial businesses,” he said. “Once people onboard the space station have that option, I see no reason why they would not use it.”

With Direct to Station deliveries, Altius could open a new market for companies developing small reusable launch vehicles and give scientists access to the materials or equipment they need to support research being conducted in microgravity laboratories, Goff said. To profit from the Direct to Station venture, Altius would lease its hardware to space station operators and charge a fee to companies that use Altius technology to assist in space station docking. If small launch vehicles use the Sticky Boom technology to make weekly flights to the space station, the business could generate $20 million in annual revenues for Altius, Goff said.

Jeffrey Manber, managing director of Houston-based NanoRacks LLC, a company that provides researchers with access to facilities onboard the international space station, said the Direct to Station delivery concept could serve NanoRacks and its customers. “Altius is one of a new generation of entrepreneurial companies whose business model is based on routine utilization of the international space station,” Manber said. “Their concept is promising. However, it all rests in the execution and the price. … We want as many cargo and manned flights as possible, both for scheduling and cost competition.”

Altius also is attracting investors. In May, the Space Angels Network, a group of seed and early stage investors focused on aerospace ventures, announced that Richard David, managing member of the New York investment firm Orrery Group LLC, planned to invest in Altius Space Machines. That seed stage investment was prompted by Altius’ successful May 14 test of its Sticky Boom on a microgravity flight operated by Zero Gravity Corp, David said. He declined to say how much money his firm raised for Altius. The Orrery Group’s investment helped pay for the in-flight testing.

David, who also heads New Space Global, a New York company that provides market data and strategic analysis of investment opportunities in the commercial space industry, said his decision to back Altius also stemmed from Goff’s penchant for producing hardware for commercial space applications instead of PowerPoint presentations. David attended a presentation Goff gave in April at a Space Access Society conference in Phoenix in which Goff brought a model of his Sticky Boom to demonstrate. “There is so much hot air blown in this industry that when Jon brought actual hardware, I became a fan,” David said.

The next step for Altius is to raise approximately $400,000. With that money, the company would be able to patent key concepts and technologies, pursue new business ventures, expand marketing and support internal research and development efforts, Goff said.

Altius is working with SRI to continue to develop, build and test Sticky Boom electrostatic adhesion technology. SRI researchers began designing electrostatic adhesion technology years ago when they developed a wall-climbing robot. By using battery power to produce an electrostatic charge in polymer pads on the robot, SRI researchers were able to demonstrate the robot’s ability to scale any surface, said Harsha Prahlad, SRI senior research engineer. Once the idea was conceived, SRI officials began looking for ways to apply the electrostatic adhesion concept to a wide variety of commercial, government and industrial applications, he said.