York smallsat
Credit: York Space Systems

PARIS — A former vice president of Stratolaunch who previously worked in Congress and the intelligence community has been named to run a smallsat industry group.

The SmallSat Alliance has hired Steve Nixon to be its first president, responsible for the day-to-day operations of the group. Nixon was, until earlier this year, vice president for strategic development at Stratolaunch, the Paul Allen-funded company developing a large air-launch system. He previously served on the staff of the House Appropriations Committee and as director of science and technology in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

The SmallSat Alliance is a group of more than 40 companies involved in the small satellite industry who joined forces to represent their interests in Washington, said Chuck Beames, the chairman of the group, in a recent phone interview.

Steve Nixon (right), seen here with Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson and Stratolaunch CEO Jean Floyd, will use his government experience to advocate for the smallsat industry. Credit: Stratolaunch

“We banded together about a year and a half ago when we realized that, as our technologies mature and become a viable option for the U.S. government, we were kind of running up against the incumbents,” said Beames, who is also executive chairman and chief strategy officer of York Space Systems, a smallsat manufacturer.

Smallsat companies, he noted, don’t have the Washington presence of larger aerospace companies to lobby on their behalf, so a group of companies decided to work together. Beames, a former Defense Department official, handled that initial work. “At the time, I was the guy who had a lot of Washington experience, so I kind of became the leader of this merry band,” he said.

Beames said the group has had some initial success in advocating for smallsats, particularly in the national security arena. He cited in particular funding the group won for smallsat demonstration programs, on the order of $20 million, last year. The group has also hosted meetings with government officials, including Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson.

Growing interest in smallsats had led to growth in the organization, and thus hiring Nixon to be the group’s president. “It’s growing to the point where I need a partner, and Steve is the ideal person to bring on board,” he said.

Beames said he and Nixon are collecting “a million great ideas” from its member organizations regarding issues for which to advocate in Washington, such as programs they want funded. An agenda for the coming year will be announced next month, he said.

The organization has kept a relatively low public profile, including not disclosing the list of member companies. Beames said some companies who are members also serve as suppliers to larger companies and thus are hesitant to jeopardize those relationships. The companies, he said, do include a mix of manufacturers, component developers and launch providers, and range from early-stage startups to larger established firms.

The companies elected to develop their own organization rather than working with existing industry groups, like the Satellite Industry Association and the Commercial Spaceflight Federation (CSF), in order to keep smallsats a top priority. He added that he anticipated working with CSF in particular — whose members include Beames’ York Space Systems — in the future.

“In the SmallSat Alliance, all members have equal influence,” he said, which is not the case in other organizations with different tiers of membership. “SmallSat Alliance is all about the small companies, to give them a voice.”

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...