In 2008, Tucson, Ariz.-based Paragon Space Development Corp. was ranked by Inc. magazine as the fastest-growing privately held aerospace engineering company in the United States.
Paragon has nearly 100 employees, up from fewer than 15 just five years ago. Sales continue to grow by around 50 percent annually, with revenue “in the double-digit millions,” according to Lance Bush, a NASA veteran who joined the company in 2006 as its chief strategic officer.
Paragon was founded by Jane Poynter and Taber MacCallum, microgravity researchers who spent two years living inside Biosphere 2, a glass-enclosed ecosystem built in the Arizona desert that was designed to be self-sustaining. After rejoining the outside world in 1993, the pair married and started Paragon with the goal of becoming the pre-eminent commercial provider of human spaceflight life-support systems.
Sixteen years later, Paragon is busy building parts for the thermal control system on NASA’s Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle, helping design the U.S. space agency’s next-generation spacesuit as part of Oceaneering International’s team and providing life-support expertise to multiple commercial firms, including Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) and Bigelow Aerospace.
This fall, Paragon was picked as a finalist for a portion of the $50 million NASA will dole out to help seed development of commercial crew transport systems.
Bush discussed Paragon’s Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) proposal and other matters with Space News Deputy Editor Brian Berger and staff writer Amy Klamper.
What is Paragon’s CCDev proposal?
We proposed an air revitalization system capable of fitting the needs of the commercial space market. We included letters of support from some of the launch providers who said they were going to need this type of service.
What does an air revitalization system do?
When you’re in a space capsule, you’re basically in a thermos. You don’t get to open a window. After a while it gets warm, and you start to feel like the air is being sucked out, because it is. So you have to have systems that scrub the carbon dioxide we expel and recreate some oxygen, because you don’t want to have to carry all your oxygen all the time.
NASA isn’t putting a ton of money behind CCDev this year. Do you expect to deliver hardware with the funds you’re seeking, or do you see this round as a way to get your foot in the door?
When you say it’s a small amount of money, that’s all relative, because to us, $50 million is a big amount of money. We’ve asked for a small portion of it to build a full-scale demonstration piece of hardware and test it in a human-rating facility we built in Tucson.
How does your CCDev project move the commercial spaceflight industry closer to crewed flights?
It provides a life-support system that fits the price range, operability and timeframe commercial providers are looking for.
SpaceX says it can be ready to fly a crewed demo within three years of getting funding. Could Paragon build a flight-ready air reclamation system in that kind of timeframe?
It’s Paragon’s culture for us to say we can.
It’s ingrained in the aerospace culture to say that. And if you can’t, so what? The money keeps rolling, right?
I would say that we’ve delivered. We’ve had our opportunities to diversify into engineering services and it would have been a fast growth area for us. We turned them down because it’s not what we do. We want to innovate and solve the hard problems. There’s a reason we’ve been growing at 50 percent annually. It’s because we satisfy our customers’ goals.
If NASA revamps its human spaceflight program, which appears likely, how do you expect that to affect Paragon’s work on Orion or the Constellation spacesuit?
That is a tough question. We’ve never been afraid of shifting customer priorities or needs. As a small company, we are able to shift quickly. I don’t fear it as much as I see the rest of the industry, but we’re a different company than most of the organizations you talk with.
How is Paragon so different?
One of the big debates right now is over NASA’s choice of launch vehicles. But rockets are somewhat inconsequential to the kind of work we do. What matters to us is the volume of the crewed vehicle, mission duration and that sort of thing. We’re trying to stay out of the big fray, because it’s probably not healthy for us to be in the middle of it.
So Paragon expects to be a part of the next
human spaceflight system regardless of what it is?
Whether the vision changes to something different, whether we go to Mars or we keep going to the Moon, or wherever, we expect to be there.
Do you think the next crewed
spacecraft will be NASA owned and operated or commercial?
Well, in my role as chief strategic officer, I think my perspective is to be prepared for any of the options, and we’re fairly well diversified to supply whomever is going to be next. We work with NASA’s Constellation program on Orion, but we also work with commercial firms. I don’t know that I can predict better than anybody in this industry who’s going to be next.
Is your business primarily government or commercial right now?
Human spaceflight is probably 90 percent of our business. The other 10 percent includes new areas, like our contract to build five advanced dive suits for the U.S. Navy’s experimental dive unit to test. We see that as a growth area. Within human spaceflight, our ratio of Constellation and other NASA revenue to commercial revenue is probably about equal to how the two sectors compare as a whole. Our biggest piece of business is Orion followed by our spacesuit work. On the commercial side, I can only give you a partial list since many make us sign nondisclosure agreements. I can tell you we are doing work with SpaceX and Excalibur Almaz and we are currently in discussion with Orbital Sciences about an internal air-control type of system for their Cygnus module.
Do government-funded Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grants contribute significantly to your revenue?
We continue to do SBIR projects, but they’re not moneymakers for us. We’re big enough now that we see these types of projects as a way to keep innovating and work cooperatively with the customer so we can supply them with the right product at the end. A great example is work we’re doing under a Space Act Agreement with NASA Johnson Space Center on variable emissivity radiators. By running a current through a coating on top of a radiator, you can change the color from white to black, more or less, to change how much heat it reflects or absorbs. That allows you to design smaller radiators, and in this game, mass equals dollars.
Does Paragon have any interest in becoming a publicly traded company?
We’ve been privately owned since the beginning. We’re proud to have grown this company completely by bootstrapping ourselves with our own profits. For the future we are going to continue growing on our own.
Is Paragon thinking about corporate acquisitions?
We contemplated an acquisition opportunity last year. But in the end, while it might have been very financially rewarding, we decided it would have taken us off our strategic goals and doing the cool, innovative things. As we go forward, we will look at some strategic acquisitions. We might acquire a company, for example, that has a specific technology that fits well with ours and keeps us at the forefront of life support in extreme environments. It has to all tie together.