COLORADO SPRINGS — SpaceWERX, the tech innovation arm of the U.S. Space Force, is teaming up with the Aerospace Corporation to establish a “Technology Readiness Level” bootcamp lab in El Segundo, California.  It’s an initiative to help nurture promising technologies through the proverbial “valley of death” between early funding and product maturation.

“We have 100,000 square feet of laboratory space,” said Debra Emmons, vice president and chief technology officer at the Aerospace Corp. She oversees the Commercial Space Futures Office, an organization created to assist startups in navigating the challenges of working with the military. 

Mentorship and guidance

The TRL bootcamp is designed to guide companies through a structured framework that assesses the maturity of their technologies, Emmons said. Startups can receive valuable mentorship and guidance to help them progress their capabilities up the TRL scale, she explained, making them more attractive to potential investors and government partners.

“We’re looking to open up our doors, so to speak, to a lot of these new entrants and new founders to bring their capabilities into our labs,” said Brian Bone, principal director of the Commercial Space Futures Office. “It’s a capital investment that they don’t have to make.”

The bootcamps, expected to last four to six months, also would give Space Force program officers a valuable chance to assess startups’ capabilities firsthand and gain confidence in what the startups claim they can do, Bone said.

Aerospace is a federally funded nonprofit corporation focused on research and development.

The first TRL bootcamp is likely to focus on technologies for in-space maneuvers, such as rendezvous and proximity operations, Bone said. The first startups to be selected will be from the cohort working with SpaceWERX in the Orbital Prime program — which focuses on in-space services, assembly and manufacturing. This includes a broad range of technologies, from robotics and advanced sensors to debris-capture devices.

For the Space Force, nurturing capable new players in key technology domains could pay huge dividends, said Bone.

Program expected to grow

Looking ahead, Aerospace anticipates expanding the TRL program scope across various space-related sectors, including commercial PNT (positioning, navigation and timing), space-based environmental monitoring and space domain awareness, all priorities already identified by SpaceWERX and the Space Force’s Commercial Space Office.

Aerospace CEO Steve Isakowitz said the commercial space industry continues to grow and the Space Force is seeking to better understand what companies can really deliver. 

“Companies that are entering the field are now more focused on finding ways to work with the government,” he said. “We stood up our Commercial Space Futures Office specifically because we were getting so much demand and so many of our customers are all doing things with commercial space.”

Sandra Erwin writes about military space programs, policy, technology and the industry that supports this sector. She has covered the military, the Pentagon, Congress and the defense industry for nearly two decades as editor of NDIA’s National Defense...