Divisions: Mobile Satellite Services; Management Consulting; and Space Services
Top Official: Brian Barnett, president and chief executive
Location: Albuquerque, N.M.
Personnel: 5 full-time and part-time
SAN FRANCISCO — When Brian Barnett founded Satwest LLC in July 1999, the mobile satellite communications industry appeared to be on the verge of expansive growth. Investors were pouring billions of dollars into Iridium SSC, Globalstar L.P., ICO Global Communications and Teledesic, companies that promised consumers the ability to communicate anywhere in the world. Satwest was established to sell the products and services people would need to take advantage of the new capabilities offered by the new satellite constellations, including machine-to-machine, voice and Internet-based communications.
Within weeks, however, the mobile satellite communications industry began to falter. Cellphone networks were becoming increasingly popular and support for the new ventures weakened.
Iridium SSC filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection Aug. 13, 1999. ICO Global Communications followed suit two weeks later. Globalstar sought bankruptcy protection in February 2002, and Teledesic quit building satellites in October 2002.
“Every company named in my business plan went bankrupt,” Barnett said. Instead of giving up, Barnett returned to consulting. He had worked at KPMG Consulting Inc. before founding Satwest. “I just had to wait until the companies emerged from bankruptcy so I could start to sell products for them,” Barnett said.
That process took approximately two years. In 2000, Satwest created its first website and in the summer of 2001, the company made its first sale: an Iridium 9500 satellite phone.
More than a decade later, Satwest continues to sell satellite phones. The company, which is privately owned and does not disclose revenue or profits, also sells devices used to track aircraft and trucks worldwide, modems for machine-to-machine communications, satellite phone accessories, portable solar chargers and Inmarsat Broadband Global Area Network equipment that can be used by individuals or teams to obtain wireless Internet access. Satwest customers include people who work in the aviation industry, oil and gas exploration, defense and security agencies, government organizations and emergency response.
Through his consulting work in the 1990s, Barnett learned that engineers at Sandia National Laboratory in New Mexico were developing portable, flexible solar chargers. Barnett worked with the government agency to gain access to the technology and used it to develop solar chargers for satellite phones, mobile broadband data terminals and other electronics through Solstar Energy Devices, a company that spun off from Satwest in 2003.
Recently, Satwest established a spaceflight services business to assist customers in sending payloads to the edge of space and, once commercial vehicles succeed in offering that service, into orbit. Satwest plans to help companies, universities and government agencies plan missions, manage programs, develop payloads, conduct testing and transport payloads to spaceports.
“It’s not realistic to think all university researchers would know how to do all that,” Barnett said. “Some researchers will have experience, but many have never done payload integration. We are targeting universities that don’t know the steps they need to take to send an experiment into space.”
Satwest also plans to help customers fulfill all the requirements to ensure their payloads meet NASA, Federal Aviation Administration and, if necessary, International Traffic in Arms Regulations requirements, Barnett said.
Satwest is one of the companies Virgin Galactic of Las Cruces, N.M., selected to provide payload integration and flight services to its customers. In addition to Satwest, Virgin Galactic has selected Houston-based NanoRacks LLC; Southwest Research Institute of San Antonio; and Seattle-based Spaceflight Services, said William Pomerantz, Virgin Galactic’s vice president for special projects. Satwest also has agreements to assist customers in sending experiments, technology demonstrations or “anything else” on the suborbital flight vehicles being developed by Masten Space Systems of Mojave, Calif., Armadillo Aerospace of Heath, Texas, and Up Aerospace Inc. of Highlands Ranch, Colo., Barnett said.
The New Mexico Space Grant Consortium selected Satwest to be its exclusive agent to sell space on the rockets it purchases and launches from Spaceport America, said Patricia Hynes, the organization’s director.
Those rockets are filled with experiments built by high school students, college researchers and anyone else who wants to send “an experiment, memorabilia or family heirloom” to space. Once the flights are completed, customers receive certificates to prove that their items flew in space, according to the press release.
Before founding Satwest, Barnett worked at the NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston and NASA Marshall Space Center in Huntsville, Ala., managing space shuttle experiments and helping to train crews for Spacelab missions. He even applied twice to join the astronaut core to fulfill his dream of space travel. Those applications were rejected, but Barnett is convinced the emerging commercial suborbital industry will provide his ticket into space.
Barnett said he is eager to buy tickets for himself and anyone in his family who wants to accompany him, as soon as his spaceflight services business produces revenue to offset the expense.