The format of the Air Force’s inaugural Space Pitch Day was positively received by some industry observers, who hope it is just the beginning of a concerted effort by the service to adapt its acquisition processes to commercial practices and harness space innovation.

The presence of senior Air Force leadership, including new Air Force Secretary Barbara Barrett, sent a cheering signal that the service was serious in its approach to work more closely with private industry and small businesses in the space domain, said Ron Lopez, president and CEO of Astroscale US, the U.S.-based subsidiary of a Japanese space technology company developing solutions to remove orbital debris.

“The fact that the secretary of the Air Force made an effort to be there so short into her tenure is very reassuring,” said Lopez, a former Air Force officer and industry executive who previously worked for Boeing [BA] and Honeywell [HON]. He lauded the current service leaders’ rhetoric on the need for acquisition reform and better partnerships with commercial industry in a Nov. 8 interview with Defense Daily.

“What you see now – underscored by the senior leadership presence and by the fact that we even have an Air Force Pitch Day on Space – it really underscores that the Air Force is serious … and followed through to their word and were cutting checks at the end,” he said.

Astroscale established its U.S. headquarters in Denver this past March, and the company has raised $140 million in private investments in advance of its maiden mission, testing a spacecraft retrieval service for satellite operators called End-of-Life Service by Astroscale (ELSA), to occur in 2020.

The “ELSA-D” – for demonstration – mission will deploy two spacecraft, with one servicer satellite repeatedly releasing and re-capturing the second platform to prove that it can successfully detect and then dock with space debris. It will not only serve as a technical demonstration, but also prove Astroscale’s concept of operations and safety engineering techniques, within six months from launch to de-orbit, Lopez said in an Oct. 24 interview.

“We’re going to have the capability to find, detect, track, rendez-vous with and dock with another satellite,” he said. The results of the ELSA-D mission will provide Astroscale with plenty of data to help shape the potential scope of future on-orbit servicing capabilities, he added.

At Space Pitch Day, a large swath of companies that were invited to compete for the Air Force’s cash were dedicated to space situational awareness technology, Lopez noted in the Nov. 6 interview. In the future, he hopes to see the service inviting companies who are working on other space-related issues, including on-orbit manufacturing and servicing.

A spokesperson for Planet, a commercial space technology company that provides continuous Earth observation via its Dove miniature satellite constellation, praised the Space Pitch Day event in a Nov. 12 email to Defense Daily.

Having such a comprehensive set of big players in the DoD and USAF space enterprise made it very clear that the government is serious about nurturing a closer relationship with Silicon Valley,” said the spokesperson, who attended the pitch day as an observer. “I am encouraged by the experience and the invite to Planet to be part of the conversation. I look forward to seeing how the USAF continues the momentum kick started by this event.”

The U.S. government is about halfway through a 10-year inflection period when it comes to space innovation, said Robbie Schingler, Planet’s co-founder and chief strategy officer in an Aug. 12 interview with Defense Daily in Planet’s San Francisco office.

“This is actually a very critical time to have really, really good leadership inside U.S. government in order to understand, what does a 21st century aerospace architecture look like, how much of it do we want to be part of national security, [and] how much of it do we want to be part of economic prosperity,” he said. Schingler previously spent nine years at NASA, where he helped build the Small Spacecraft Office at NASA Ames in Silicon Valley, and served as chief of staff for the Office of the Chief Technologies at NASA Headquarters.

Planet has held contracts with the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) to provide subscription access to its imagery over several contracts since 2016, with the most recent being a six-month contract awarded in October 2018 worth $5.6 million with a six-month optional extension. Otherwise, the company’s portfolio remains largely commercial. Schingler said he has viewed with interest ongoing efforts within the Defense Department to improve early missile warning capabilities via fire detection and monitoring, and build a new space-based sensor system. But he doesn’t see an opportunity for Planet’s subscriber base model for the moment.

“We would be an ideal partner for [fire detection and monitoring], and that would be a cost-effective thing for the government,” he said. “Right now, what we’re talking about is still a little bit in the [government-owned, contractor-operated] area … and we’re a commercial service provider. So we keep responding to RFIs and let acquisition professionals and program managers know that there is a third way.”

Planet wants to be prepared for that eventuality. Earlier this year, the company turned its U.S. government portfolio into a wholly owned subsidiary named Planet Federal, to better focus on policymaking.

“We do see there being a huge growing opportunity over the next few years for the government wanting to procure commercial services, and that’s the reason for our investment to make sure we are looking forward … and that we can be in the right rooms,” Schingler said.