Digital Solid State Propulsion’s engineers were not eager to design explosives for Hollywood


CAPSBut to keep a steady flow of revenue, the small Reno, Nevada company looked beyond traditional military and space customers to find work stimulating oil wells, supplying bullets and bombs for combat simulations, and providing pyrotechnics for Showtime’s television series “Shameless.”

Those are not the markets Wayne Sawka envisioned when he founded DSSP in 2005 to develop and sell Electric Solid Propellants that can quickly turn on and off with electrical charges. During the early years, the company focused on NASA and U.S. Defense Department customers, winning multiple Small Business Innovative Research contracts to develop everything from tiny microthrusters to large rocket motors for the U.S. Missile Defense Agency, U.S. Naval Research Laboratory, U.S. Army Materiel Command and NASA.

That work continues.

DSSP microthrusters are powering NRL’s Special Purpose Inexpensive Satellite, or SpinSat, a 50-kilogram satellite shaped like a beach ball that was jettisoned from the International Space Station in 2014. DSSP also is using its Green Electric Monopropellant to develop a liquid Pulsed Plasma Thruster for NASA.

Still, the commercial work is a good bill-payer. To promote that side of the business DSSP is donating its eSquib Effects System, which produces nontoxic, flame-resistant pyrotechnics, to the Theater, Film, and Television School at the University of California, Los Angeles. “We’ll get the producers of tomorrow to use it,” Sawka told SpaceNews.

What prompted a space company to develop entertainment electronics?

It spun directly out of the microthrusters on SpinSat. It was not that big a deal to change to a commercial version where you could add channels to make a flexible system that roadies and studios can use.

DSSP_wo_flameWhat’s the difference between the commercial system and the military version?

It fires a microthruster just like the satellite, but obviously we make the eSquibs a lot cheaper. We don’t need to CT scan everything. For the entertainment side, they might need one channel, they might need 100 channels. Our commercial system has a control box and you can add channels. Massive numbers of eSquibs can be firing.

How does the Hollywood work help fund what DSSP really wants to do: build rockets?

If you look at the buy cycle of entertainment, it’s so much shorter than what you face in the space

area. We saw this off ramp along the way where we could make some money. It was like pulling teeth to get the engineers to agree we needed to spend money on the entertainment. They begrudgingly understood.

It’s hard to make a compelling business case for supplying rocket motors for satellites. You can get a certain amount of money to stimulate an oil well, you can get a certain amount for a bullet shot in Hollywood, but the space market is tricky.

Will you keep pursuing government and commercial work?

Yes. This is our tenth year in business and we are here to stay. We have diversified enough now that we can weather any storm in the space and defense industry with our commercial ventures that are starting to move forward.