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How Colorado is trying to cash in on the multibillion-dollar space race

  • In late June, Colorado-based United Launch Alliance beat out SpaceX for an Air Force satellite launch contract worth $191 million.
  • Colorado ranks just behind California in terms of its aerospace economy.
  • The state has more than 400 aerospace companies and over 25,000 private aerospace workers.
  • All told, the payroll of Colorado's aerospace industry today amounts to $3.2 billion.
Since last decade, NASA has turned repeatedly to Colorado companies to produce the technology it needs to not only send astronauts on new lunar missions but also to Mars and into the depths of space. Above, the International Space Station.
NASA | Getty Images
Since last decade, NASA has turned repeatedly to Colorado companies to produce the technology it needs to not only send astronauts on new lunar missions but also to Mars and into the depths of space. Above, the International Space Station.

Colorado ranks just behind California in terms of its aerospace economy. In late June, Colorado-based United Launch Alliance beat out SpaceX for an Air Force satellite launch contract worth $191 million. But the state's space industry's fortunes are contingent on the proposed $19.1 billion NASA budget getting passed. Whether that happens remains to be seen.

"The right thing to say is, nobody knows," said John Logsdon, founder and former director of George Washington University's Space Policy Institute. "The budget the Trump administration approved for NASA is basically a holding budget."

As of late, a renewed sense of urgency has imbued national discussions about space. At the 33rd annual Space Symposium, which took place in April in Colorado Springs, the various discussions included talk of mining asteroids, sending astronauts to Mars and even missions back to the moon, where astronauts have not been since Apollo 17 in 1972.

The United States, in many ways, has entered a new space race, with newer technologies helping to reduce costs at the same time as other major powers, like China and Russia — which had its strongest showing in 20 years at April's symposium — increase their own extraterrestrial capabilities. And while California is the undisputed heavyweight of the aerospace industry, Colorado stands to gain the most from America's resurging curiosity of outer space.

"Seven percent of the nation's aerospace industry workers come to Colorado," said Vicky Lea, director of aerospace and aviation at the Metro Denver Economic Development Corp. "While we're fortunate to have many of the prime contractors here, 57 percent of Colorado's aerospace companies actually employ 10 people or fewer."

A perigee full moon, or supermoon, is seen during a total lunar eclipse behind the Colorado State Capitol building in Denver.
Getty Images
A perigee full moon, or supermoon, is seen during a total lunar eclipse behind the Colorado State Capitol building in Denver.

In Colorado, which now has the No. 2 aerospace economy in the United States, a mixture of big companies and smaller, entrepreneurial businesses all play roles in the state's space economy. The state has more than 400 aerospace companies and over 25,000 private aerospace workers. Colorado managed to climb so high, beating out Texas and Florida, in part because of the winding down of the space shuttle era. When shuttle Atlantis landed for the last time in Florida in 2011, the jobs of 8,000 NASA and civilian employees were gone soon after.

All told, the payroll of Colorado's aerospace industry today amounts to $3.2 billion.

A deep-rooted military history

Colorado's unique history has positioned it well for the 21st-century space race, where both federally funded prime contractors like Lockheed Martin Space Systems and smaller, privately held companies are racing for the stars. In the first full decade of the Cold War, the U.S. military chose Colorado as a strategic staging ground for developing intercontinental ballistic missiles, partly because it was located in a part of the country still unreachable by enemy ICBMs.

"You had this dense industry cluster started by defense spending that has continually grown and is fueled right now by major NASA programs," said Jay Lindell, a retired major general of the U.S. Air Force and the aerospace and defense industry "champion" inside the state's Office of Economic Development and International Trade.

Lockheed Martin electronics engineer Julian Cyrus offers insight on the Orion spacecraft at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science.
Andy Cross | The Denver Post | Getty Images
Lockheed Martin electronics engineer Julian Cyrus offers insight on the Orion spacecraft at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science.

Federal research labs, like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which conducts research in atmospheric and oceanic sciences, have also been a driver for bringing federal dollars and employees into the state. (Colorado is home to about 54,000 federal employees.) The Joint Polar Satellite System and the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite, two satellites that improve national weather forecasting, are both run out of the NOAA. Those satellites are either built by or launched into space by Colorado-based companies.

Organic industry growth 

Since last decade, NASA has turned repeatedly to Colorado companies to produce the technology it needs — such as spacecraft and launch rockets — to not only send astronauts on new lunar missions but also to Mars and into the depths of space.

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, founder of Blue Origin, at the unveiling of its New Shepard reusable launch system at the Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, April 5, 2017
Matthew Staver | Bloomberg | Getty Images
Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, founder of Blue Origin, at the unveiling of its New Shepard reusable launch system at the Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, April 5, 2017

In 2006 Denver-based Lockheed Martin Space Systems won the $3.9 billion contract to build the Orion spacecraft, the successor to the space shuttle designed to be reusable and take astronauts beyond the moon to asteroids and, eventually, Mars. The first Orion test launch in 2014 was conducted using a Delta IV Heavy rocket, currently the world's largest launch rocket, built by Centennial, Colorado-based United Launch Alliance. And just last year NASA chose the Dream Chaser — a spacecraft built by Sierra Nevada Space Systems, with offices in Louisville, Colorado — to share in a $14 billion contract (along with SpaceX and Orbital ATK) for ferrying supplies to the International Space Station.

"You had this dense industry cluster started by defense spending that has continually grown and is fueled right now by major NASA programs." -Jay Lindell, aerospace and defense industry champion, State Office of Economic Development and International Trade

President Trump has only hinted at what his administration's plans for space are — plans that could directly benefit the Colorado-based space industry focused on deep space.

"You've had Trump statements at various events about going to Mars and his interest in the space program as part of American greatness," Logsdon said.

At the end of June, Trump signed an Executive Order re-establishing the National Space Council, a space advisory group last active 25 years ago.

"Space exploration is not only essential to our character as a nation, but also our economy and our great nation's security," he said at the signing.

The budget proposal released by the administration in March earmarked $19.1 billion for NASA, with $3.7 billion set aside for a deep-space exploration program that would require the Orion capsule.

Global competition heats up 

America's renewed focus on space comes at a time when other nations are spending more time looking beyond Earth's atmosphere. Increasingly, China is honing its space prowess, and looks poised to compete mightily with the U.S. in the coming years.

"They're looking to do everything we do in space," said Brian Weeden, technical advisor at the Secure World Foundation. "They're doing it for the prestige factor. China sees it as a way to power their economy. But they're also doing it for national security."

It's no coincidence that the U.S. Department of Defense has also begun shifting some of its attention to the extraterrestrial domain. At this year's Space Symposium, representatives from Air Force Space Command and Congress both talked about the country's need to compete with and defend itself against China and Russia in space, as both countries — as well as the United States — have successfully tested weapons capable of destroying orbiting satellites.

General John Hyten, commander of United States Air Force Space Command, speaks during the 32nd Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
Matthew Staver | Bloomberg | Getty Images
General John Hyten, commander of United States Air Force Space Command, speaks during the 32nd Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

It also explains why the Department of Defense has partnered in recent years with commercial satellite companies. In 2012 it signed a deal with Longmont, Colorado-based DigitalGlobe that would allow branches of the military to download and utilize the company's high-resolution satellite imagery for military and intelligence applications.

Today private companies, like DigitalGlobe and Boulder, Colorado-based Ball Aerospace, are taking advantage of new sensors and more powerful cloud computing that has made the building and launching of microsatellites less expensive, as well as a huge business opportunity. The current $2.92 billion global market for small satellites is projected to grow to $7.5 billion by 2022.

"The state is well positioned to benefit from the activity coming down the pipe," said Lea of Metro Denver Economic Development Corp.

— By Andrew Zaleski, special to CNBC.com

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