Posted: November 01, 2008
Colorado employs more aerospace workers than all but one state, but its success in the industry rests largely on the flow of money from NASA and the military.Todd Neff
It was a scene as otherworldly as it was distinctly Coloradan. Through a plate-glass window in a new $65 million annex on the Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp. campus in Boulder, visitors observed workers assembling a spacecraft — or, rather, parts of a spacecraft, as it was in three separate pieces. Technicians padded about in "bunny suits," covered from head to toe in white clean-room outfits vaguely reminiscent of women’s fashion under the Taliban. Dust that can fry electronics in a vacuum is such a concern among spacecraft mechanics, even their faces remained hidden behind surgical masks. The spacecraft was WorldView-2, a remote-sensing orbiter scheduled to fortify Longmont-based DigitalGlobe’s fleet sometime in 2009. DigitalGlobe, a Ball Aerospace offshoot, says the spacecraft will resolve ground features as fine as 0.46 meters across while whipping around its polar orbit at about 17,000 mph. Engineers Kirsten Sterrett and Michael Horner sat in a control room in front of plate-glass windows offering a WorldView-2 view and, more directly, four flat-screen monitors in the control room. They were in the middle of a software upload. To their right stood racks with labels like "Solar Array Simulator" and "Power Control Console." Both engineers are graduates of the University of Colorado’s aerospace engineering program, she with a master’s degree, he with a Ph.D. Thus, Colorado-educated engineers worked on a Colorado spacecraft for a Colorado customer. "I love the complexity of the system," Horner said, looking out at gold-sheathed cabling, stark black boxes and other indescribable features of a spacecraft under construction. Although referring to a single project at a single company, Horner could have been describing one of hundreds of efforts spanning the civilian and military, involving rockets, the spacecraft and instruments they carry, and the ground systems capturing and manipulating all that data about the Earth and heavens beyond. The Colorado space business is huge — the nation’s second largest in terms of employment, behind only California. It is also complex — an economic and engineering food web of companies acting as contractors, subcontractors and competitors at the same time. They are all being forced to evolve amid profound changes in the space-business environment. The industry that launched in 1955 when the Glenn L. Martin Co. began working on Titan intercontinental ballistic missiles in Jefferson County now employs roughly 55,000 people in this state, according to the Colorado Space Coalition. As of 2007, about 26,000 of them were with private aerospace companies — 120 companies dedicated to the space business and at least 180 that dabble in it. That’s more employees than space mainstays Florida, Texas and New Jersey and behind only California, which, with a whopping 250,000 space workers accounts for 20 percent of the global space business, according to the California Space Authority. The U.S. military employs an additional 29,000 workers in space jobs at Buckley Air Force Base, Peterson Air Force Base, Cheyenne Mountain Air Force Station (which includes NORAD and the U.S. Northern Command among other entities), the U.S. Air Force Academy and Schriever Air Force Base. Colorado has, in short, a huge military space presence. It is an engine for thousands of jobs, primarily in developing ground systems and related software, at such companies as Boeing, Northrop Grumman, Raytheon and ITT Systems. » *Colorado’s aerospace giant* Lockheed Martin Space Systems, Martin’s current incarnation, remains Colorado’s biggest space player with about 10,000 employees. Lockheed Martin’s Colorado operations encompass classified military efforts and such interplanetary NASA spacecraft as the Mars Phoenix Lander currently digging into the soil of the Martian arctic plains. The company is also building the spacecraft for NASA’s $700 million Juno mission to Jupiter as well as the $375 million GRAIL moon-gravity mapper, which in fact is a pair of spacecraft scheduled to begin orbiting Luna in 2011. Then there’s the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution, or MAVEN, mission to Mars. The $485 million NASA Mars Scout program aims to understand the evolution of water on the Red Planet. It is being led by the University of Colorado’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics in Boulder. The mission, scheduled for launch in 2013, will bring an estimated $200 million to the Colorado economy, and the $60 million to $80 million it will bring LASP amounts to the largest research grant in the university’s history. Even had LASP lost, Colorado would have won the Mars mission: The Southwest Research Institute’s Boulder office, already leading NASA’s New Horizons mission en route to Pluto, had proposed the other finalist, called "The Great Escape." Lockheed Martin’s Denver operations have long been a go-to NASA partner for interplanetary space robots. In August 2006, Lockheed’s Denver operations also became a key player in NASA’s post-space-shuttle future in human spaceflight. NASA awarded Lockheed an $8.2 billion contract to design, test and build the Orion crew exploration vehicle. NASA hopes to have Orion carrying astronauts to the International Space Station by early 2015. Six-hundred Lockheed engineers are now working on the preliminary design of the capsule. It was initially due in September, but because of financial problems and engineering surprises — in particular weight problems and crew-threatening rocket vibrations during flight — it’s now expected in mid-2009. Its ongoing successes with scientific spacecraft and its Orion win have buffered Lockheed Martin from major changes afoot in NASA money flows, said James Crocker, Lockheed Martin’s vice president of Sensing and Exploration Systems and Denver executive site lead. "From our perspective, the budget seems to be going very well, thank you very much," Crocker said. NASA must more than double spending on manned spaceflight as it works to finish the International Space Station and pay for the next-generation Constellation shuttle-replacement program, which includes Orion and the Saturn V-sized Ares I and Ares V launch vehicles. With overall NASA budgets slated for only a gentle climb, space-science spending — and by extension the market for space robots and instruments built by the likes of Ball Aerospace and Lockheed Martin — will be flat for years to come. Crocker said Lockheed does foresee a slowing in spending for Lockheed’s planetary spacecraft but expects Earth-observing environmental and weather satellites will pick up the slack. Lockheed and others are also looking to strengthen national-security related business. Lockheed in May won a $1.4 billion contract to build the first two satellites of the Air Force’s upgraded GPS satellite constellation. The deal included options for 10 additional GPS III spacecraft. Being designed and built in Newton, Pa., the hardware will arrive in Littleton for final integration and testing sometime after 2010, when the project will take over the huge assembly facility now used for Atlas V rockets in Waterton Canyon, company spokesman Steve Tatum said. The Atlases will be moving to Decatur, Ala., ending a half-century of rocket building in the metro-Denver foothills. The United Launch Alliance, a Lockheed Martin-Boeing joint venture formed in December 2006, will be building Atlas as well as (formerly Boeing) Delta II and Delta IV rockets in one place for greater production efficiency, said Michael Gass, the company’s CEO. The Delta IV is so big it must be shipped to California and Florida launch sites by water, so Littleton wasn’t an option. But the joint venture’s headquarters as well as its engineering center remain in Denver. It employs about 1,800 of its 4,200 employees in Colorado, including 1,300 engineers — "rocket scientists," as CEO Michael Gass likes to call them — who will continue to design roughly 20 missions a year, each taking three years to fruition. About 70 percent of launches are for the military, with NASA and commercial launches comprising 20 percent and 10 percent, Gass says. *Ball bounces to the sky* A United Launch Alliance rocket scheduled to launch next spring will carry Ball Aerospace’s $600 million Kepler spacecraft, which will orbit the sun about 50 million kilometers behind Earth and watch 100,000 distant stars for signs of habitable planets. Ball, the largest Colorado-based aerospace company, was founded in 1956 after Ed Ball — president of the Ball Brothers Co. of Muncie, Ind. — met a University of Colorado physicist working on sounding-rocket technology and decided to hire him. Today, Ball Aerospace has 2,850 employees and reported sales of $788 million in 2007. The majority of those people work in Boulder. The Ball Aerospace headquarters is now in Broomfield, however, where parent company Ball Corp.» moved in 1998. Ball Aerospace also has operations in Westminster as well as in other states. NASA’s shift toward manned spaceflight has been a challenge for Ball Aerospace, best known in the space business as something of a boutique for ambitious, one-of-a-kind scientific and remote-sensing spacecraft and instruments. The company is adapting with a shift toward the military market, which now makes up about 50 percent of Ball Aerospace’s sales, said Drew Crouch, the company’s vice president of corporate strategy and development. "If you looked at our history over the last 25 years, you would see times when we’re more defense-oriented and times when we’re more NASA oriented and times when we’re more focused on commercial remote-sensing," Crouch said. Others of Colorado’s biggest space businesses focus almost exclusively on military and homeland security-related work. Raytheon, Northrop Grumman, Boeing and ITT Systems combine to employ about 8,000 people in the state. Despite its low profile, such work is Colorado’s area of dominance, says Rachel Yates, a Holland & Hart partner specializing in the space business. "Colorado can really provide a soup-to-nuts approach for the military, whether on the launch side or ground-support integration or the building of military satellites," Yates said. Raytheon Intelligence and Information Systems has 2,400 workers in Aurora, working primarily on developing software for ground systems operating military, spy and other satellites and handling the data coming back from them. Chuck Enoch, vice president overseeing Raytheon’s Aurora operations, said 80 percent of his Colorado workforce has security clearance. But Raytheon is also pushing into new markets. Its ground systems will run the forthcoming NPOESS climate/environmental satellites, and the company is » a finalist for both GOES-R weather satellite and next-generation GPS ground systems, Enoch said. Northrup Grumman, which took over TRW’s Colorado operations in 2002, also has 1,000 people in Aurora working mainly on ground systems, said Tim McMahon, the company’s vice president and lead executive in Colorado. Northrop Grumman has a similar number of workers in Colorado Springs who serve the Missile Defense Agency and Air Force Space Command, among other customers, McMahon said. The company also has 220 people in Boulder working in missile warning, missile defense and space defense in addition to 150 in Lafayette running Northrop Grumman’s corporate IT shop. McMahon, who spent 32 years in the Air Force’s space operations, said companies like Northrop Grumman provide opportunities for — and benefit from — Colorado military personnel moving to the private sector. "This company views it as a win-win to bring in people experienced in government," McMahon said. "I do it because I know the importance of these programs to the country and still feel a strong affiliation to the missions I was responsible for as an Air Force officer." *A niche in the heavens* Colorado’s space business is about much more than its biggest players. For every Northrop Grumman, there are 20 small businesses filling an ecosystem niche. "Colorado has a wonderful array of subcontractors/second-tier companies that contract out individual components," Yates said. Denver-based Red Canyon Software is one example. With 22 employees, it focuses on the software that flies on interplanetary spacecraft, said Barry Hamilton, the company’s CEO. The company has helped Ball Aerospace with the Deep Impact comet mission and Lockheed Martin with several Mars spacecraft, and has diversified into human spaceflight, adding 10 people to work with Lockheed Martin on the design of the Orion crew module and its heat shield. It’s a niche that demands extreme skills. "The people I hire are top engineers technically and communicatively," Hamilton said. "That’s how we survive." Then there’s Starsys, a division of SpaceDev with 130 people in Louisville, which has expanded from a niche making paraffin actuators in the late 1980s to all sorts of structures, mechanisms and electromechanical systems that have flown on 250 spacecraft. In 2007, a Starsys capture system helped the Orbital Express mission demonstrate autonomous docking in orbit for the first time, which the defense department hopes to one day use to refuel and service its satellites. The company also built the robotic components of Mars Phoenix Lander’s chemistry lab. Scott Tibbitts, managing dirctor of Starsys, sees the company as operating in an era of uncertainty. U.S. government spending for manned missions — whose ultimate goal of reaching Mars remains such an economic and technical stretch that Congress or a new administration could call it into question — is "sucking the life out of" unmanned exploration, he said. Some large military programs may have shaky backing, too, he said. "Quite frankly, it’s a mess right now," he said. Still, Tibbitts remains upbeat about his company’s fortunes. "We aren’t big enough to change policy so much as ride the waves the right way," Tibbitts said. "And there’s a real push toward looking at smaller, nimbler companies — entrepreneurial space companies — so some of the changes could bode well for companies such as ours." With NASA, Air Force and federal weather-satellite budgets looking to do little more than keep up with inflation, the best prospects for growth are in the » commercial sector, says Elliot Pulham, CEO of the Colorado Springs-based Space Foundation. That includes satellite communications (not least the satellite radio and TV services of the sort provided by Englewood-based EchoStar’s DISH Network) as well as navigation, which increasingly rely on satellite imagery produced by the likes of GeoEye — formed through a merger of Thornton-based Space Imaging and Orbimage of Dulles, Va. — and DigitalGlobe. DigitalGlobe is booming, having more than doubled its sales from $65 million in 2005 to $151 million in 2007. The company launched the Ball-built WorldView-1 satellite in September, has grown to 400 employees and is now preparing for a public stock offering. Yet while mapping websites and others in the commercial realm buy DigitalGlobe imagery, its primary growth engine was a $500 million government contract from the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency in 2003. However the space industry shakes out, Colorado seems to have reached critical mass in its space endeavors. "People in the business see a center of gravity, a center of competence — an area where the private sector and the academic sector have a history of working together," Pulham said. On the academic side, in addition to the University of Colorado’s LASP (which in fiscal 2008 brought in $56 million in federal grants for space research — more than any university nationwide) CU boasts a highly regarded aerospace engineering program: BioServe Space Technologies, which has developed experiments for 29 shuttle missions; and the Center for Astrophysics and Space Astronomy, which designed the $70 million Cosmic Origins Spectrograph slated for Hubble Space Telescope installation in October. Ball Aerospace built the instrument as well as the Wide Field Camera 3 going up at the same time. The Colorado School of Mines’ Center for Space Resources has its 8th Continent Project, which in October was scheduled to open an incubator to nurture 15 startups interested in bringing space technologies to other markets. The winner of its first business-plan competition in 2007 was a team applying novel accelerometer technology to such applications as monitoring the structural integrity of bridges and skyscrapers, said Burke Fort, the 8th Continent Project’s director. The School of Mines and Colorado State University have no aerospace engineering departments, but they along with other CU engineering programs are also indispensable to the state’s success in aerospace and other high-tech fields, Lockheed Martin’s Crocker said. "The computer scientists, electrical engineers, mechanical engineers, material scientists — the industry is aerospace, but it involves all those disciplines," Crocker said. Colorado’s Front Range has people to hire, test-facilities to use and local subcontractors to rely on, Tibbetts says. It’s cheaper and less congested than California. And it’s shown some chutzpah. "Colorado just declared, ‘We’re an aerospace leader,’" Tibbitts said. "And we became one." With the help of state government and the congressional delegation, Holland & Hart’s Yates added. "They have both been receptive to the needs of the industry and willing to step up and support individual projects as well as overall funding needs," she said. Back in the WorldView-2 control room at Ball Aerospace, Michael Horner cites one more key factor: The Colorado space business has Colorado itself going for it — or, more specifically for Horner, Boulder. "I’m here because it’s Boulder," Horner said. "Not because it’s Ball."