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Posted: July 01, 2012

State of the state: Aerospace

Law aimed to boost proposed Colorado Spaceport

Mike Cote

Gov. John Hickenlooper was presented with a bottle of beer after signing a bill in Colorado Springs in April. While the gesture alluded to his success as a co-founder of the state’s first brew pub, it was the name of this local variety that was apropos: Bristol Brewing Co.’s Red Rocket Pale Ale.

The law limits liability for companies that would operate space flights from the proposed Spaceport Colorado, the state’s entry in a race already under way or proposed in several states including California, New Mexico and Texas. As the Federal Aviation Administration begins to allow for privatization, spaceports aim to become a hub for commercial space travel.

The state recently asked permission from federal officials for permission to build Spaceport Colorado, which would be based at Front Range Airport, a general aviation facility near Watkins. The state also is seeking an agreement with Spaceport America to support point-to-point commercial space flights.

"Spaceports become a connection between the Eastern Hemisphere and the Western Hemisphere. (They) allow us to conceive of flying to Australia in a couple of hours," Hickenlooper told industry executives and political leaders at a luncheon before he signed the bill.

And with NASA retiring its space shuttle program, the time for commercial space investment has arrived.

"NASA has done a great job for the last 50 years and has accomplished many great things … but we’re at a point now where we’re going to see a big transition to turn over a lot of the activities to private industry," George Nield, FAA associate administrator for commercial space transportation, told ColoradoBiz before addressing the group.

"I think we’re going to see some very exciting things happen, both from transportation to and from lower Earth orbit and from a tourism perspective," he said. "It’s really going to change how people think about space."

The signing was timed to cap the final day of the 28th National Space Symposium, a gathering of aerospace executives and government leaders in April that included a luncheon sponsored by the Colorado Space Coalition.

Colorado has the second highest concentration of aerospace employees in the nation – nearly 164,000 workers – and is home to space-related military commands, eight major aerospace contractors, several federal laboratories and research centers. About 150 businesses are classified as aerospace companies, and a total of more than 400 companies and suppliers provide space-related products and services, according to the Metro Denver Economic Development Council.

Among the state’s most recent coups is a $1.5 billion contract awarded to Centennial-based United Launch Alliance from the U.S. Air Force for nine rocket launches to be completed by June 2014. The company, a joint venture between Lockheed Martin and Boeing, also received a $446 million NASA contract to launch the GOES-R and GOES-S climate-monitoring satellites in 2015 and 2017.

The global space economy grew to $289.77 billion in 2011, an increase of more than 12 percent, and has increased 41 percent over the past five years, according to the National Space Foundation, which released its annual report at the symposium. Aerospace employment has risen nearly 7 percent in Colorado since 2006, according to the Metro Denver EDC.

Mike Cote is the former editor of ColoradoBiz. E-mail him at mcote@cobizmag.com.

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