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Posted: April 01, 2014

State of the state: Aerospace

Amid challenges, Colorado aerospace industry poised to soar

Mike Dano

At the close of World War II, Colorado quietly but surely emerged as a hub for America’s aerospace industry.

As Edgar Johansson, president of the Colorado Space Business Roundtable explained, Colorado was selected as the site for what is now the U.S. military’s Cheyenne Mountain nuclear bunker, near Colorado Springs. Planners selected the site based on the state’s inland location and the Rockies’ super-hard granite. Today, Cheyenne Mountain plays a central role in the North American Aerospace Defense Command.

But that wasn’t the only draw for the aerospace industry. Johansson said the University of Colorado at Boulder was one of the first universities that worked on the V2 rocket that the Allies captured from the Germans during World War II. And the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP) was launched in the Centennial State as well.

“So there was a significant military and academic presence here in Colorado,” Johansson said.

That initial constellation of key, emerging aerospace players in the 1950s and 1960s pulled into its orbit a wide range of suppliers, from Northrop Grumman to Raytheon to Boeing.

Those companies “all sprung up around supporting academia and the military,” Johansson said. “And then they started in their own right as leaders of industry.”

Today, Johansson counts a total of 400 or so space defense and aerospace companies that stretch across the Front Range. Those companies also vary throughout the aerospace industry, providing ground-based command to control services to rocket launching operations and managing satellites in orbit.

But the Colorado aerospace industry is now poised for significant change.

A government reduction in military and space spending could affect the growth that the state’s aerospace industry has enjoyed during the past few decades. As a result, those in the sector are looking for new opportunities in space flight, management and support. “We’re going to see more of the commercialization of the projects that have typically been done with a government contract,” Johansson said, pointing to companies including Virgin Galactic, Sierra Nevada Corp. and Rocky Mountain Space Alliance.

“In the next five to 10 years, we’ll be seeing drastic changes to how we’re doing business in space,” he said.

Vicky Lea, senior manager of aerospace and aviation with the Metro Denver Economic Development Corp., agreed that those in the Colorado aerospace industry will “need to look in different directions” to counter a slowdown in government spending.

She pointed to human spaceflight as a significant opportunity, noting, for example, that Lockheed Martin is developing the Orion Crew Module, “the next-generation spacecraft that will take humans beyond Earth orbit.” Later this year the United Launch Alliance, another Colorado entity, will test Orion.

Lea also said Lockheed Martin is building the satellite and Raytheon will provide the ground control for future GPS technology, GPS III, which will be operated out of Colorado Springs. Separately, Longmont-based DigitalGlobe is working with Ball Aerospace and Exelis in-state to build WorldView-3, a satellite that will provide imagery to services like Google Maps.

“There’s just so much,” Lea said. “We have such a critical mass of key players here in Colorado that are making this happen.”

Mike Dano is a freelance writer and the executive editor for the Telecom Group for FierceMarkets, which includes FierceWireless, FierceTelecom and other publications. Mike has been a journalist for more than a dozen years. Follow Mike @mikeddano and on LinkedIn. Mike is based in Arvada.

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