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There’s a New Commercial Space Race Happening, and Colorado Wants to Win It

Private aerospace companies are trying to mold a modern orbital ecosystem driven as much by profits as it is by exploration. Already home to the nation’s second largest commercial space economy, the Centennial State is a major launch pad in more ways than one.

A rendering of a satellite refueling tanker from Lafayette-based Orbit Fab. Photo courtesy of Orbit Fab

When Vicky Lea started as director of aerospace and aviation for the Metro Denver Economic Development Corporation (EDC) more than a decade ago, she was tasked with growing the city’s—and, by extension, the state’s—aerospace economy. It seemed like an easy enough gig. After all, the state was already home to major space defense installations, massive corporations competing for NASA contracts, and universities with storied histories of extraterrestrial research. The Space Foundation in Colorado Springs had even been hosting the annual Space Symposium, one of the largest gatherings of industry professionals in the world, since 1984. But when she headed to that event to promote the state as a significant aerospace center, the most common reaction she got from attendees from outside of Colorado was puzzlement. “The recognition just wasn’t there,” she says. Fast-forward to the most recent symposium, and things have changed dramatically. Lea says the new message from conferencegoers is this: We are considering relocating our business, and we’ve been told that Colorado is where we should be looking.

That shift isn’t only due to Lea’s tireless recruitment efforts. The industry is undergoing rapid and profound change globally, and Colorado is reaping the benefits. “Aerospace has very much moved out of the era of the military and NASA,” says Jeffrey Forrest, chair of Metropolitan State University of Denver’s aviation and aerospace science department. Instead, the industry is rocketing into what’s been dubbed NewSpace, where travel beyond Earth’s atmosphere is driven by private companies rather than giant Apollo-style government initiatives. Hundreds of firms, large and small, are racing to carve out an economic niche, ranging from relatively mundane endeavors such as communications infrastructure to science-fiction-worthy orbiting film studios.

The pace is reminiscent of the 1800s gold rush, experts say, and much as it was during that frenzy, Colorado is in a special position to take advantage of the predicted boom times. The state has a unique aerospace ecosystem that dates back to the late 1940s—a decade before NASA was founded—when University of Colorado Boulder physicists slapped scientific equipment atop captured German rockets from World War II to research Earth’s upper atmosphere. Shortly after that, the military began establishing a strong presence in the state in part because early Soviet missiles couldn’t reach the continental interior, and aerospace companies set up shop here to take advantage of both the talent being produced by nearby universities and the military’s colossal defense budgets. “You have to look in amazement at how many like-minded people gravitated together,” says Dan Baker, the director of CU Boulder’s renowned Laboratory for Atmosphere and Space Physics (LASP). “You got on a positive feedback loop, and things built to an extremely strong level.”

Today, there are 300 aerospace companies in the state employing some 34,750 people, according to the Metro Denver EDC. And those numbers are only growing: Lockheed Martin Space, a Colorado-based division of the giant defense contractor, had more than a thousand open positions in the state in April. All of that together means Colorado is second only to California for the size of its commercial aerospace industry and first on a per capita basis.

Yet most Coloradans outside the industry have little idea of its scope or impact. Some call this the Space Paradox. “Space is more important to our daily lives than ever,” says Joe Rice, director of government affairs for Lockheed Martin Space, “but we tend to realize it less.” Space exploration has become so commonplace, he says, that it’s lost the grandeur of the Apollo era. But there’s a new space race happening right now, and from Earth to orbit to the moon, Mars, and beyond, Colorado has a head start.

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