Ever since the Boeing-centric aerospace cluster in the Puget Sound region emerged as one of the world’s leading centers of aviation, everyone has been looking for the next great industry to power the economy.
They may well have found it in roughly the same place. Seattle’s next tech-intense, opportunity-rich, risk-intensive business cluster may be based on the ground, but the action is up in the heavens, roughly defined as anywhere from low-Earth orbit — 90 to 600 miles up — to the moon and even to Mars.
That space is potentially a big business deal, and that this region is potentially a big deal in it, may come as a surprise to those who reveled in the golden age of space exploration — the Mercury and Gemini missions and the Apollo voyages to the moon — only to see national interest in space wane during the intervening decades. It’s also not evident, given the region’s limited legacy in that golden era, that Seattle would necessarily be a major player in a revival of the space sector.
But there is a revival and Seattle is a player.
“We’re not at the beginning of something,” says Chris Lewicki, president and chief engineer at Planetary Resources, the Redmond firm that sees a future in mining asteroids. “We’re in the thick of it.”
What’s especially noteworthy about the space industry of 2016 is that it’s a real business with real revenues, not the stuff of science fiction movies or dreamy notions about what might be possible “someday.” While some companies are in the development stage, others already have paying customers and still others are close to making the transition.
Kent-based Blue Origin, the secretive company owned by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, made history in November when the New Shepard, a rocket it had launched into space, used hydraulically actuated fins and a reignited engine to slow itself enough for a controlled, vertical landing for the first time. The ability to return a rocket home safely for reuse promises to substantially reduce the cost of space flight. “This is a new golden age of space exploration,” says Bezos.
Blue Origin plans to offer flights to space tourists, possibly within two years. The BE-4 engine, a larger version of the New Shepard’s engine, will likely propel the launch system under development by United Launch Alliance, a joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed-Martin.
Spaceflight Industries, which has moved its headquarters from Tukwila to Seattle’s South Lake Union neighborhood, has put 80 satellites into orbit for customers and is under contract for 130 more. It even publishes a public price list for its launch services: Getting a 100-kilogram satellite placed into low-Earth orbit will set you back about $4 million.
Planetary Resources, meanwhile, has sent satellites to space to demonstrate its technology for surveying and mining asteroids for minerals and water; a Kickstarter campaign raised more than $1.5 million by offering public access to a space telescope and even outer-space selfies. Also under development: a hydrogen refueling station in outer space.
Companies like these, led by a new generation of innovative entrepreneurs, represent the core of what amounts to a Seattle space-industry cluster. “We are home to several relatively small but really interesting and notable companies,” says Alex Pietsch, former director of the governor’s aerospace office and now associate vice president of industry relations at Washington State University. “There’s lots of opportunity for growth in that sector, although I think that growth is going to be organic and take some time.”
Certainly the region has all the hallmarks and validations of a legitimate and viable cluster:
• There’s a regional trade group — the Washington State Space Coalition — whose members meet to connect (although it’s not far enough along to have a website).
• There’s a national conference. The Space Frontier Foundation plans to convene its annual NewSpace Conference, held in Silicon Valley the past nine years, in Seattle in 2016. Seattle will alternate as conference host after that.
• There’s even interest in the region from companies outside it who believe that if you want to be in the space business, Seattle is a place you need to be. Such was the case with Elon Musk-backed SpaceX, which announced in early 2015 plans for a Redmond engineering office that could employ hundreds.
• Most of all, there are the companies themselves. Pietsch has compiled a list of more than 30 firms that are in the space business or are significant suppliers to it. These aren’t just companies with pie-in-the-solar-system dreams of going to space. Witness Spaceflight Industries’ existing track record.
That latter segment is an important component of the space-business-cluster story; not only are these companies creating jobs, but they’re also generating work for many of the region’s advanced-manufacturing firms, some of which are already doing work for space missions. Janicki Industries in Sedro-Woolley has built production tooling and parts for NASA missions. Electroimpact in Mukilteo built a carbon-fiber tape-laying robot for a NASA center in Alabama. Tukwila-based AeroGo makes air casters for moving big, heavy objects, like satellites and rockets.
Cobalt Enterprises, a Lake Stevens machine shop that specializes in aerospace projects, has been moving into the “space” portion of aerospace, building satellite components. “It’s very different from aerospace in the sense it has to go into outer space, but it’s very similar in that it has to be certified, with very tight tolerances and exotic materials,” says co-owner and VP Paul Clark.
In short, there’s a lot going on in space business. But why is it going on now, and why here?
1. The business of space, and who is playing in it, has fundamentally changed from the days when it was mostly NASA’s show. Between the end of the shuttle program and enduring debates about the cost and value of NASA’s endeavors, the national space program has felt adrift, as though it has “lost its trajectory,” in the phrasing of Anthony Waas, chairman of the University of Washington’s Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics. The private sector has long had a role in the space program, but with NASA’s uncertain mission and future, it is now taking the lead.
2. What has also opened the door is the dramatic evolution of space technology in its cost, capability and size. It’s no longer necessary to be a huge defense contractor funded by the federal government to be a player. “Technology has reduced the barriers to entry to getting into the space business,” Lewicki says. “I can go to Spaceflight Industries and procure for a list price a ride for a standardized satellite. Not only can I buy from them, but I can shop around many of their competitors in the United States and around the world for getting a satellite into space. I don’t have to figure that out myself.”
The man who is the president and CEO of Spaceflight Industries, Jason Andrews, says the evolution of computers from room-size mainframes to desktop personal computers provides the model for what will happen with space. “It put the power in the person’s hands,” he explains, “and then it opened up all these new businesses and applications.”
3. If the first wave of the space business was about getting to space (and back), this phase is about what you can do once you’re there. “You don’t have to be operating at the absolute bleeding-edge, state-of-the-art, billion-dollar scientific achievement to be able to do something that’s economically useful,” Lewicki says. “Our ability to detect water on asteroids and characterize that resource and develop it in a lot of ways can be accomplished with technology that has existed for decades. The difference today is technology is much more commoditized and affordable and easier to deploy in space. I don’t need a team of a thousand engineers anymore to do it. I can do it with a team of 45 engineers from Redmond. It allows more people to try things in space.”
One of the things to be tried is getting a better sense of what’s going on back on Earth. Spaceflight Industries is already in multiple phases of the industry, but it has spawned a separate company, BlackSky Global, to provide high-resolution, near-real-time (several times an hour) imaging to customers. While the internet and social media have created an unceasing news cycle about one’s circle of acquaintances, Andrew says, “Our ability to understand the planet in the same time cycle flat out doesn’t exist.”
4. As for why Seattle, several factors are at play. It might not have been one of the best-known centers for space endeavor, but it wasn’t a bystander, either (see story below). Between long-established companies like Boeing and what is now Aerojet Rocketdyne, there’s a knowledge base here that has led to second- and third-generation companies. Andrews, for example, is a veteran of Kistler Aerospace.
What space companies are also looking for is talent in other tech fields: software, big data, telecommunications. Tapping that talent base was a major motivation for Elon Musk to set up a SpaceX operation here. Richard Gayle, cofounder of the Space Trade Association, a now-inactive first attempt at setting up a trade group, believes there’s an even wider and deeper pool from which to draw.
“We need to find ways to shift people who maybe are working for Amazon to start thinking about getting training to work in the space industry,” Gayle says.
The region also has an abundance of, as Pietsch describes it, “high-net-worth individuals who dreamt of going to space when they were kids and now have the wherewithal to spend lots of money.” And they’re doing so, from Paul Allen to Jeff Bezos to Microsoft executive-turned- space tourist Charles Simonyi.
High-tech talent and money aren’t small considerations, Andrews says. Texas and Florida may have a bigger legacy in space, but they don’t have the software base. Houston may have investment capital, but not the individuals with the willingness to invest it in space.
And the Northwest has institutions —from state universities to the Museum of Flight — that can do research, encourage collaboration and raise the profile of and interest in a regional space-business hub.
Seattle isn’t alone in seeing its future as a regional space-business base. William Hosack, the chief executive of Orbital Micro Systems, gave a talk in November to a breakfast meeting organized by the Pacific Northwest Aerospace Alliance (PNAA) on “Manufacturing Resource Needs of the Space Industry.” His company is based in one of the hubs that could emerge as a competitor to Seattle — Denver/Boulder. Also in the mix are Florida, Houston, Silicon Valley and Southern California, and others could emerge.
There are other obstacles to Seattle’s lofty goals of preeminence in the space business. It is not, and is not likely to be, a launch site. Hosack says the region may not have the sorts of manufacturing facilities or capabilities that space businesses want or need. And it’s not the home of a major NASA research center or facility.
Advocates for the Seattle space cluster say those shortcomings aren’t likely to prove fatal, or even particularly troublesome, to its ambitions. “In some ways, I think it’s great that Seattle’s space activity is somewhat independent of a mother ship of NASA,” says Lewicki, who himself worked for 10 years at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena before joining Planetary Resources. “In fact, that’s what helps make it more self-sustaining and more viable. Any company that grows on its own and grows on commercial motivation is going to be at a larger scale more successful, probably more innovative and possibly more risk taking than it would be if it were primarily a service of the government.”
PNAA Executive Director Robert Uptagrafft says the region’s manufacturing base is up to the demands of the space sector precisely because of decades working with aviation. “The volumes are so low and the technical demand is very high,” he says. “The dimensional requirements are very strict. You’re talking about grams, not ounces or pounds.”
“There isn’t going to be one place that does everything,” Gayle adds. “The launches are going to happen in places that are important for launching.” But the actual development of an economy in space and the tools you need to actually make money in space, he asserts, don’t have to be next to the launch pad. Spaceflight Industries, for example, handles the assembly and prep work for satellites locally. They’re small enough to be put into crates and loaded on a truck for the drive to Vandenberg Air Force Base in California for launch.
Most in the space business say the region needs three things to succeed.
One is collaboration, something they claim the region is already good at because of the tech industry’s presence.
Another is a strong participation from higher education. “In the absence of a NASA center, we need to step up our game,” Pietsch says. “I’m going to be encouraging our institutions to partner with these companies.”
That’s also the plan for the UW’s Waas, who plans to beef up his school’s curriculum and faculty on the astronautics side. He already has recruited an expert in CubeSat technology from the University of Texas. “We’re building our space repertory,” he explains, “[and] encouraging companies to come to us.”
Perhaps the biggest contribution to the region’s success will be a lot of success stories. For all the technological advances, space is still an expensive and risky proposition, as Planetary Resources found in 2014 when a rocket carrying one of its payloads blew up shortly after launch. “We will live to fly another day,” the company said on its blog at the time.
Andrews adds that such positive attitudes, which prevail in the region, represent one more reason why it has a shot at succeeding in space. “All the ingredients are here, but most importantly, it’s the mindset about taking risk,” he says.
“If space-oriented businesses continue to thrive in this region, the cumulative effect will create an ecosystem of space-related industries,” says Nathan Kundtz, president of Kymeta Corporation, which is developing flat antennas that can be steered electronically to track signals from satellites.
“Hubs tend to form because of the right industries in the right culture,” Gayle says. “They tend to not form because you don’t have those two things. We need to make sure that what we’ve got, we use. I’m a firm believer it’s going to happen. The question is how long it’s going to take to catalyze the formation of a hub and get us into space faster.”
Lewicki is betting on sooner. “In five years, Planetary Resources will have successfully launched a few more satellites, and probably unsuccessfully launched some as well,” he predicts. “We’ll learn from every success or setback.”
So will the region. If anything, people tend to underpredict what’s possible over the long term, Lewicki says. “In five to 10 years, be surprised and delighted with what we’ve developed in the space business.”
Gayle agrees. “We’ve got all these pieces, the educational side along with the actual engineering side, to do some amazing stuff,” he points out. “If we can get everybody together working collaboratively, nobody’s going to be able to catch up to us.”
Seattle’s Place in Space History
Those who grew up in the Space Age remember the geography of that era. Cape Canaveral (or Kennedy, depending on the time frame) for launches, Houston for Mission Control, California for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and, much later, shuttle landings.
The Seattle area didn’t figure prominently on that map, but it did have a hand in multiple space projects, mainly through Boeing. The then-Seattle-based company built the first stage of the Saturn V rocket used to launch Apollo missions, although actual assembly occurred in Louisiana. Lunar roving vehicles, an example of which is on display at the Museum of Flight, were built at the Boeing Space Center in Kent; three of them are still parked on the moon. Lunar orbiters, which photographically scouted the moon’s surface for landing sites, were built at the Boeing Missile Production Center in Seattle and tested at the space environment test chamber in Kent.
Much of that activity was centered at the Boeing Space Center in Kent, opened in 1964. In recent years, though, Boeing has been selling off parcels of the site as well as moving projects and employees to other locations picked up through acquisitions.
Bob Citron was one of the region’s pioneers in space businesses. In 1983, he founded Spacehab Inc., initially based in Bellevue, to design and build modules that fit in the space shuttle’s payload bay.
Citron went on to become cofounder of another of the region’s pioneering space companies, Kistler Aerospace, originally based in Kirkland, with Walter Kistler. The plan was to develop fully reusable rocketships. That project never made it to completion, but alumni from the company helped spark the current wave of the regional space cluster.
Communication to, from and via space is a big sector in space business today. That was also the vision behind Teledesic, a venture backed by Craig McCaw, Bill Gates and Boeing to launch hundreds of low-Earth-orbit satellites to create a high-speed digital telecommunications network. It managed to send one demonstration satellite to space before suspending its efforts.