Colorado Space Coalition spokeswoman Vicky Lea noticed something remarkably different at this year’s Space Symposium in Colorado Springs: Where once she worked to convince people that Colorado is ideal for aerospace businesses, company representatives now approach her about relocating to the state.
“Ten years ago, we’d have to make the argument that Colorado is a major aerospace state,” she said. “In the past five years, companies from around the world are proactively coming up to our exhibit to discuss how Colorado is a finalist for site expansion or relocation — this year more so than ever.”
Over several decades, Colorado has built a reputation within the aerospace industry. Today it has the nation’s second-largest aerospace economy. California leads the way with nearly double the number of aerospace employees. But on a per capita basis, Colorado ranks No. 1 for private aerospace employment.
Nine of the nation’s top aerospace contractors — including Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, Ball Aerospace and Raytheon — have significant operations in the state. Colorado is also home to several major U.S. Department of Defense facilities.
And the state’s universities are counted among the world’s best for aerospace engineering. Aside from military academies, the University of Colorado Boulder ranks in the top five U.S. universities for its quantity of astronaut alums. It is also the top NASA-funded university in the world.
The United States Space Command, originally formed in 1985, is located at Peterson Space Force Base in Colorado Springs. While the Air Force announced in January 2021 it would relocate Space Command headquarters to Huntsville, Alabama, Colorado lawmakers are working with federal agencies to investigate the decision, hoping to keep the command in the state.
The Colorado Space Coalition keeps a list of Colorado aerospace companies, and it includes more than 500 entities that develop products and systems for commercial, military, and government space applications. But the larger players don’t tell the full story: Startups with fewer than 10 employees comprise the majority — 64% — of Colorado’s aerospace industry.
Viasat, which has its base in California, has had a toehold in Colorado since 2009, when it acquired WildBlue Communications.
But Viasat Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer Kevin Harkenrider, who oversaw the Denver office for several years, said Colorado was an aerospace industry leader long before then.
“I think the Denver to Colorado Springs corridor has been a hub for aerospace for 40 or 50 years,” he said. “That area, along with Houston, Cape Canaveral, and a few others are the hubs for space technology.”
Viasat, founded as a defense contractor, also has a long history in the area.
“As a satellite-based communications company, Viasat has had an association with the Colorado aerospace and technology industry for over 25 years — first as a supplier and then, in 2009, when we also became a large employer with the acquisition of WildBlue,” Harkenrider said, adding that the state’s long history with space-based technologies makes it a good fit for Viasat.
“It’s natural for us to continue to seek talent from such a rich area to supplement our team.”
WildBlue was founded as a Denver satellite internet startup in 1998. The company was created through a combination of talent and support from like-minded companies.
“The company was started in the Denver area because that’s where the founders were,” said Erwin Hudson, former chief technology officer at WildBlue and now vice president of system development for Telesat’s Lightspeed satellite constellation. “But the local environment was just perfect for the kind of start-up we were.
“It grew in the Denver area because of relationships with DISH Network and sister company EchoStar Satellite Services, Liberty Media, and CableLabs, and just generally hiring people from the greater Denver area.”
CableLabs is a not-for-profit innovation and research and development lab founded in 1988 by American cable operators.
Foundations set decades ago
Such companies, along with military installations and defense-focused businesses, formed the backbone upon which Colorado’s aerospace industry has grown.
Aerospace and defense company Lockheed Martin established roots in Denver in 1956 at the request of the United States Air Force, which wanted its new rocket facility located inland where it would be less vulnerable to attack.
Also in 1956, Ball Aerospace — a subsidiary of the Ball Corporation — began building pointing controls for military rockets. Today, the Boulder-based company manufactures spacecraft, components, and instruments for national defense, civil space, and commercial space applications.
The military saw the state as a strategic site not only for its relatively sheltered inland location, but because it could bounce shortwave radio signals to both its Asian and European operations from Colorado bases.
In 1957, the North American Air Defense Command (NORAD) was established in Colorado Springs.
Peterson Air Force Base (now Peterson Space Force Base), established in 1942, has evolved as a hub of Air Force space activities.
Together, they established an aerospace foundation upon which other companies have expanded.
“The Denver area is a space and telecom corridor,” Hudson said. “If you start in Boulder, and work your way down to Colorado Springs, we’ve got multiple educational assets, nonprofits, and companies focused on these industries.
“It’s an incredible hotspot of telecom and space — all within an hour-and-a-half drive north and south of the current Viasat facility.”
Lea agrees that the concentration of activity propels continued growth.
“Just the sheer scale and scope — the critical mass and combination of military installations, civil and commercial space businesses and assets — we feel is a massive driver for the aerospace economy in Colorado,” she said.
Colorado’s highly educated workforce
The state provides two other assets Lea sees as keys to its aerospace industry success.
“We have the nation’s second-most highly educated workforce,” she said. “When we work with companies looking to locate or expand here, access and proximity to talent is a number one concern. Colorado has this great ability not just to recruit talent, but keep them here.
“But our secret sauce is really the aerospace community. It is exceptionally cohesive and collaborative. Some of that is because of the legacy of space that’s been here for decades. But as the new commercial space enterprises expand here, there’s great connectivity that transcends the business community and extends to education, economic development, and our state government. Everyone is pulling in the same direction to advance aerospace here, and it’s working.”
Colorado Governor Jared Polis, who attended the 2022 Space Symposium, is an avid supporter of the state’s aerospace business.
“Colorado’s aerospace ecosystem is a very important part of our strong economy, and our administration is working to make Colorado an even better place for aerospace,” Polis and Lt. Governor Dianne Primavera said in a joint statement welcoming participants to the 37th annual event. “Thanks to Colorado’s incredible quality of life and world-class talent, more aerospace companies are starting and moving here. We are grateful for the partnership of the aerospace industry and celebrate their important contributions to the state.”
There are other factors working in the state’s favor as well.
According to a 2020 BuiltinCO article, “Colorado’s lax regulatory environment, single-factor tax (and low corporate tax rate), affordable cost of living, airport connectivity and existing technology ecosystem have long made the area a beacon for entrepreneurs interested in the intergalactic.”
Viasat program design manager Thad Mazurczyk, who worked for WildBlue when Viasat acquired it, has seen much of that first-hand. He relocated here from the East Coast in the ’90s to work for PrimeStar Partners, a direct broadcast satellite company formed by a consortium of cable television system operators. With Denver’s concentration of related businesses, Mazurczyk found moving to other companies and up the career ladder relatively easy.
“In Denver, you have this ecosystem of technology at all levels — the launch vehicles, satellite, cable equipment, telephony,” he said. “You get this synergy between the different businesses that allows people to move about.
“I think that happens over and over in this community. There’s a sense that there’s always an opportunity in Denver.”
While Colorado’s central location may originally have been prized for its safety and ability to broadcast radio signals, it plays another role today.
“It’s a good hub to get to other tech spots, so we’re well-positioned geographically to tap into other connections that are needed,” Mazurczyk said.
All those factors have built up over the years to generate a wave of related business that shows no signs of slowing.
More growth coming
Colorado’s aerospace workforce has grown by 30% in the past five years, with most of that in the nine-county metro-Denver area. And that growth represents more than just new positions within existing businesses, but also new companies.
“We’ve had a lot of newcomers making waves in the space sustainability arena —Astroscale, Orbit Fab, Advanced Space — smaller companies developing new ways of doing business and new technologies in space,” Lea said.
Astroscale — a company with which Viasat is partnering — has its U.S. base in Denver. It provides on-orbit services and logistics across all orbits for commercial operators, the U.S. government and partner governments worldwide. Lafayette’s Orbit Fab is building an in-space fuel supply chain to provide satellite owners with propellants to extend mission time, travel across orbits, and return to Earth. Westminster-based Advanced Space supports and improves space mission planning and operations.
Washington-based aerospace launch company Blue Origin, founded by Jeff Bezos, recently went public with its plan to open an office in Highlands Ranch.
In Adams County, Colorado Air and Space Port is working to create a hub for commercial space transportation, research, and development. It aims to build space vehicles that can take off from runways.
“Then our prime contractors — Lockheed, Ball, Sierra Space, Raytheon — have been a large part of that 30% growth as they expand their footprint here,” Lea said.
For a multitude of reasons, Lea said the Denver-area can expect many more such announcements.
“We’re very lucky to be a real magnet for new space activity,” Lea said. “Part of it is our quality of life. But I think it’s also the adjacency of other high-tech industries. You’ve got IT, software, financial services, all aspects of the energy industry, ag tech. That also means there are job opportunities. It’s not just a one-horse town.”