I recently took a behind-the-scenes tour of the Lockheed Martin Space Systems Co. campus in Waterton Canyon, in far southwest suburban Denver. The tour was arranged by the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce Leadership Foundation, and attracted participants from a broad spectrum of Denver’s business community, all with a common interest in space as an important driver of economic activity in Colorado.
The Waterton Canyon facility dates to the mid-1950s, when the Glenn L. Martin Co., a predecessor of Lockheed Martin, developed a plant to build and test Titan missiles as part of the U.S. intercontinental ballistic missile deterrent. Colorado was chosen as the location because it was out of range of missiles that could be launched from Soviet submarines at the time, and the plant’s location in a canyon, behind the distinctive Hogback Ridge formation, reduced the odds that a rocket motor would fly off the test stand into Downtown Denver.
One of the most interesting takeaways from the tour and accompanying presentations was Colorado’s growing leadership role in the U.S. space economy, according to the Colorado Space Coalition (motto: “A Mile Closer to Space”).
- Colorado ranks first among U.S. states in private per capita space employment, and third in space employment overall, with nearly 163,000 high-paying space-related jobs
- Colorado ranks third in NASA prime contact awards, pulling down $1.8 billion in contract value in 2013 – not to mention $9.2 billion in 2013 U.S. Defense Department contracts
- Colorado is home to more than 400 space companies of all sizes – ranging from one- or two-person enterprises to eight of the nation’s top aerospace contractors with a significant presence here: Ball Corp., Boeing, Exelis, Lockheed Martin, Northrup Grumman, Raytheon, Sierra Nevada Corp. and United Launch Alliance, plus satellite imaging leader Digital Globe
- Colorado is a center for military space, the home of U.S. Air Force Space Command and the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD)
Colorado companies have played important roles in many past, present and future space missions, including MAVEN (Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN), OSIRIS-REx (Origins-Spectral Interpretation-Resource Identification Security – Regolith Explorer), Sierra Nevada’s Dream Chaser space plane, Digital Globe’s WorldView-3 satellite, components for the James Webb Space Telescope and NASA’s Orion spacecraft, designed to carry astronauts to Mars.
Among the highlights of the tour was a visitors gallery overlooking a huge, multi-story clean room, where Lockheed Martin employees in white coveralls swarmed around two spacecraft undergoing construction and testing: OSIRIS-REx, which will launch in September 2015, fly to the asteroid Bennu and return with a sample for analysis; and InSight, a Mars lander slated for launch in 2016, which will probe far beneath the surface of the Red Planet with seismology and temperature instruments.
Our team currently is supporting two FORTUNE 500 companies at the forefront of Colorado’s space economy. For the science nerds and space geeks among us, it’s a great opportunity to be part of this dynamic industry. And for all of us, it’s a reminder that here in Colorado, the stars we admire in the night sky may be closer than we think.