Colorado aerospace: All systems go

An artist’s rendering of the Orion exploration vehicle approaching the International Space Station. Lockheed Martin is working on the Orion craft.

State remains at the forefront of exploratory technology

The aerospace industry is faring much better in Colorado than in other states across the nation — and that holds true in Colorado Springs as well.

That’s the word from the National Space Symposium held this week in Colorado Springs.

The state is moving ahead despite financial and political uncertainty in Washington, D.C., maintaining its importance to both the Department of Defense and NASA. Many companies are poised for growth, keeping the state on firm ground as the nation’s second-largest aerospace economy, behind California.

“We’re holding our own,” said Vicki Lea, aviation and aerospace director for the Denver Metro EDC, where the statewide Colorado Space Coalition is housed. “We have companies that are really doing well, despite the circumstances.”

Among the state’s bright spots are the fact that the Boeing Corp. in Colorado will keep the Orion manned spacecraft mission, she said. The Sierra Nevada Corp. in Boulder is working on a commercial spacecraft called the Dream Chaser, which could be the next vehicle to deliver people into space beyond the moon. It’s won two rounds of funding from NASA to work on the spacecraft with the third expected to be awarded soon.

Colorado is also hopeful about future space opportunities. It is vying to become one of six testing sites for unmanned aerial vehicles, and Front Range Airport is on track to become a space port as well as one of the testing sites. The state will ask the Federal Aviation Administration for approval for horizontal spacecraft launches this year.

That’s important, Lea said, because the state has received several inquiries from aerospace corporations about relocating to the state.

“That means we had to have a space port, somewhere for them to launch from, so we’re working on that,” she said. “It’s been in the works for a while — and we’re getting it done.”

The Colorado General Assembly played its part in helping the state keep its high aerospace ranking. It recently passed, unanimously, a law that limits liability for commercial space flight activity in Colorado.

“Space companies have to have that,” Lea said. “So we joined just a handful of states to have a limited liability law for space travel. New Mexico touts their America’s Spaceport, but their legislature failed to pass a similar bill. This positions us to compete for aerospace business.”

There’s no doubt that aerospace and aviation will continue to be big market drivers, said Claire Yang, undergraduate academic adviser for the University of Colorado at Boulder, which has an entrepreneurial space incubator that it supports in connection with Sierra Nevada.

“We’ve been doing this for three years, and our graduate students have already spun off two companies that have left the incubator,” she said. “It’s impressive — and exciting for us.”

Called the Center for Space Entrepreneurship, e-Space, the incubator is partly funded by Sierra Nevada, who also hires graduate students directly from CU-Boulder. The incubator has 13 companies and two of them are run by graduate students. Five are based on CU students and faculty research. They’ve generated $5.59 for every dollar spent.

“We’re driving some interesting businesses,” Yang said. “It’s pretty exciting — and it shows that the aerospace industry is still thriving.”

She points to the success of companies like Blue Canyon Technologies, which developed a nano-satellite attitude control system and an integrated power and control system. Tigon EnterTec formed by a faculty-student team, delivers new propulsion systems with hybrid solutions that are light enough for aerospace and inexpensive enough for small engines.

“It’s the flying Prius,” Yang said.

It’s certainly thriving in Colorado Springs, where Braxton Technologies is showcasing new technology it hopes to sell to cities and their emergency responders. Using satellite software, the new system can give first responders a complete picture of a natural disaster, terrorist attack or widespread event, said company owner Kevin O’Neil.

“It’s important to give first responders a more complete picture of an event, no matter what it is, so they can both give help and survive the event,” he said. “It’s something pretty new for us.”

Braxton has contracted with Lockheed Martin for command and control of the latest generation of Global Positioning System satellites. It also has a contract to handle Boeing’s satellites.

But that’s not all. The company isn’t resting on its current projects. Instead, it’s touting a new way to command satellites.

“Usually, you have butts in seats 24/7,” O’Neil said. “This takes that away, it automates the command and control. If there’s a problem, it gets humans involved via an automatic pager or cell phone call. This software is going to cut down on the costs of satellite projects.”

That’s why O’Neil isn’t worried about future Pentagon or NASA budget cuts. He said the company’s software is designed to help agencies cut costs — and that’s why it will continue to grow.

“We make it cheaper to do business,” he said. “The days of the $6 billion ground control system are over. It takes millions of lines of code to manage and control satellites, but we have that all pre-packaged. We just have to tweak the code for the particular client, and it’s done.”

Braxton, which recently moved its headquarters to downtown Colorado Springs, is planning to hire more people and to expand its footprint in the coming year, he said.

While Braxton isn’t worried about DoD personnel cuts, Harris Corp. is. The international radio and communications company deals largely with military clients. Harris radios and communication devices are in the hands of the nation’s soldiers across the globe.

Much of its government contracting is done right here in the Springs. In the five years since Harris opened an office in the Springs, its grown from five employees to 60 in that single division. Its other product lines — including cyber security and satellite command and control — have another couple hundred people.

“We’re committed to growing in the Springs,” said Ed Zoiss, executive vice president for the government communications service division. “We’ve proven that. We expect we’ll add about 10 more people in the coming year. We believe in strong, steady growth — not ‘shazam’ growth that comes and goes. When we hire someone, we want to know there is a strong runway of work in front of them. We want their entire career to be at Harris.”

Slow, steady growth could end if government contracts dry up, he acknowledges. It’s something every defense company worries about — at least a little.

“But we aren’t very worried,” he said. “Our contracts are usually vital to the warfighter, the things you cut last. So we think we’ll weather this pretty well.”