Colorado works to create its bridge beyond the Final Frontier

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541965main_ArrayDeployment-orig_fullColorado is close to the heavens in more ways than one — not only in relative distance, but also from an economic perspective.

As the state with the second-largest space economy, Colorado is either the primary or secondary home to more than 160 aerospace companies. And although many of those companies specialize in defense contracting, there are those that push the boundaries of the Final Frontier.

“Aerospace is big in Colorado,” said Andy Merritt, chief defense officer at the Colorado Springs Regional Business Alliance. “That includes crossover — a lot of stuff that would be considered defense-related — but it is an important part of our economy here locally.”

The CU system receives more funding from NASA than any other public university.

Major concentrations of companies such as Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Raytheon have developed in Boulder, El Paso, Arapahoe and Jefferson counties, making the Front Range a hot spot for research, experimentation and creation that literally is out of this world.

A university system probably isn’t the first entity that springs to mind when one thinks of the aerospace industry, but the University of Colorado is turning that trend around.

Boulder leads the way

With a large segment of NASA-related research, experimentation and development at CU-Boulder, along with aerospace outreach and partnerships in Denver and Colorado Springs, CU and its branch campuses are ones to watch for liftoff.

The CU system receives more funding from NASA than any other public university and is a leader in astronaut training, according to the Colorado Space Coalition’s industry cluster study.

For years, Boulder has been the epicenter for astrophysics research and NASA-related projects.

“CU had an aerospace program up there much longer,” Merritt said, explaining that space-focused companies, including what is now Lockheed Martin, set up shop in the Boulder area in the early Space Race era. “Because that was there, you saw the education build up around the industry … and you had businesses spin out of that as an outgrowth of things like the Apollo program.”

The Boulder branch of the CU system lies within a county that holds 26 percent of Colorado’s aerospace companies — a community in which it is heavily involved.

CU-Boulder does the majority of NASA-related work through its Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics, where students and scholars are currently working on the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution mission. The $485-million MAVEN spacecraft — which was designed, built and will be operated by Lockheed Martin Space Systems Company — is set to launch in November and will explore the past climate of the Red Planet as well as its potential for sustaining life.

This mission comes as no real challenge to the CU-Boulder team, which remains the only research institution in the world to have sent analytic instruments to all eight planets and Pluto.

The university also works with the aerospace industry and other government agencies.

“On the civil side, NOAA anchors significant activity around weather and earth sciences while CU-Boulder remains a critical center of space exploration and space sciences,” according to the Brookings Institution’s 2013 LAUNCH! report.

UCCS in position for future

Although Boulder is the leading city now in the state’s aerospace industry, some postulate that Colorado Springs and UCCS have the potential to play huge roles in future space research and exploration.

“UCCS has for a very long time been left in the shadows of Boulder, I think,” said UCCS Director of Development Margo Hatton. “But I think we have a really solid aerospace program.”

Air Force Space Command, headquartered at nearby Peterson Air Force Base, has also officially designated UCCS as the Space Education Consortium’s lead university to educate the nation’s future aerospace workforce — and university officials say it’s an astute recognition for the program.

“Our undergraduates are some of the best students I’ve seen in my career in all the different places I’ve worked,” said Andrew Ketsdever, chair of UCCS’ Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering. “Our program, from the perspective of the faculty and their dedication to the student population and their desire to learn, is really unparalleled as well.”

Ketsdever said that although NASA provides funding to UCCS for undergraduate and graduate education and research through that consortium each year, that’s about the extent of their relationship.

But there are elements of the department’s work that interest the agency, according to Ketsdever: “We have a space environment simulation facility and we’ve been talking to NASA about the capabilities of that facility. We’re looking at a variety of things from bio-mechanical motion of humans walking on the moon — how astronauts would effectively and efficiently walk across the surface if we return to the moon. We’ve done some studies with NASA on micro-propulsion for small satellites.”

The department currently has 11 faculty members and 350 students, half of whom Ketsdever said are on the aerospace minor track. And that puts UCCS in a position to grow and bolster its NASA bond.

“There’s a very good technically based workforce in Colorado and that attracts business. They need to go where the talent is and I believe that Colorado is one of those places. Having [military bases and universities] kind of makes for a perfect storm in the space industry,” Ketsdever said.

“We do have interest in working with NASA in the environment simulation regime and the micro-propulsion regime. And I think we are well positioned to cater to those needs. I think that you find in Colorado high populations of well-educated and motivated individuals.”

And Merritt said that those numbers might soon grow.

Commercial possibilities

“The expectation is that there’s going to be a growing commercial aspect — either transporting goods or transporting people,” Merritt said. “What there is going to need to be is a workforce designed around that.”

And although federal sequestration and other budgetary maneuvers have snipped NASA funding drastically, Merritt said that the up-and-coming spaceport project should bring astronomical promise to the Pikes Peak region.

“There is opportunity in this for us — yes,” Merritt said. “And not just for CU-Boulder, but other universities.”

Spaceport Colorado is slated to present a new age of space exploration to the state. Located at Front Range Airport in Adams County, the port will serve as a hub for commercial space flight and is expected to be up and running in the next few years.

“I see [the Spaceport] as an inspirational focal point like the Apollo program was in the 1960s,” said Brian DeBates, education director at the Colorado Springs-based Space Foundation. “They’re looking at the Spaceport and seeing its potential and how it affects our daily lives. I think that will bring the excitement.”