Colorado’s economy may be more associated with beer and marijuana than space, but the state’s robust aerospace industry is flying high. Leaps in technology and beefed-up defense spending have …
Colorado’s economy may be more associated with beer and marijuana than space, but the state’s robust aerospace industry is flying high.
Leaps in technology and beefed-up defense spending have been kind to the hundreds of aerospace companies in Colorado, many centered in the Denver suburbs, where legions of engineers are designing, building and operating space-age technology with globe-spanning influence.
“We’re first in the nation in terms of per-capita aerospace employment,” said Jay Lindell, a retired Air Force major general whose job title is “champion” of the state’s aerospace and defense industry for the state Office of Economic Development and International Trade.
More than 25,000 aerospace workers are employed in Colorado, Lindell said, in more than 400 companies. And while Colorado is home to some of the industry’s big names — Lockheed Martin, Ball Aerospace and United Launch Alliance — more than half of the state’s aerospace companies have 10 employees or fewer.
The aerospace industry is diverse, said Vicky Lea, director of the Aerospace and Aviation Division at the Metro Denver Economic Development Corp., which houses the Denver-based Colorado Space Coalition, a consortium of industry stakeholders.
“We’ve got great representation in all three pillars of the industry: civil, commercial and military,” Lea said.
The bulk of the industry’s funding still comes from government contracting, but the private sector is picking up.
“We added more than a thousand new aerospace jobs in Colorado last year,” Lea said. “That’s the biggest jump in a decade.”
They’re good jobs, too: The average salary for an aerospace worker is $130,000, Lea said, more than double the overall state average.
At the vanguard
Some of the projects at the vanguard of 21st-century spaceflight are being developed at Lockheed Martin, said Joe Rice, Lockheed’s director of government relations. Lockheed, which largely pioneered the aerospace industry in Colorado, has offices and facilities scattered around the southwest metro area, including a large campus in Waterton Canyon in unincorporated Jefferson County.
“We’re designing and developing the Orion spacecraft, which will take astronauts back to the moon and eventually to Mars,” Rice said. “And we’ve sent spacecraft to every planet in the solar system.”
Some of Lockheed’s most influential work is also some of its less visible. The company’s GOES satellites are the foundation of space-based weather monitoring, and 19 of the planet’s 31 Global Positioning System, or GPS, satellites were built by Lockheed.
The GPS satellites also broadcast a timing signal that is used to certify global financial transactions, Rice said, and the whole shebang is controlled from Schreiver Air Force Base in Colorado Springs.
“We’re the center of the world for GPS,” Lindell said. “There’s not a military mission that gets done without it. I was on a tour at Schriever, and one of the operators said to me: ‘Well sir, we control humanity.’”
Rice said Lockheed also provides Colorado with “pride and culture.”
“It’s difficult to find a classroom that hasn’t had someone from Lockheed come in to talk about what they do,” Rice said.
Other industry big shots call Colorado home. United Launch Systems, a joint Lockheed-Boeing consortium responsible for launching NASA and military satellites, is based in Centennial. DigitalGlobe, which produces geospatial imagery, is based in Westminster. Ball Aerospace has offices in Westminster, Broomfield and Boulder; Raytheon has offices in Aurora, Greenwood Village and Colorado Springs; Northrop Grumman has offices in Longmont, Aurora and Colorado Springs; and Sierra Nevada has offices in Centennial and Louisville.
From cowboys to rockets
Colorado began its development into an aerospace powerhouse in the years following World War II, when the state was known more for its miners and cowboys than engineering feats, Rice said.
“It all really got started when the Glenn L. Martin company — the precursor to Lockheed Martin — decided to relocate here in 1956,” Rice said. “The idea was threefold: that we were out of the range of Russian missiles at the time, that the mountains offered some protection, and that the geology was stable for advanced telemetry experiments.”
The defense industry rush that followed helped grow the Denver metro area into the powerhouse it is today, said Stephen Leonard, a professor of history at Metropolitan State University of Denver, who has written some of the seminal tomes of Colorado history.
“Martin brought high-paying jobs, and supplier companies followed,” Leonard said. “Soon lots of companies discovered what an attractive place this is, and that contributed majorly to the growth of the southwestern suburbs. Without Martin, Littleton would have remained little a lot longer than it did.”
The industry enjoys a symbiotic relationship with the state’s military installations, including U.S. Space Command at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs.
Leonard said the area used to have a better awareness of the achievements in its midst, before the aerospace industry got diffused into a more diverse economy.
“It’s an extremely important and underappreciated role,” Leonard said. “Big newspapers were always celebrating some new achievement that Lockheed was making, and they do less of that now, unfortunately.”
The next frontier?
Looking to the future, the sky’s the limit, Lindell said.
“We’re seeing lots of growth in commercial and private spaceflight,” Lindell said. “And satellites are getting cheaper, smaller, and more capable.”
Lindell said Colorado’s aerospace profile may grow if plans to develop the state’s first spaceport get off the ground. Based at Front Range Airport near DIA, the spaceport would accommodate space planes, which will take off and land like normal airplanes.
A number of industry groups will host Aerospace Day at the Colorado Capitol on March 19, an annual event featuring demonstrations and presentations of the state’s aerospace prowess.
“We want people to get as excited about this stuff as we are,” Lindell said. “We’re at the forefront of some big things here. Keep your eye on this industry — it’s really taking off.”