Seattle is seen as a hub or epicenter of the “new space” industry, so much so that the annual NewSpace conference produced by the Space Frontier Foundation came to the city for the first time last week. The conference attracted a who’s who of the industry for networking and discussion.
One question tackled at the event was why Seattle? John Thornquist, director of the state Office of Aerospace, said the state has the four essential elements that the space industry needs:
- Businesses and a highly skilled workforce in manufacturing, software, tech, engineering, and big data
- A culture of entrepreneurship
- Strong university education and research
- Support of state leaders
“We’ve been on the forefront designing and building some of the most advanced, successful commercial and military aircraft, unmanned aerial vehicles, and scientific exploration vehicles the world has ever known,” Thornquist said in welcoming remarks to the conference.
Panel: Why Seattle for new space
OK, but it’s his job to pump the state. A panel of space company leaders gave their reasons for choosing Seattle and Washington.
Fred Wilson, director of business development for Aerojet Rocketdyne, said the reason the company chose the Seattle area is simple. Its four founders were Boeing engineers who started the company in 1959.
“Boeing and the aerospace engineering pool that Boeing brought to the Seattle area was a key spawning ground for space companies,” Wilson said, adding that Aerojet Rocketdyne is now doing the same thing. “Having been in the Seattle area for close to 60 years, we’ve spawned off a lot of engineers to companies in the Seattle area.”
Jason Andrews, CEO of Spaceflight Industries, backed Thornquist up on his assessment, noting that space companies need great software, big data, and capital.
“Seattle is an epicenter for all three,” Andrews said. Combine that with the city’s other positives, and you have an easy choice.
“Seattle is a great place,” Andrews said. “It is unique here because of the visionary people and the pioneering culture that Seattle has had from the very beginning.”
Rob Meyerson, president of Blue Origin, picked up on that concept as well.
“Space companies come here because so many companies before us have come and made this a really, really fantastic place, when you combine it with the natural resources around us,” Meyerson said. He also said the educational institutions are a good draw, from Raisbeck Aviation High School to the state’s universities.
“It’s a unique place, it’s a beautiful place to live, it’s a very, very intelligent community, a high rate of STEM education, a very literate group,” Meyerson said. “The infrastructure here is really well suited for what we want to do.”
Chris Lewicki worked for NASA and the Jet Propulsion Lab in Southern California before moving north with the founding of Planetary Resources, of which he is president and CEO. He said Seattle was a conscious choice for the company; it’s ambition is mining asteroids, and that will take a while to develop.
“It’s going to take you two, three, four, five, ten—maybe longer—years to build a successful business in the space industry,” Lewicki said. “You’ve got to enjoy where you live, and Seattle is spectacular for that.”
The future of new space
Andrews of Spaceflight Industries said it’s hard to predict how the industry will evolve, as so many companies have different goals and objectives, from asteroid mining to satellite launching.
“The ultimate holy grail is about creating a permanent human presence in space; three of the companies leading that are here,” Andrews said, noting Space X, Blue Origin, and Vulcan Aerospace.
“Seattle is really at the beginning of its space growth curve,” he added. “Companies here are going to have other entrepreneurs that come, work for five years, and spawn off and create new businesses that fill niche markets around this ecosystem that we’re creating in Seattle.”
“The capital, the people, the resources, the attitude—Seattle is going to be on the map for a long time,” Andrews concluded.
“The companies here are either a part of the revolution itself, or they’re enabling it in some fashion,” said Charles Beames, president of Vulcan Aerospace. “In terms of jobs, the biggest growth is actually going to be all of the new space startups that are highly innovative, that are going to survive, and they’re going to employ all kinds of people and grow new companies.”
“I don’t think you can constrain where the Seattle space economy and industry is going to go,” said Wilson of Aerojet Rocketdyne. “I think it’s going to be innovative and creative and it’s going to pop up in many different areas we don’t even realize right now.”
It turns out, then, that Washington’s aerospace director Thornquist, and everyone else in the state, has good reason to be optimistic.
“New space has come to Washington,” Thornquist said, “and we’re more than ready for it.”