DENVER – Colorado’s burgeoning space industry employs more than 66,000 people and contributes $8.7 billion to the economy, but it must cultivate an educated workforce, rely less on government contracts and collaborate more if it is to thrive, a think-tank report says.
The industry ranges from headline-grabbing projects such as a proposed spaceport to transport civilians to outer space, to staid government contractors that supply satellite technology to the military, according to the report from the Washington, D.C.-based Brookings Institute.
The industry has caught the eye of Gov. John Hickenlooper’s administration, which is trying to help the sector grow. It co-sponsored a forum on space development, timed to the release of the Brookings report.
Kevin Lund, executive director of the Colorado Office of Economic Development and International Trade, acknowledged that discussions of the industry can conjure up images of the 1950s cartoon “The Jetsons.”
“But real, tangible things are going on,” Lund said.
The state’s decades-long history with space is a byproduct of its array of military bases and installations, which in turn fostered aerospace companies, innovations in satellite technology, and government research labs. The state’s dry climate, clear skies and elevation a mile or more closer to space were also helpful.
“It’s entering a period where it has an opportunity to be the Silicon Valley of space,” Mark Muro, one of the report’s authors and director of policy for the Metropolitan Policy Program at Brookings, said of Colorado. He noted that space innovations frequently have terrestrial applications – from satellite technology that spawned the DISH Network to mapping data that is now used by online companies like Google.
The report, titled “Launch! Taking Colorado’s Space Economy to the Next Level,” says that workers in the industry are well-paid, with an average annual income of $92,500, nearly twice that of the typical Colorado private-sector employee. But it warns that much of the industry is still tied to federal defense contracts, which are scheduled to be severely trimmed in automatic budget cuts due to kick in next month.
The report states that government purchases account for two-thirds of all satellite manufacturing revenues over the last two years. President Obama’s latest budget calls for a 20 percent reduction in funding for such purchases, which would drop even further should the automatic cuts take effect. Meanwhile, states ranging from Alaska to Texas are pushing to create their own space industries, and the supply of educated workers who can perform these high-end jobs is shrinking.
Lund pointed to several steps that Colorado has taken to help the industry. The Legislature is considering a bill to provide grants for high-end technology Colorado businesses, like many in the space field. Lund also hopes the state implements another grant program to help Colorado small businesses travel overseas to create markets for high-tech exports. Congress last year passed a law written by Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet to make it easier to export satellite technology.
Then there’s the spaceport. Hickenlooper in 2011 asked the federal government to designate Front Range Airport, near Denver International Airport, as a potential spaceport, where commercial flights to space could launch. The project won a $200,000 federal grant and work is continuing.
Lund said the spaceport remains a “long-term” ambition, but Colorado’s extraterrestrial tech future also lies with other projects, such as a bioscience firm’s effort to explore why Alzheimer’s disease develops slower in zero-gravity. He said that’s the sort of cross-industry collaboration the government needs to encourage.