When Vicky Lea started as Director of Aerospace and Aviation for the Metro Denver Economic Development Corporation (EDC) over a decade ago, she was responsible for developing the city’s aerospace economy and, by extension, of the state. It seemed like a pretty easy gig. After all, the state was already home to major space defense facilities, huge corporations competing for NASA contracts, and universities with historic histories of extraterrestrial research. The Space Foundation in Colorado Springs had even hosted the annual Space Symposium, one of the largest gatherings of industry professionals in the world, since 1984. But when she traveled to that event to promote the state in As a major aerospace center, the most common reaction she got from attendees outside of Colorado was bewilderment. “The recognition just wasn’t there,” she says. Fast forward to the most recent symposium, and things have changed drastically. Lea says the new message from conference attendees is: We are considering relocating our business, and have been told Colorado is where we should be looking.
This shift isn’t just due to Lea’s tireless recruiting efforts. The industry is undergoing rapid and profound change globally, and Colorado is reaping the benefits. “Aerospace has moved on from the era of the military and NASA,” says Jeffrey Forrest, chair of the Department of Aviation and Aerospace Science at Metropolitan State University in Denver. Instead, the industry is soaring into what has been dubbed NewSpace, where travel beyond Earth’s atmosphere is driven by private companies rather than giant Apollo-like government initiatives. Hundreds of companies large and small are vying to carve out an economic niche, ranging from relatively mundane activities such as communications infrastructure to sci-fi-worthy orbiting movie studios.
The pace is reminiscent of the gold rush of the 1800s, experts say, and just as it was during that frenzy, Colorado is in a special position to take advantage of predicted boom times. The state has a unique aerospace ecosystem that dates back to the late 1940s, a decade before NASA was founded, when physicists from the University of Colorado at Boulder placed scientific hardware on captured German rockets during World War II. World War to search the earth’s upper atmosphere. Soon after, the military began to establish a strong presence in the state, in part because early Soviet missiles could not reach the interior of the continent, and aerospace companies moved here to benefit the both talent produced by neighboring universities and the military. colossal defense budgets. “You have to watch in amazement at the number of like-minded people who gravitate together,” says Dan Baker, director of CU Boulder’s famed Laboratory of Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP). “You’ve had a positive feedback loop and things have been built to an extremely solid level.”
Today, there are 300 aerospace companies in the state employing some 34,750 people, according to the Metro Denver EDC. And those numbers are only growing: Lockheed Martin Space, a Colorado-based division of the defense giant, had more than a thousand vacancies in the state in April. All of this means Colorado is second only to California in the size of its commercial aerospace industry and first per capita.
Yet most Coloradans outside the industry have little idea of its reach or impact. Some call it the space paradox. “Space is more important than ever in our daily lives,” says Joe Rice, Director of Government Affairs for Lockheed Martin Space, “but we tend to realize it less.” Space exploration has become so mainstream, he says, that it has lost the grandeur of the Apollo era. But there’s a new space race happening right now, and from Earth to orbit the Moon, Mars and beyond, Colorado has a head start.