Ready for takeoff: Colorado’s aerospace economy is soaring, and Mines graduates are helping the industry rocket into the future
After more than three decades at Lockheed Martin, Paul Anderson ’85 has plenty of well-known projects to reflect upon. Take the Mars rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, that roamed the red planet years longer than expected. “The mission was supposed to last 90 days,” Anderson said of the little rovers that captured the public’s imagination as they sent back images from Mars for six and 14 years respectively.
But there’s little time for resting upon one’s laurels in Colorado’s booming aerospace economy. Anderson, a director on the Orion spacecrafts that will return people to the Moon for the Artemis program, paused for an interview after wrapping up yet another proposal for NASA and while waiting for the subsequent announcement: Blue Origin, Jeff Bezos’ aerospace company, will partner with Lockheed and Northrop Grumman on a human-capable lunar landing system for Artemis. It meant Anderson would become the program director for the Artemis lander as well.
“This is a time of change like never in history,” Anderson said of the billionaire-fueled space race that has transformed the industry and has become a key driver of Colorado’s economy. “Colorado aerospace is just exploding,” Anderson said.
Aerospace is a powerhouse in the state, with more than 180 aerospace companies and more than 500 space-related suppliers and service providers that have generated 29,000 private jobs and $15.4 billion in total output. Between 2012 and 2017, the industry logged a 6.1 percent employment growth rate in Colorado, according to a report from the Metro Denver Economic Development Corporation.
From innovations in the booming small-satellite sector to science missions to human space travel, multiple factors have come together to strengthen the industry, which has long been a strong player in the state’s economy. “Private business, defense business, NASA business—all of it creates an ecosystem that’s growing, it’s dynamic, it’s robust,” said Jay Lindell, aerospace and defense industry champion for the Colorado Office of Economic Development and International Trade.
Private space ventures are still just a slice of Colorado’s out-of-this-world aerospace industry, which is approximately 80 percent funded by the federal government, Lindell said. California still outpaces Colorado for total aerospace jobs, but Colorado is tops in aerospace employment per capita.
Legacy companies, startups soar
Aerospace stalwarts such as Lockheed, Ball Aerospace in Boulder, Sierra Nevada Corp. in Louisville and Northrop Grumman, which has offices from Colorado Springs to Boulder, have served as anchors for
the industry in Colorado. But a business-friendly environment, with low corporate taxes and economic incentives, has drawn companies to the state and helped homegrown aerospace startups gain a foothold on the Front Range, where those smaller shops often do business with the titans.
Startups pour all their energy into innovations that go into bigger projects—like a cutting-edge additive manufacturing process that can create a much-needed part on a launch vehicle. The synergy is so mutually beneficial that Boeing started a venture capital fund for startups in 2017, and Airbus has had one since 2014.
“There’s long been an aerospace presence, like Lockheed, here in Colorado,” said Beth Hutchinson ’07, an engineering operations specialist at United Launch Alliance. “If you’re going to be in the industry and if you’re a smaller supplier providing tooling or small piece parts and materials, being close to some of the big competitors is helpful.”
OEDIT estimates 84 percent of Colorado’s aerospace companies are small businesses.
“What really sells Colorado is other businesses,” Lindell said. “Business-to-business connections, whether it be at a symposium or conferences or businesses that have a supplier relationship or another relationship, they talk at forums and the next thing you know, they go, ‘Well, why don’t we just move our business?’”
The state also offers incentives. OEDIT’s Advanced Industries Program offers accelerators from proof-of- concept grants to collaborative infrastructure funding, as well as tax credits and procurement help. Since the Advanced Industries Program’s inception in 2013, it has given $14.4 million in funding to aerospace companies— more than 20 percent of the program’s total funding.
An educated workforce
Colorado’s tech sector and its educated workforce also make it an appealing place to plant an aerospace company. Forty percent of Coloradans have at least a bachelor’s degree, making the state second in educational attainment only to Massachusetts.
The tech sector is another catalyst for the aerospace boom, Lindell said. “Satellites, all their control and operation is enabled by software, but all the data that’s downloaded from these satellites, whether it’s geospatial data or communications data, gets downloaded and turns into real information,” he said. “So data analytics is big business in Colorado.”
And then there are the universities.
“Mines has just been in the middle of this thing that exploded around them, providing all of these engineers,” Anderson said. “The industry just started siphoning all these graduates, and you’re seeing Mines respond to that.”
The school doesn’t have an aerospace-specific program, but hundreds of alumni work in the industry. To create a more direct link between those alumni and current students, the current administration and alumni (including Anderson) launched an Aerospace Interest Group in 2017 to bring students and alumni in the industry together at events, such as the one they’ve dubbed Trajectories.
“Mines has a reputation as one of the top schools in the country, if not the world, but because Mines doesn’t have a pure aerospace degree path, I don’t think people are quite as aware of how successful Mines alumni are in the industry,” said Hutchinson, who is involved with the Aerospace Interest Group.
Anderson’s own experience in leadership at Lockheed shows why it doesn’t seem to matter that Mines doesn’t have an aerospace program. Around 15 percent of Lockheed’s hires are aerospace engineers, and the other 85 percent are from other disciplines, he said. His own career started after earning a degree in electrical engineering at Mines 34 years ago.
A visible Big Bang
Colorado’s aerospace companies are at the nexus of several projects that will become national news over the next few years. In 2021 alone, two major projects with deep Colorado ties are scheduled to launch. Sierra Nevada’s Dream Chaser, a winged space plane that resembles the old Space Shuttle but with sleeker lines, will first ferry cargo, then human passengers, to the International Space Station. And the James Webb Space Telescope, which NASA bills as the successor to the Hubble, will relay images of deep space back to Earth.
As a subcontractor to Northrop Grumman, Ball Aerospace designed and built the optics and mirror system for NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope. The 18 segments of the Webb’s massive primary mirror unfold into shape after takeoff. It’s the world’s largest infrared telescope, and it will be the largest mirror ever flown in space. Ball says the Webb will detect objects that are 400 times fainter than what Earth-based and space telescopes can. It’s designed to capture the birth of stars and search for light from the Big Bang.
“It’s a phenomenal program, it’s a great team and it’s exciting science,” said Dan Porpora ’06, MS ’07, a program manager in civil space business at Ball Aerospace who has been working on the telescope for most of the past 10 years. “Our portion of the telescope that Ball provided has been delivered. We are now officially an observatory,” he said. Ball is working with Northrop and NASA on testing now.
The complexities of building a groundbreaking, space-traveling research instrument like the Webb are in the engineering, but making every system on the telescope work requires another skill students learn at Mines, Porpora said: working on a team. “It’s a lot of communication. It’s a lot of conversations with people about, ‘Can you do this, can you not do this, will this break your design, will it cost $20 million if we do this.’” The cross-disciplinary education Mines offers makes graduates especially well-suited for jobs in the industry, he said.
“What Mines has to offer is a really great academic program and leadership characteristics, which is something I consistently see from Mines graduates,” said Michelle Magnetti, Ball’s director of human resources, who has been recruiting in aerospace in Colorado for 15 years.
An engineering degree from Mines has landed some alumni in research institutions as well. Sean Zeeck ’10 is a mechanical engineer at the Earth Observing Laboratory at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, where he designs one-off instruments and prototypes for researchers. One of the bigger projects he’s working on is Airborne Phased Array Radar, a souped-up radar system that will fly on NCAR’s C-130. “If we can learn more about a storm with better instruments, then that can give us better data about how the storm came to be and what it’s going to do.”
Zeeck took a circuitous path into aerospace, from his mechanical engineering degree to the oil fields of the Middle East, then back to Colorado for a master’s in mechanical engineering with a focus on aerospace at University of Colorado-Colorado Springs. He likes to share his story with the students he meets at Aerospace Interest Group events—students who might be nervous about that big transition from college to their career. “In the end, Mines teaches you how to learn and how to work hard. Those two things combined, you can go wherever you want.”
MINES AEROSPACE INTEREST GROUP: ON A TRAJECTORY TO CONNECT
The Mines Aerospace Interest Group launched their first Trajectories event in 2017 to bring students and industry professionals together, and just like Colorado’s aerospace industry, it’s growing. Three hundred people attended the fall 2019 event—about half students and half industry professionals, Anderson said. “There are a lot of Mines grads working in aerospace, but they didn’t have a natural connection back to the school,” said Anderson, who helped launch the Aerospace Interest Group after a conversation with Mines President Paul C. Johnson.
Since the first event, more Mines alumni have entered the fold to help students make connections in the industry. “Our whole point is to bridge the gap between students and industry to show that yes, there are a ton of Mines grads that are in aerospace, and very successful ones,” Zeeck said.
The next event is in April 2020, at the national Space Symposium in Colorado Springs. To learn more about the Aerospace Interest Group, visit weare.mines.edu.