When Joe Laurienti talks about his team designing a rocket engine in a rented attic in the early days of his aerospace company, it brings to mind stories about Silicon Valley's high-tech companies that started as projects in somebody's garage.
Laurienti's story about his company, Lafayette-based Ursa Major Technologies, might one day be part of industry lore if Colorado becomes known as "Aerospace Alley."
"It's a grand vision, but it's also something that I truly believe is possible," said retired Maj. Gen. John Barry, president and CEO of the Wings Over the Rockies Air and Space Museum.
It's not really a moonshot kind of goal, considering that Colorado's aerospace economy is already second only to California's. Colorado has 180 aerospace companies and more than 500 businesses that provide space-related products and services, The Denver Post reports. It has the highest concentration of private aerospace employment in the country: 26,620.
And the industry in Colorado supports 190,880 direct and indirect jobs while pumping $15.4 billion into the economy each year.
Although the aerospace industry has a long history in Colorado and the state is home to some of the biggest players — Ball Aerospace, Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, Raytheon, Harris Corp., United Launch Alliance and Sierra Nevada Corp. — Barry believes Colorado's importance to the business goes mostly unrecognized by the public.
After someone suggested Colorado could be the Silicon Valley of aerospace, Barry and others spun off the idea of "Aerospace Alley" and have been spreading the word.
"The industry is like a jewel that we have right here in Colorado that the average citizen doesn't know as much about as they should," Barry said. "There's a lot going on that's pretty exciting."
There's the work by the "legacy" aerospace firms, including Lockheed Martin, whose Denver team built NASA's InSight spacecraft, which landed on Mars on Monday. Sierra Nevada is building the Dream Chaser, a winged craft whose missions will include resupplying the International Space Station for NASA. Ball Aerospace will provide the spacecraft and the University of Colorado-Boulder's Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics will handle mission operations for NASA's Imaging X-Ray Polarimetry Exploration Mission, which will explore black holes, neutron stars and pulsars to help scientists better understand the origin of the universe.
Representatives of the military, defense industry, Colorado Springs and state economic development agencies, private companies and the state's congressional delegation are working together to position the state as the epicenter of "national security space" operations, Rich Burchfield said. The military bases, Air Force Space Command, universities and aerospace companies in the state have created an ecosystem to make that happen, added Burchfield, a retired U.S. Air Force colonel and the chief defense development officer for the Colorado Springs Chamber of Commerce and Economic Development Corp.
"The aerospace sector in the last five years has really shown accelerated growth and development in Colorado," said Jay Lindell, the Colorado Office of Economic Development and International Trade official who has the title of aerospace and defense industry champion.
A report by the Metro Denver Economic Development Corp. found that Colorado's aerospace industry logged its third consecutive year of growth in 2017 and expanded at its fastest rate since 2007. The industry grew 4.7 percent between 2016 and 2017.
"We're close to 3 percent growth this year, which outpaces the national average" of 1 percent to 2 percent, said Vicky Lea, Metro Denver's director of aerospace and aviation.
"What's the secret sauce? There are many ingredients," Lea said. "Fifty-five percent of Colorado's aerospace companies employ 10 people or fewer, which speaks to the highly innovative, entrepreneurial environment we have here."
The growth is also made possible by the strong foundation built by the more established companies that have worked closely with NASA and the Department of Defense through the years.
"Historically, we have a very strong bedrock of military space," Lea said. "That military presence has proved to be the bedrock that attracted prime contractors, which in turn feed the environment for smaller, more entrepreneurial companies."
The Air Force bases in Colorado Springs include Peterson and Schriever. Cheyenne Mountain Air Force Station is run by the Air Force Command, which hosts the North American Aerospace Defense Command — NORAD — and other national security activities. Also, the Air Force Academy is near Colorado Springs and Buckley Air Force Base is in Aurora.
Some crucial historic reasons for Colorado's role in space-related defense activities, according to the Colorado Space Coalition: Its central location allowed the military to bounce shortwave radio signals to both its Asian and European operations, and it was less vulnerable to enemy attack.
Other keys to the aerospace industry's longevity and growth, Lindell said, are Colorado's highly educated workforce, universities with strong aerospace programs, research institutions, 30 federal laboratories and a lifestyle that makes it easy to attract workers.
"We see expansion in our prime companies. The large businesses that do a lot of government space work have all reported increases in employment and revenue," Lindell said.
The growth among the larger companies creates opportunities for smaller companies that provide services for the industry, Lindell added.
Ball Aerospace, in business for 60 years, has marked many milestones, including the design and manufacture of the Kepler/K2 telescope, whose mission is in part to search for other possible habitable planets in our region of the Milky Way. Debra Facktor, the company's vice president and general manager of strategic operations, said there is a creative environment in Colorado where larger and smaller companies can benefit from each other's strengths.
Ball has teamed up with Spire Global Inc., which designs and builds small satellites, on a program on behalf of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency to monitor maritime traffic in the Arctic.
Startups also are taking advantage of technological advances and infusions of private financing to lead the next wave — smaller, less expensive satellites to serve commercial enterprises as well as the government. Small satellites cost in the millions rather than the billions that the larger, bus-size crafts do.
"Technology has enabled space to be much more affordable for business to gain a foothold and the cost of launching, with multiple launch providers all competing for these launches, has become more affordable," Lindell said.
Startups such as Ursa Major are forging their own paths in the changing landscape.
"If we had tried this 20 years ago, we would have probably been laughed out of the room by a lot of investors," Laurienti said. "But space is getting a lot of new attention. Some billionaires — Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Richard Branson — started putting their own money into companies, and that allowed other private investors to see that there's potential for companies like ours to grow without being a Boeing or Lockheed Martin."
Ursa Major, started by the 28-year-old Laurienti in 2015 with a small team of people he worked with at another aerospace company, has grown to 30 employees and just moved into a 9,000-square-foot space. Its focus is "building very good engines that everyone wants to buy and fly," said Laurienti, whose father worked at Ball Aerospace. The team designs, engineers and assembles on-site and then tests the rocket engines at a spot in Berthoud. Brilliant streams of yellow and white shoot out and light up the place when the engine fires up.
There aren't many companies producing just engines, Laurienti said. Ursa Major's engines, with 5,000 pounds of thrust, are well suited for the small satellites — some the size of a microwave oven or wine box — that are increasingly being used for communications and collection of images.
By comparison, an engine that would help propel a Falcon 9 rocket, which is designed and manufactured by Elon Musk's SpaceX, has at least 150,000 pounds of thrust.
Ursa Major's goal is to produce engines that are versatile so they can be used by a range of vehicles. About 80 percent of the engine is made with 3-D printing. Laurienti said the company likely will produce dozens of engines in 2019. He expects it to take a while to catch up with demand.
"The market's pretty under-served, so there's a lot of room for winners to come out of the woodwork and differentiate themselves," Laurienti said.
Dirk Wallinger, CEO and board director of Denver-based York Space Systems, said more companies are using small satellites to beam back data on weather, climate and even the location of ships around the world.
"A lot more companies are doing analytics. The demand is quite strong," said Wallinger, who has worked for Orbital Sciences, General Dynamics and Lockheed Martin.
Information of interest includes the flow and level of oil in pipelines and tanks, the rate of photosynthesis in agricultural areas, the soil's moisture content and whether illegal fishing is occurring. Being able to collect, interpret and use data spurs new industries, said Wallinger, whose company manufactures and operates satellites the size of a hotel mini fridge.
"You might not think of Uber as a space company, but it 100 percent is. It really doesn't exist without space satellites. (Global Positioning System) was really the first space data made available to people affordably," Wallinger said.
With the right level of financial support for and promotion of the companies, Wallinger said Colorado could become a hub for the small-satellite sector of the aerospace industry.
In addition to appointing Lindell, a retired Air Force major general, to head efforts on behalf of Colorado's aerospace industry, the state has awarded a total of $9.23 million in grants through its Advanced Industries programs to aerospace companies and projects.
Gov. John Hickenlooper and others championed having a facility in Colorado where the next generation of space vehicles will be able to launch and land. In August, the Federal Aviation Administration licensed Spaceport Colorado at Colorado Air and Space Port, formerly Front Range Airport near Watkins. It's one of only 11 such facilities in the country.
Even though the vehicles that will use the Space Port are likely several years from reality, Barry said it's important to plan for the future. He also believes the U.S. must be prepared for what he thinks will be moves by China to take the lead in space.
"There's going to be another space race, in my opinion," said Barry, an Air Force Academy graduate who served as a board member and executive director of the Space Shuttle Columbia Accident Investigation.
If that happens, the U.S. will risk falling behind unless it addresses the current shortage of pilots, aircraft mechanics, air traffic controllers and engineers, Barry said. Again, he believes Colorado can be a leader by supporting and expanding programs at the state's universities and schools. Wings over the Rockies has offered space on its Exploration of Flight campus at Centennial Airport to the Colorado Skies Academy, a proposed aerospace-focused charter school.
Barry said, "I was telling students, 'I envy you. I wish I was your age again because what's going to happen in the next 10, 15, 20 years is just going to be phenomenal.'"