The Wild Blue Yonder: Colorado’s preeminent role in aerospace and aviation

By Jan Wondra

One of the difficulties in reporting on Colorado’s and metro Denver’s leading role in aerospace is the figures lag behind a rapidly-expanding reality. There are so many advancements coming so quickly that it is impossible to report on all of them.

Colorado’s aerospace industry now ranks second in the nation for private sector aerospace employment. As of 2013, the last year for which statistics are available, it encompassed 4,370 aerospace employees in the Denver south area alone. Aerospace in the Denver south area now accounts for 22 percent of all employment in the nine-county metro Denver area.

The state is home to 140 businesses classified as aerospace companies, as well as 400 companies and suppliers of space-related products and services. Direct employment in the aerospace cluster includes 25,150 private sector employees and 29,960 military personnel. Colorado’s aerospace cluster has seen annual double-digit growth since 2010. Some 69 Colorado companies have won technology development and commercialization grants since 2001 via NASA’s Small Business Innovation Research or Small Business Technology Transfer program. Similar grants have been awarded to 193 companies to develop technologies for the Department of Defense.

Colorado’s aviation sector includes nearly 600 businesses within metro Denver alone, and Centennial Airport is the hub of aviation activity for the Denver south area. As the major local reliever airport for Denver International Airport, it generates more than $897 million in annual revenue to the region. Direct employment in aviation for the region stands at 14,652, with more than 1,300 of that number in the Denver south.

That metro Denver and specifically the Denver south area is home to this activity is no surprise. It is a combination of military presence, innovation, and technology-friendly government policies, leading-edge educational and research facilities, and strategic resources brought to bear in a strongly-collaborative environment.  That Colorado is a strategic location for the space industry is first due to the proximity to four military commands—Air Force Space Command, Army Space Command, NORAD and USNORTHCOMM—and three space-related Air Force bases.

Along with major Department of Defense facilities and NASA research activities, the state’s universities, including the University of Colorado-Boulder, are among the world’s best for aerospace engineering. Colorado is also actively cultivating innovation and commercial space opportunities, developing Spaceport Colorado and pursuing federal designation as a test site for unmanned aerial vehicles.

Many of the nation’s major aerospace contractors base important operations in Colorado, including Ball Aerospace, Boeing, ITT Exelis, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, Raytheon, Sierra Nevada Corporation and United Launch Alliance. Ball Aerospace serves as an important anchor, headquartered in the region and serving civil, commercial and military markets. In 2010,

NASA awarded contracts totaling more than $1.5 billion to Colorado aerospace companies, earning the state a fourth-place ranking nationally.

The latest version of an Atlas V 401 rocket, designed and built by Centennial-based United Launch Alliance, blasted off March

22 from NASA’s Cape Kennedy Space Center. The mission was to re-supply the International Space Station. ULA has completed multiple launches not only for NASA, but it has also been selected for commercial projects and by foreign governments to put their satellites into orbit.

Lockheed Martin, whose headquarters is Waterton Canyon in Douglas County, is pushing ahead on the OSIRIS-REx mission, which will send an unmanned vehicle to intersect with the path of an asteroid.  The Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle is designed to carry astronauts on deep space missions. The next version of its unmanned Orion mission is scheduled for September 2018. This stepping-stone toward human deep space exploration will ultimately escalate to a manned mission to Mars.

“This next 17-day mission will take it to low-earth orbit and into a transfer orbit around the moon,” said Casey O’Hayre, systems engineer for avionics on the project. “It’s a full-up vehicle with all the life-support systems.”

Highlands Ranch-based UP Aerospace successfully launched the Space Loft rocket on a suborbital mission carrying seven payloads for NASA’s Flight Opportunities Program. The program is intended to encourage low-cost commercial launch services for NASA.

Last year, Englewood-based Surrey Satellite Technology was selected by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory for the flight of the Deep Space Atomic Clock payload. DSAC is considered a crucial requirement for NASA’s deep space exploration missions, all of which require much higher precision in their data collection and navigation than that currently available on earth.

Sierra Nevada Corporation is changing the commercial space landscape. Its new space programs include the Dreamchaser space transportation system, a NASA contract to service ISS. It will carry cargo to the ISS, and return samples and research projects to earth. It recently completed offices at Centennial Airport.

Centennial Airport

Aviation developments abound

Centennial Airport is the hub of a 24-hour U.S. Customs Office and a 24/7 FAA-staffed control tower.  Several area emergency services are based there, including Flight for Life, law enforcement, medical flights and at least six flight schools. Aviation tech companies, such as Jeppesen, Air Methods Corp, Mayo Aviation and Bye Aerospace, are clustering around the airport perimeter.

Interestingly, aviation seems to encourage entrepreneurship. While the Denver south area is home to massive aviation companies, nearly 72 percent of the companies employ fewer than 10 people. Only 1 percent employs 250 or more.

Across the board, the combination of aerospace and aviation companies clustered here continues to raise the average wage of the Denver south. Aerospace especially continues to add jobs, opportunities and solidify the Denver south’s national reputation as a hub of space-oriented activity reshaping our nation’s advance into the wild blue yonder and beyond.

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