Kent just might be Space City, USA.
It certainly was on July 5 at the Washington State Space Summit at Blue Origin headquarters in Kent along 76th Avenue South near South 212th Street. The guests included NASA Administrator Bill Nelson; U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Washington; Blue Origin CEO Bob Smith; Kent-based Stoke Space CEO Andy Lapsa; and several other regional aerospace industry leaders, STEM education leaders and college students.
Cantwell organized the summit trade show and panel discussion about the economic opportunities opening up in the next decade as America grows its space industry and returns to the Moon.
“It really speaks to the fact that we are the hub for space technology in the state of Washington,” Kent Mayor Dana Ralph said as she attended the summit. “We know that there are more space jobs here than anyplace else in the state.
“We’ve got all kinds of space technology companies here and high-level government officials from Washington, D.C., and it’s pretty exciting.”
Washington’s space industry has an economic impact of $4.6 billion annually and supports 13,103 jobs, according to a Cantwell press release. NASA’s Artemis program, to return Americans to the Moon, has 42 suppliers in Washington state.
In May, NASA selected Blue Origin as the second builder of a human landing system for the Artemis program. The $3.4 billion contract is projected to support more than 1,000 jobs in the state. Amazon founder Jeff Bezos founded Blue Origin and opened the company headquarters in Kent in 2000. In 2020, the company opened a 232,885-square-foot facility in Kent.
Smith said during the panel discussion that Blue Origin has gone from 800 employees to over 10,000. That includes employees at its rocket launch site in West Texas.
Stoke Space opened in Kent in 2019 with co-founders Andy Lapsa and Tom Feldman, each former Blue Origin employees. The company focuses on building reusable rockets designed to fly daily. Stoke Space has about 90 employees and plans to continue to grow.
“It’s an amazing time to be part of our industry,” Lapsa said during the panel discussion. “It’s a renaissance period. It’s really just the very beginning for our industry to take off.”
Lapsa said the company has raised or received over $100 million in financing, virtually all of it in Washington state. Stoke has an 175,000-square-foot engineering and manufacturing facility in Kent and built a rocket test facility in Moses Lake.
Starfish Space sits just north of Kent in Tukwila, but is another aerospace company started by former Blue Origin employees Austin Link and Trevor Bennett. Tbe company employs about 40 and focuses on building a space vehicle called Otter to perform satellite servicing missions, to extend their life or to remove them.
Michael Madrid, director of strategic relationships for Starfish, said during the trade show that it’s exciting to be among other aerospace companies in the Kent area.
“It has been a legacy aerospace hub in many ways and has a rich history of being an aerospace hub,” Madrid said. “The space part of that is really taking off and also the startup side of it. …that’s fun to see.”
Mayor Ralph definitely likes to see what the companies are doing.
“This is our future, space is the future of Kent,” Ralph said. “Watching these companies thrive even in an uncertain economy tells us that this is where we need to be. We need to be investing as a community and we know that the companies are investing in us.
“The future is extremely bright for aerospace, outer space, near space all of those things are happening right here in the Kent Valley.”
Cantwell continues to be impressed with the role of the state in the space industry.
“We can see here today that many companies in the state of Washington are providing growth and opportunity for space jobs,” Cantwell said. “[Washington’s space industry] is providing a booming economy, and it has helped maintain America’s position of leadership in space exploration.”
Nelson, a former astronaut and Florida U.S. senator, said America’s next mission to the Moon vastly differs from the 1960s when the government did everything. Congress changed the mission for NASA to include private contractors.
“We do so now with commercial partners, Blue Origin a good example along with SpaceX in developing the two landers for us,” Nelson said.
Nelson also explained how much deeper this mission is compared to the Apollo program.
“We are going back to the Moon after a half century but we’re not going just to go, we are going in order to learn to live and work and to create in order to go to Mars,” Nelson said.
NASA plans to launch its first lunar orbit in 2024 and eventually have man return to the Moon and the first woman to walk on the Moon in 2025.
“You are at the cusp of this and it’s happening in front of our very eyes,” Nelson said.
One current challenge for the space industry is finding people to fill job openings.
“Crank ‘em out because a lot of startup industries can’t get enough employees,” Nelson said he told college leaders.
Nelson said there are 4,622 jobs in Washington from NASA contracts.
Cantwell said she has urged the U.S. Department of Commerce to place a new manufacturing institute in the Pacific Northwest focused on advanced aerospace materials manufacturing and workforce training and education, a recommendation supported by Nelson.
Cantwell said there are more than 1,000 job openings in the space industry in Washington state.
“These are jobs from software developers, to engineers, to welders, machinists, and some of those jobs average over $100,000 a year and don’t require a four-year degree,” she said.
Overall, however, the future looks bright for the space industry in Kent and the state. Ralph likes to see how Kent has transformed from the days of the Boeing Space Center in the 1960s and 70s when the company invented the Lunar Roving Vehicle for the Apollo missions to the Moon, to all of the space companies in town today.
“That’s one of the coolest things,” Ralph said. “We’ve been a space city for a very long time and we are just continuing that work and elevating it to the next level.”