Mark Lee, a 66-year-old former NASA astronaut, had just retired from Affiliated Engineers when his bosses mentioned they were thinking about launching an aerospace division. “I said, ‘Well, I’d like to take that on,’” Lee recalls. His first suggestion was to move their focus to Colorado Springs. “They asked: ‘Why would you move to Colorado?’ I told them: “That’s the place where everybody is.’”
Indeed. Colorado Springs, despite being less heralded than Huntsville, Alabama, or the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, is often the first choice for those looking to break through the space industry stratosphere. Home to five military installations and more than 240 aerospace and defense companies, it hosts a litany of space-related endeavors: the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), the Air Force Space Command and the Global Positioning System (yes, the GPS feeding your phone). Yet somehow Colorado continues to fly under the radar in the public imagination, despite being …
That’s an increase of 27,060 reported by the Colorado Space Coalition in 2010, a 16.6 percent jump, and puts Colorado second in the U.S. space industry. It trails only California (which has 200,000-plus space-linked jobs) and has already far outstripped traditional space powerhouses like Florida (130,000) and Texas (135,000). But Colorado Springs has other benefits, despite the fact that, on many days, the heavens are obscured by fog rolling in from the Rocky Mountains and nearby Pikes Peak. For one, it churns out flight-ready students. Not just at the local branch of the University of Colorado system (the lead university in the Space Education Consortium) or the Air Force Academy (the nation’s No. 2 aerospace undergraduate engineering program) but also at the Colorado Military Academy, the nation’s only military-themed charter school, which has classes in civil air patrol.
Reggie Ash, a former Air Force officer and current president of Colorado Springs’ Chamber of Commerce, says space is part of the cultural ethos in Colorado. “When I was stationed in Napa Valley, the University of California-Davis had courses on winemaking — you could major in winemaking. When you’re in Colorado, you major in space.”
In April, the city hosted the 35th annual Space Symposium, which Lee calls “the most important space gathering in the world.” Speakers included NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine and space representatives from countries as close as Canada and as far-flung as Korea and Australia. It certainly doesn’t hurt either that numerous Colorado cities, including Colorado Springs, top “best places to live” lists.
Politics could thrust Colorado Springs even further in coming years. President Donald Trump has ramped up American space ambitions, signing a bill with plans to send astronauts to Mars in the 2030s — and privately suggesting he would prefer that it happened during his presidency (which, if he has a second term, could be no later than 2024). While NASA has warned him that’s not possible, Trump did sign an executive order creating a Space Force, overseen by the Air Force. Colorado Springs is housing the new U.S. Space Command at Peterson Air Force base, and Trump has nominated Air Force Gen. Jay Raymond to be its first head. He awaits Senate confirmation.
While the Space Command’s presence in Colorado Springs is temporary, Colorado will likely be the long-term choice for the ambitious space venture. Four of the six headquarters the Air Force is considering are in the Centennial State (the other two are in California and Alabama). The final decision is expected to be made in the next few months, barring congressional hurdles. With a space-military infrastructure in place, Colorado Springs has a lot more going for it than when it first saw NORAD move in during the 1950s. Back then, there was one major reason the city was selected: its central location. “It’s more secure from attacks from abroad,” says Wayne Williams, a Colorado Springs city councilman. “Whether you’re talking conventional forces or a missile, it’s just going to take longer to get here than somewhere on the coast.”
The focus on Colorado was especially jarring for Florida, considering how heavily its politicians pushed to have the Space Coast considered for the final location. Republican Governor Ron DeSantis, who is friendly with Trump (and ran ads of himself teaching his son to build a wall out of toy bricks), even sent the president a letter asking for the Sunshine State’s inclusion, to no avail. That could be a sign that Colorado is overtaking the Sunshine State. Still, Colorado Springs doesn’t garner the same national attention for its space endeavors as other cities do. Could the problem be branding? Huntsville has Space Camp, while Florida has the Space Coast. “The closest thing we have, in terms of nicknames, would be the ‘Epicenter of National Security Space,’” which is a bit of a mouthful, Ash admits.
Some free advice, Colorado Springs? Take a cue from the best ride at Disney World and start printing brochures for the “Space Mountains.” You can thank us with a free ticket to Mars.
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