Denver-Boulder area stakes a claim in space with a burgeoning aerospace industry

1 month ago

These giant white structures called radomes at Buckley Space Force Base in Colorado house massive satellite dishes.

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This story is part of CNBC's quarterly Cities of Success series, which explores cities that have transformed into business hubs with an entrepreneurial spirit that has attracted capital, companies and employees.

In the shadow of the Rocky Mountains, with an elevation one mile closer to space than sea level, lies an area that's home to a burgeoning cluster of aerospace businesses.

It might not be obvious to someone driving around Denver and Boulder that there are hundreds of companies actively working on some of America's most complex national security needs and building innovative products like those that might be seen in a sci-fi film.

But the local industry's liftoff has been undeniable: Aerospace grew 88% over the past two decades, more than any other emerging industry in the Denver and Boulder metro areas during that time period, according to a CNBC analysis. Now, 191 aerospace businesses are supporting 29,000 jobs in the region, the Colorado Space Coalition reports.

"When we were creating Voyager and thinking through the best growth markets where we could have access to talent ... Denver really rose to the top," Dylan Taylor, chairman and chief executive of Voyager Space, told CNBC's Morgan Brennan in an interview on CNBC's "Manifest Space" podcast. He founded the privately held multinational space conglomerate in 2019 in Denver.

Voyager Space CEO Dylan Taylor traveled to space on a Blue Origin flight in 2021.

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"I think talent coupled with alignment from the government were really important considerations, and then also if you look at other elements of Denver, whether it's access to capital, this is an emerging venture capital market, especially the Boulder corridor," he added.

The region's corporate roster ranges from the biggest, oldest, prime contractors such as Lockheed Martin, Boeing and Northrop Grumman to the newest commercial space and defense tech startups such as Ursa Major and True Anomaly. United Launch Alliance, BAE Systems and RTX also have a presence in the area, as do private space stalwarts in addition to Voyager such as Sierra Space and Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin, which has been expanding its local footprint aggressively in recent years.

Follow and listen to CNBC's "Manifest Space" podcast, hosted by Morgan Brennan, wherever you get your podcasts.

"I think aerospace has become a fulcrum of our whole economy now," said U.S. Sen. John Hickenlooper, D-Colo., who previously served as Colorado's governor and before that as mayor of Denver.

"It's a community that works together in terms of aerospace," said Hickenlooper, who is cited by local business executives as being a key space proponent for the region and the state. "It's not dog eat dog. It's all dogs working together. It's hunting like wolves."

For Voyager, that's been true. The company has so far made seven acquisitions — the first two of which were local startups. "We're circa 700 employees now and, you know, quite a bit of revenue, looking to enter in the public markets at some point," Taylor said.

Its most high-profile project, Starlab, is an effort to replace the aging Space Station. Voyager has teamed up with Airbus in a joint venture to build the commercial space station, with Mitsubishi recently announced as a strategic partner and equity owner. The space station is expected to launch to orbit on SpaceX's powerful Starship rocket system, which is under development.

For Taylor, who has been to space himself after a trip on Blue Origin's New Shepard, the Denver-Boulder space story extends beyond Voyager too. He's spent years investing in the sector personally, as an early backer in more than 50 startups, including Orbit Fab.

Orbit Fab employees manufacturing the company's refueling ports for satellites.

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Backed by neighboring Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman, Orbit Fab moved into a roughly 60,000-square-foot manufacturing facility after relocating from California in 2021.

"We started the company in Silicon Valley. We moved to Colorado mainly because of the workforce. There's a bigger aerospace workforce here," said Daniel Faber, Orbit Fab's CEO and founder.

Since making the move, the company has grown from six to 60 employees, and is focused on building "gas stations" in space to refuel satellites. Historically, many satellites have been decommissioned not because their payloads or hardware no longer work, but because they have run out of power.

"If you ran out of fuel on a highway, AAA can come and deliver you fuel. That's actually the typical way that we'll do it in space," Faber said. The startup recently revealed a refueling port — or gas cap — that's been flight qualified and is commercially available for $30,000 per unit.

Denver area startup Orbit Fab is building refueling ports for satellites that will allow them to fuel up in space.

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Like many companies in the area, Orbit Fab counts the U.S. military, specifically the Space Force, among its biggest customers. One thing that makes the broader Denver-Boulder region so unique is its robust military presence, including three separate U.S. Space Force bases, the U.S. Space Operations Command and the U.S. Air Force Academy in nearby Colorado Springs.

"I think the location matters greatly," said Col. Heidi Dexter, commander of Space Base Delta 2 at Buckley Space Force Base in Aurora, Colorado. "The partnership that we have with all of the local defense contractors and the startups allow us the opportunity to drive down the cost of space operations, as well as innovate very quickly so that it's crucial to national defense."

Colorado now boasts more private aerospace employees per capita than any other state, according to the Metro Denver Economic Development Corporation.

"What an executive, a CEO for a rapidly growing company, wants to hear is that young people will be attracted," Hickenlooper said. "Once you attract young people, eventually the entrepreneurs come, the businesses start."

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