Washington State may be best known for commercial and defense aircraft that fly our beautiful blue skies and for the information technology companies that create new solutions for “the cloud.” However, there are even more spectacular innovations that extend beyond Earth and into the vast frontier of space. For more than six decades and counting, Washington-based space companies have contributed significantly to this sector, which is now morphing from an institutional sector into a commercial sector.
In 2021, a Space Foundation report highlighted the space economy achieved a record $469 billion in global annual spending. According to a 2022 report, the space sector in Washington State alone generated an estimated $4.6 billion in economic activity. In fact, NASA contract awards to space companies and organizations in Washington State totaled more than $830 million from 2017 to 2021. With an ecosystem featuring major players such as SpaceX, Blue Origin, and Aerojet Rocketdyne, more than 100 companies provide parts, assemblies and systems to travel into or through outer space.
Some of the biggest announcements have come from smaller companies that call Washington home. Wave Motion Launch, a startup headquartered in Everett, Washington, received a $1.35 million contract from the Office of Naval Research (ONR) in 2022. This space and defense company is developing the jet-gun, a non-rocket launch technology which has current applications in defense and could eventually deliver cargo and supplies into space at a fraction of the current cost.
(Picture below: Wave Motion team standing next to a jet-gun prototype. Left to right, CFO Casey Dunn, CEO Finn van Donkelaar, COO James Penna)
Another space startup, Starfish Space, recently revealed their plan for satellite docking. Starfish Space’s Otter Pup is launching in June 2023 and is going to dock with another satellite on-orbit. The xenon-fueled electric propulsion craft will hitch a ride on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, going up with Launcher’s Space Orbiter OTV. Once it is launched from the Orbiter, the Otter Pup will use Starfish Space’s proprietary satellite docking technologies to perform the first-ever satellite docking with electric propulsion.
“Bringing two objects gently together while in orbit is incredibly difficult!” said Starfish Space Co-Founder Austin Link. “With the Otter Pup docking, we prove technologies that pave the way for satellite life extension, space debris removal, and eventually on-orbit upgrades, assembly, manufacturing, and more.”
(Dean – Insert photo below or the one that Austin mentions from Alan Boyle’s article)
Rocket Propulsion Systems, another member of our space startup community, has completed its first “Centurion” rocket engine prototype for small satellite space launch vehicles. The engine is designed to operate on clean burning liquid oxygen and liquid methane propellants, producing 3,300 pounds of thrust. The engine features a fuel-rich staged combustion cycle giving it the ability to perform at high specific impulse, reliability, reusability and scalability to future higher thrust levels. RPS partners with NSF, AFRL Edwards, USSF Threat Reduction Agency, NASA Marshall, NASA Stennis, Reaction Dynamics, Purdue and other distinguished space industry experts.
Max Ismailov, Founder and CEO of Rocket Propulsion Systems, is joined by Michael Preudhomme – Propulsion Engineer [left] and Macey ??? – COO [right]
The state is also fortunate to have leaders in the space community that are convening and sharing information about how Washington can continue to be an important hub for space exploration. James Burk leads Space Northwest, an organization with a mission to connect, educate and inspire individuals, corporations and communities in the Pacific Northwest and beyond to foster space innovation and exploration for the benefit of life on Earth and our future in space.
James says, “Washington State has a huge opportunity now to become a globally-leading center for space. Our region already has a deep history with aviation technology and we are the current leader in satellite manufacturing. We need to attract future space companies to be located here so they can take advantage of a growing and diverse talent pool and getting the full support from the region’s business, governmental, and academic communities.”
There is also support for space startups and entrepreneurs. Space Entrepreneurs, now part of Space Northwest, is dedicated to promoting, fostering, and enabling innovation at the crossroads of space and business. With events like Startup Weekend Space and the Space Entrepreneurs event series, they aim to provide people with pathways to build and grow their businesses, networks, and careers around space.
Founded in February of 2014 by Sean McClinton, their first event was just three people in a virtual setting. It grew rapidly with 100 in-person attendees at the next event, indicating there was strong demand for space entrepreneurship in the Greater Seattle area. Space Entrepreneurs now has over 1,000 members.
With the recent Harvard Business Review article “Every Company Needs a Space Strategy. Now.” — now is the time to think about space companies and space startups outside of the traditional space industry. Traditional “non-space” companies can now utilize and access space in ways that were previously unavailable thanks to falling launch costs, commercial off-the-shelf technology, and greater consumer availability. The opportunity for space entrepreneurs is greater than it has ever been. Sean added, “Our region has all of the tools to support and facilitate this shift with strong aviation, IT/software/cloud, e-commerce, and space sectors, plus an entrepreneurial support backbone.”
Washington companies see much of the spotlight, but it’s not just industry leading the charge. The state’s success is driven by our youngest citizens who are not just gazing into space, but hoping to travel there as well. They are advocating for a better, healthier world, with significant change starting in our classrooms and labs.
Washington State is home to Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, one of ten national laboratories in the U.S., and a leading center for scientific discovery in chemistry, data analytics, Earth science and technological innovation in sustainable energy and national security. In addition to six public universities, which include the University of Washington and Washington State University, the state has 27 private colleges and universities, 34 community and technical colleges (13 of which offer four-year degrees) and workforce training programs tailored to high-growth industry sectors. These institutions develop the talent and courage needed to drive innovation into the far reaches of space.
University of Washington (UW) is a major driver of the state’s hub of space research, industry, and education. The UW contributes to and benefits from a unique intersection of aerospace, manufacturing, clean energy, data science and information technology. They have extensive experience attracting state and federal grants for space and have a demonstrated track record in technology transfer from basic research to startups.
The space sector is changing rapidly with exponential growth of commercial-led activities focused on off-planet science and eventual human habitation, in a complex field of international players and rivals. We are also seeing the rapid evolution of traditional activities with the on-orbit servicing of satellites and systems as well as manufacturing and assembly in space. In addition, demand for data delivery and security and safety critical autonomy applications continues to rise.
While the UW is strong is space technology (structures/materials, robotics, GNC, space systems) and supporting capabilities (next generation propulsion, robotics, bioastronautics), they are currently hiring to fill critical gaps through cluster hires in the College of Engineering that will leverage existing capabilities and create a more impactful UW space ecosystem.
These cluster hires will provide a key driver to providing both new capabilities and catalyzing new partnerships among current faculty and existing centers including the Washington Space Grant Consortium, UW Space Policy and Research Center (SPARC), the Astrobiology program, the Clean Energy Institute (CEI), and the Joint Center for Aerospace Technology Innovation (JCATI). With these stronger connections, we will foster more project-based interdisciplinary activities for students connecting across engineering disciplines and beyond.
Washington State’s rich legacy of aerospace and the integration of new aviation and aircraft technologies will launch humanity into the future. Opportunities are endless for the next generation of Washingtonians who will lead future explorations that will define new possibilities of living and working in space.