Space – Metro Denver’s aerospace ecosystem flourishing | News
Without the growing cluster of aerospace companies in metro Denver, it’s safe to say NASA would not be sending humans to the moon again.
The large companies here like Lockheed Martin, Ball Aerospace, Sierra Space and United Launch Alliance serve as magnets, drawing support companies into close orbit in Colorado. Couple that with the aggressive — and successful — efforts of the Colorado Office of Economic Development and International Trade to lure aerospace companies here with incentives and the talent-rich environment provided by schools like the University of Colorado Boulder and the Colorado School of Mines.
“All the new space companies want to come here,” said Barry Hamilton, CEO of Red Canyon Engineering & Software.
The Denver-based company, with its headquarters in a Greystone mansion in the city’s Capitol Hill neighborhood, partnered with Lockheed Martin on NASA’s Orion spacecraft. NASA is scheduled to launch an unmanned Orion on its Artemis I mission to the moon later this year. Future Artemis missions will deliver the first woman and person of color to the moon, possibly by 2024.
It’s just one of several smaller Colorado companies to support Lockheed, which builds Orion spacecrafts at its plant in Waterton Canyon, southwest of metro Denver.
“We turned the Artemis I Orion over to the NASA Kennedy Space Center team back in January. … That’s a huge, huge milestone,” said Michael Hawes, vice president of human space exploration for Lockheed, in an interview with The Denver Gazette at the Space Symposium in Colorado Springs last week.
This reporter talked to more than 10 metro Denver-based aerospace companies that were exhibitors at Space Symposium at The Broadmoor. Several indicated they also worked with Lockheed, but were unable to talk publicly due to non-disclosure agreements. But it reinforced evidence of the growing aerospace ecosystem solidifying along Colorado’s Front Range.
“The culture is so open here,” Hamilton said. “When we have people move here from the coast and they ask, ‘You’re just going to help me? What’s your motive or what angle are you working?’ But that’s just the spirit of collaboration here. I tell them, ‘You can buy me a beer.’”
Red Canyon, which spun off from Lockheed in 2000, specializes in the flight software for spacecrafts’ entry, descent and landing on Mars and the moon. Hamilton said they’ve partnered with Lockheed on 20 interplanetary missions in the last 20 years.
“We design software; we don’t bend metal,” said Hamilton, an aerospace engineer who graduated from CU Boulder.
It has as many as 85 employees, but the workforce grows and shrinks depending on the size of the projects underway.
“Most of our Orion work is done for the production contract,” he said.
Red Canyon engineers Lisa Akers and Brian VanGenderen won Silver Snoopy awards for their Orion work, given by NASA’s Space Flight Awareness to less than 1% of its subcontractors.
The team performed the mechanical design for the latches that bolt the craft’s parachutes in place, which deploy when it clears the Earth’s atmosphere on the way down.
Just one of more than 220,000 parts on the Orion, said Hawes.
“We have a great supply chain from all over the country, big companies, small companies,” Hawes said. “Literally from every state in the union.”
Hawes has been involved with space missions for more than 40 years.
“I worked with the Apollo guys, so I recognize the cadence now of all these flight readiness meetings and reviews and simulations,” he said of the excitement building for the moon missions.
“We have opened a new facility in Florida, to help with that flow so that we can shift some of our work between our facility right there on Kennedy,” said Hawes.
“The most rewarding thing is honestly getting us back to the moon,” he said. “I was a kid of Apollo. I was 13 when we landed. I was Neil and Buzz. I was captured from that point, and it set my life’s career course for 43 years.”