Tempe evolves into a hotbed for the space industry

Business News | 13 Nov, 2017 |

The cosmos is billions of years old. But the idea of exploring the unknown, infinite universe beyond Earth’s orbit from Tempe is much, much younger. 

Arizona State University has been active for years. ASU was involved with the NASA’s Viking missions to Mars in the 1970s and, more recently, with Curiosity, a car-sized robotic rover whose mission is to explore Mars.  

The university isn’t the only place in Tempe exploring the cosmos. There’s a vibrant commercial space industry that is looking beyond our blue planet. 

This commercial space industry has its roots in the pre-bankruptcy Tempe operations of Motorola spin-off, Iridium, which started in the 1980s. 

You might not have known it then, but when Iridium settled its engineering operations and primary gateway for the satellite phone company in Tempe, that was the catalyst for what could become a rocketing space industry in the Tempe area.  

As Iridium embarked on its ambitious $5 billion journey to build and launch its satellite network, many engineers and NASA alumni came to Arizona as contractors and employees.  

Unfortunately, shortly after Iridium’s network made orbit, it filed one of the 20-largest bankruptcies in U.S. history at the time, according to Time magazine.  

As a result, employees were let go, contractors found themselves without work and Motorola was left with a satellite network worth billions that wasn’t making any money.  

While Motorola considered letting the satellite network plummet back to the Earth in fiery fashion, a few former Iridium contractors decided to create Tempe-based Qwaltec from the ashes of Iridium.  

There was another contracting firm that had moved its operations to Arizona to provide support for satellites that had an uncertain future.

“KinetX owes its existence in Arizona to Iridium,” says Peter Vedder, director of strategic development at KinetX Aerospace, which moved its operations to Arizona in 1993 for Iridium. “The company was formed in California, but relocated here when it secured a major contract with Iridium.”

Fast forward to the present. Iridium found its way out of bankruptcy and currently employs 160 people in the Tempe area and 220 across the state. And Orbital ATK, which has a large manufacturing presence in Arizona, is manufacturing Iridium’s next generation of satellites in Gilbert.

So thanks to the amount of groundwork Iridium laid and the active programs at Arizona State University, the Tempe area is home to a burgeoning space hub within an already thriving industry. And the area is counting on building on the success of ASU’s School of Earth Space Exploration, KinetX Aerospace and Qwaltec to propel the rest of Arizona to the cosmos in the process.

Dream big, think small 

Commercial contractors have played an important role in space exploration, whether it was with the Apollo missions to the moon, or on the Space Shuttle program.

Typically, NASA contracts to large aerospace companies, like Lockheed-Martin and Boeing, says Jim Bell, professor at Arizona State University School of Earth Space Exploration.

“What we’re seeing now is that NASA is taking more of a calculated risk in investing in smaller companies, newer companies, more nimble companies,” Bell says.

Not too long ago, people were looking at companies like Elon Musk’s SpaceX as an ambitious startup. Now it’s playing a major role in space exploration and innovation.

SpaceX is not only running supply missions to the International Space Station, it’s also launching the next generation of Iridium satellites — Iridium Next.

Then there are firms like Moon Express, which is the first company to get approval for a private mission beyond Earth’s orbit. Moon Express’ destination? The moon, of course, and it plans to launch three missions to our closest celestial companion between 2017 and 2020.

Mining asteroids, colonizing other planets and deep space exploration isn’t exactly science fiction anymore as firms have sprouted up around these concepts or in support of possible future missions.

With opportunities knocking, Tempe is in a position to get a slice of the commercial space industry pie, both with NASA — where several Valley firms and ASU have already seen success — along with commercial firms.

Building connections

ASU has been building more connections with commercial companies, not just for building instrument components for missions, but working with them on entire missions as well, Bell says.

Shawn Linam, co-founder and CEO of Qwaltec in Tempe, has been looking to get involved with smaller commercial space companies that have been active in the industry.

Qwaltec provides systems engineering, mission readiness, technical training and program management for both government and commercial programs.

Many years ago, Linam worked on NASA’s Space Shuttle Program, delivering training for the Shuttle’s astronauts.

Although her firm is still reliant on traditional NASA contracts, Linam says there are opportunities for Qwaltec to get involved with commercial space operators, while it also pursues NASA contracts.

The same is true for KinetX Aerospace. There are many opportunities to provide mission support and training for commercial space companies while going after NASA missions and contracts.

The types of opportunities KinetX Aerospace and Qwaltec have aren’t with manufacturing components and spacecraft, though. These companies provide mission support and training, a high-wage, highly skilled field.

Arizona — already a manufacturing jewel in the aerospace and defense industry — could also become home for software development firms for the space industry, as firms focused on analyzing and selling data from satellites become increasingly popular.

If you ask Vedder and KinetX Aerospace CEO Kjell Stakkestad, Arizona isn’t doing enough to capitalize on these high-wage opportunities, which could turn Tempe into a space mecca. But there is plenty going on to help that happen.

Tempe looks to the stars 

The City of Tempe has shown interest in its up-and-coming space industry as city officials have met with firms like KinetX Aerospace and Qwaltec.

ASU had a place at the table, too, as firms explained recent challenges and successes, says Tempe Vice Mayor Robin Arredondo-Savage, who was at the meetings.

“We didn’t know a lot about what (the aerospace companies) were working on. So this is a great way to open up that communication, at least at the local level,” Arredondo-Savage says.

Tempe is hoping to have its local space companies co-locate at its planned 18-acre biomedical and technology campus, which is slated for construction just west of the Tempe Center for the Arts, says Donna Kennedy, economic development director for the City of Tempe.  

The campus has the potential to attract more aerospace researchers to the facility, Kennedy adds.

Campuses like the planned 18-acre facility at Tempe Town Lake help boost collaboration between like-minded firms. Aerospace researchers and companies could play a role in the collaboration mix at this campus.

While the city is working with local space firms, ASU’s School of Earth and Space Exploration is partnering with local and national companies on missions through its Space Technology and Science Initiative, otherwise known as the New Space Initiative.

Bell, one of the ASU professors working on the program, says ASU is partnering with companies to provide ASU’s scientific and theoretical expertise on commercial projects.

Some of the firms ASU has worked with include the Tempe-based space darlings. Partnering with local commercial space companies gives ASU proposals a competitive edge, Bell adds, which is mutually beneficial.

The New Space Initiative also helps grease the wheels for ASU’s pipeline of students for internships and eventually jobs, Bell notes.

Students don’t just want to work for NASA anymore, he says. Elon Musk, Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos have their attention for possible future employment in the space industry, Bell explains. Then there are some students who are thinking about their own entrepreneurial space endeavors.

Good, but we need more 

When the economic development teams are convincing entrepreneurs and businesses to move to Arizona, KinetX CEO Stakkestad wants them to talk about the aerospace industry, not just real estate and vacation options.

He says the problem with creating a viable space hub in Tempe isn’t that there aren’t talented people to work at these firms, but it doesn’t seem there is willpower from the state to help boost the space part of the aerospace industry.

“You’ve got everything you need, except we need the will of the government here to do something,” Stakkestad says. “And it doesn’t have to be lots of money. But you have to spend time to think it’s important and then advertise in a way.”

Often, the aerospace industry gets lumped in with aerospace and defense. And Arizona focuses mainly on the manufacturing components of the industry.

Orbital ATK is making satellites in Gilbert. Boeing is making Apache attack helicopters in Mesa. And a number of aerospace and defense firms across Arizona are actively involved in the supply chain for the industry.

But that’s just manufacturing alone.

With the space industry going more commercial, Vedder believes the state government should focus more on the space portion of the aerospace industry in Arizona.

Not only that, but Vedder says Arizona could focus more on the non-manufacturing portions of the aerospace industry.

There are amazing programs at ASU and the University of Arizona that are generating talented, high-wage employees for firms like KinetX, or for software firms on the data side of space exploration.

When those students graduate, it would be nice for those graduates to stay in Arizona and work at local companies, Vedder says.

“We’re missing out if we’re not doing things to keep students here once we’ve captured them,” Vedder adds.

There is a lot more opportunity for commercial space firms, and experts say now is the time for Arizona to start investing in what it takes to become a leader in space.

Space isn’t something that’s just for NASA astronauts. Space has become an entrepreneurial endeavor, a thriving commercial industry Tempe and Arizona can tap into.

Vedder says there are many investors who are seriously looking to throw their weight onto a space mission. People are looking at space as the new frontier. Scientists are talking about colonizing other planets.

“Space is going to become sort of the next major industrial revolution at some point,” Vedder says. “And to be involved at the early stages is going to be important.”

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