Out of This World: Boulder’s Aerospace Industry

Scott Sternberg

Thoughts from Scott Sternberg, Executive Director, Boulder Economic Council

As a child, if you asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, my answer was simple: an astronaut. There were NASA posters on my bedroom wall, I built and launched model rockets from my backyard, and it seemed that every Halloween I was in a spacesuit. One of my earliest memories is watching the news coverage of Apollo 13 on a black-and-white TV. I was too young to fully comprehend the situation but, from the worried look on my parents’ faces, I knew it was serious. I even walked outside and looked up at the evening sky, imagining I could catch a glimpse.

This childhood fascination has followed me into adulthood and is one of the many reasons I am proud to call the Boulder community home, as Boulder has a long and rich history in the aerospace industry. The Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP) at the University of Colorado Boulder began in 1948, a decade before NASA. They are the world’s only research institute to have sent instruments to all eight planets and Pluto (personally, I cannot concede that Pluto is not a planet!). Further, The Ann and H.J. Smead Department of Aerospace Engineering Sciences ranks 12th in the nation according to U.S. News & World Report. Finally, Boulder is home to large aerospace contractors such as Lockheed Martin, Northrup Grumman and Ball Aerospace, which John Tayer, Boulder Chamber President and CEO once coined “Boulder’s original startup.”

The Metro Denver EDC, in a recently released report on the industry, estimates that there are 290 aerospace companies in Colorado supporting over 33,000 employees. Further, Colorado enjoys the highest concentration of private aerospace workers in the nation. However, as Colorado-based businesses in the industry often tout: “The fact that we’re a mile closer to space is just part of the story.”

Boulder County’s aerospace presence is considered a key industry cluster for Colorado and represents nearly 23% of the state’s resources. However, one must understand that the aerospace industry does not stand alone. Many other sectors of our economy either directly or indirectly feed the technology pipeline. The photonics industry, advanced manufacturing firms, innovative startup endeavors and a host of engineering design consultants all support the industry. This web of resources strictly depends on a broad range of funding sources and interactions that cross federal and state agencies, universities, nonprofit groups, and, of course, private companies. This quarter’s Colorado Business Review, published by CU’s Leeds School of Business, perhaps tells the best story of how embedded aerospace is within our community.

As I reflect on why I was so enamored with space as a child, I gravitate to how it makes me feel. Recently, I felt a sense of ownership and inspiration when the Perseverance Rover successfully landed on Mars. I cannot wait to see a helicopter take flight on the red planet. I sat on the edge of my seat as America once again transported humans into space. I feel gratified that NASA has prioritized earth system science within their mission plans. Lastly, I am blown away by all the technology that originates in aerospace and later appears in consumer markets. We’ve come a long way from Tang people!

The pandemic has taken its toll, economically and socially. The aerospace industry, however, has provided glimmers of hope and inspiration at a time when we need it the most. Not only have we stood up to many challenges, but have done so in ways that reflect our creativity and aspirations (check out the hidden parachute message story to best understand this point). And, lest we forget that the conquest of space also has a strong economic impact: at a time when our economy has struggled, aerospace has provided resiliency to our community and has further stressed the importance of an educational system and workforce rich in STEM disciplines.

As we emerge from the pandemic and venture back into our work environments, it may seem that we are entering an unearthly world. We have real challenges ahead of us as we strive to build back better and evolve our economy in creative, inclusive, and inspiring ways. My hope for the future is simple: we do so with the same vigor and spirit exhibited by the aerospace industry. As Teddy Roosevelt once said, “Far better it is to dare mighty things…”