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As government budgets squeeze, space executives eye growth

May 18, 2014 Updated: May 19, 2014 at 4:54 pm
Caption +
A United Launch Alliance Delta IV rocket successfully launched the Global Positioning System IIF-5 satellite for the U.S. Air Force Feb. 20, 2014, at 8:59 p.m. EST from Space Launch Complex-37 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla. GPS IIF-5 is the fifth in a series of next generation GPS satellites and will join a worldwide timing and navigation system utilizing 24 satellites in six different planes, with a minimum of four satellites per plane positioned in orbit approximately 11,000 miles above the Earth's surface. (United Launch Alliance/Ben Cooper)

The old saw is "it's always sunny in space."

And even as budget cuts slow defense and NASA spending, Colorado's space business leaders say that forecast holds true.

"I think it's a growth industry," said Mark Valerio, president and general manager of Military Space at Lockheed Martin in Colorado. "Every day, you interact with a satellite and most people don't even realize it."

In Colorado Springs, Air Force Space Command has cut more than $1 billion from its budget in the past year, bringing it down to $11 billion annually.

But that hasn't discouraged business leaders, who say space, even in the military sector, will grow.

Part of the optimism is driven by how dependent the military has become on space-based assets.

Since the first Global Positioning System signal was used in battle during the 1991 Persian Gulf War, use of satellites in warfare has exploded.

In Afghanistan, satellites link drones to U.S.-based controllers, keep commanders apprised of where soldiers travel on the battlefield and keep front-line units connected via voice, data and video communications.

Satellites that detect missile launches, gather signal and visual intelligence and forecast weather round out the orbiting assets that troops can't do without.

And cuts in space are different.

"Flying units will park aircraft," said Tony Przybyslawski, who oversees the Boeing Company's operations in Colorado Springs. "Space systems you cannot park."

Tough budget times offer opportunities for some. In downtown Colorado Springs, small defense contractor Braxton Technologies is marketing cheaper ways to operate satellites.

The firm now contracts with the Air Force for software to control the nation's GPS satellites. It is working on systems that will add cost-cutting automation for other satellites in use.

"If you can find a less expensive way to maintain the constellation, the Air Force is very interested," said Braxton CEO Frank Backes.

The space industry, in the spotlight this week with the 30th annual Space Symposium at The Broadmoor, is key for Colorado, where it accounts for an estimated 3 percent of the state's workforce.

Industry leaders say they like doing business on the Front Range for a number of reasons. A top driver is the presence of Air Force Space Command and three space wings - representing the world's biggest customer in the space business.

"Being right there, we are a neighbor to our most important customers," Przybyslawski said.

But other factors draw their businesses. The growth in aerospace has created a strong workforce and colleges including the University of Colorado in Boulder and the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs have strong aerospace programs.

Leaders also say skiing, hiking and cultural opportunities are part of the allure.

"Colorado as a place for aerospace is extremely strong," said Debra Facktor Lepore, vice president and general manager for strategic operations at satellite builder Ball Aerospace. "You have big companies, you have small companies and that's really great for partnership."

The companies are pushing new programs that could grow their businesses in Colorado.

Lockheed is working on a new generation of Global Positioning System satellites.

Boeing launched a new GPS satellite this year and has another launch planned in July.

Ball is eyeing a new Air Force weather satellite program and a plan for simpler, cheaper to build, satellites for the military.

With 135 employees, Braxton is looking for new ways software can change the space business.

One Braxton initiative would change how sensitive data from space is used on Earth.

The firm is working on a program that would take now-classified space imagery, including infrared images gathered by an Air Force missile-tracking satellite and modifying them for public use.

That requires a leap in technology for how the secure data can be kept secret, while unclassified versions are shared widely.

Backes, the CEO, said the infrared pictures would change the game for firefighters, who could get real time imagery of how flames are moving.

"Every firefighter in the field could see them if they are carrying their cellphones," he said.

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