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Lockheed to build $350M satellite factory near Denver

By: Gazette and news services
August 2, 2017 Updated: August 3, 2017 at 6:13 am
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Lockheed Martin is building a $350 million satellite production facility at its Waterton Canyon campus. Construction should be completed by 2020. (Provided by Lockheed Martin via The Denver Post)

Aerospace giant Lockheed Martin Corp. said Wednesday it plans to spend $350 million building a production facility for satellites at its Waterton Canyon campus in the Denver area that is designed to boost production capacity, reduce costs and accommodate a growing workforce.

Construction is scheduled to start by the end of the month and be completed in 2020 on a 266,000 square-foot building named Gateway Center that will be one of the largest production facilities on the campus. The facility will be large enough for the company to build five of its flagship A2100 satellites at the same time.

The new project is also designed to reassert the company in a sector that has become a lot more competitive, so-called microsatellites, which are often just a few meters wide.

U.S. Air Force officials talked in April at the Space Symposium in Colorado Springs about smaller, Swiss-Army-Knife-style microsatellites with multiple capabilities that can be quickly rocketed to the heavens to replace bigger satellites damaged in war.

Space "is a big place, but we plan to be a leader in it," said Rick Ambrose, executive vice president for Lockheed Martin's space systems business. "We're trying to develop a capability to handle any direction the market moves."

Plans for the new facility call for manufacturing, assembling and testing centers that are large enough to keep multiple production lines running at the same time, allowing the facility to produce large satellites as it is churning out smaller ones.

Lockheed executives are hoping that that will allow them to compete in the small-satellite market at the same time that they keep legacy production lines going, all under one roof.

By putting assembly and testing under the same roof, employees can simply roll a satellite down the hall versus moving it between buildings for testing. By taking the steps out of packing the satellite, moving it and unpacking it, the company will cut testing time from about two days to under an hour.

The building also will include a thermal vacuum chamber, meant to simulate the harsh environment of space, that will be used to test fully assembled satellites before they are attached to rockets. The facility is to include a stock of 3-D printers to produce the satellites' simpler components.

The construction project will create 1,500 jobs over three years. Lockheed Martin currently has about 8,600 employees in Colorado, including 4,000 at the Waterton Canyon complex. The company has added more than 750 jobs to its Colorado workforce since 2014 and has 350 job openings in Denver. In April, the Colorado Economic Development Commission approved $12.6 million in tax credits for the company in return for bringing 550 new jobs to Jefferson County over eight years.

The project will bolster Colorado's reputation as a leader in the space industry. Colorado has the nation's second-largest aerospace economy, employing 188,280 people and more than 400 companies, with a $3.4 billion annual payroll, according to the Colorado Space Coalition. Gov. John Hickenlooper said at the April Space Symposium that the state has ambitions to take over the top space economy ranking.

Besides Lockheed, seven other top aerospace contractors have significant operations in the state, including Boeing and Raytheon. Colorado is also home to the Air Force Space Command in Colorado Springs and the University of Colorado's Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics in Boulder.

Lockheed has played a role in space operations since the 1950s, when its rockets were used to launch some of the first American satellites into orbit. Satellites are still a critical part of the company's business, and the project is designed to reassert the company in a sector that has become a lot more competitive.

Lockheed's business is being challenged by a cadre of well-heeled newcomers that have pledged to populate the lowest rung of Earth's orbit with microsatellites.

The global telecommunications investment firm SoftBank is spending $1.7 billion to combine Luxembourg-based Intelsat with Richard Branson-backed OneWeb, creating a satellite behemoth that seems singularly focused on smaller, cheaper models. Elon Musk's SpaceX is working to launch 4,425 small satellites into low Earth orbit by 2024.

These competitors contend that their microsatellites can provide a better signal in more places.

Then there is the Air Force's interest.

Air Force Space Command has been eyeing small satellites for years and more recently has taken serious steps to integrate them into future war plans.

While less capable than the school-bus sized spacecraft the military now has in orbit, the diminutive birds are cheaper to build and faster to launch than their complicated cousins.

With nations including Russia, China, Iran and North Korea developing or possessing anti-satellite capabilities, the small satellites could be used as stopgap measures to fill in for larger spacecraft damaged or destroyed in a war that reaches orbit, Space Command boss Gen. Jay Raymond has said.

It remains to be seen how Lockheed will fare. It specializes in taking on the kind of big projects that few companies have the scale to complete. The satellites Lockheed makes circle the planet much farther outside Earth's atmosphere, giving them a broader view of planet's surface. That means they have to be much more powerful, entailing longer production times and more expensive components.

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