The Pentagon's top satellite buyer says leaders are concerned that the young, innovative industry that is helping the U.S. make leaping advancements in space could be killed by the coronavirus.
From making extra cash available to waiving state social distancing rules for military contractors, Congress and military leaders have jumped in to help small space players. It’s a move that local leaders say could bolster the only sector of the economy that’s performed well in the Pikes Peak region as stay-at-home rules threatened many businesses.
Defense and aerospace makes up an estimated 40% of the Pikes Peak region's economy and small space companies make up an increasingly important piece of that portfolio.
“To have that cash flow from the Department of Defense is very helpful,” said Reggie Ash, who oversees defense programs for the Colorado Springs Chamber of Commerce and EDC.
The reason small space companies are so important is they are generating outsized ideas, said Sean Barnes, who is the Air Force’s assistant secretary for space acquisition.
“That's one of our real concerns … the small companies that are the most innovative tend to be the most vulnerable,” he said.
Barnes has spent his adult life working in military space operations, including more than 30 years wearing an Air Force uniform that included three tours in Colorado Springs space billets.
Now, as a civilian, he’s playing a role that he compares to city management in orbit.
“How do I ensure there is appropriate infrastructure?” he explained.
Space, including the new Space Force service branch, are a top priority at the Pentagon, at the White House and in Congress.
Colorado Springs U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn said that focus puts the Pikes Peak region in the spotlight, as home to the bulk of the new Space Force, U.S. Space Command and an unrivaled civilian space workforce.
“Colorado Springs is the epicenter of military space and I think that role is only increasing,” Lamborn said.
The new thinking has led the military to consider working with allies on satellites and putting some military payloads aboard commercial satellites to gain flexibility and safety.
What’s driving the changes are two factors. First, space isn’t as safe as it used to be for American military satellites. The Russians launched an anti-satellite weapons test last week, and experts say nations from China to Iran could threaten American satellites, which have become so integrated into warfare that U.S. troops on the ground would have a difficult time in battle without them.
Second, space is getting a lot cheaper and a lot faster thanks to a revolution that has brought entrepreneurs and new firms to compete with the dress-shirted, tie-wearing defense contractors of old.
Kathy Boe, who owns 20-year-old space contractor Boecore in Colorado Springs, said small firms like hers are nimble and innovative, making them key partners for the big defense contractors these days.
“We're seeing a lot of interest from large businesses who want to work with us and bring in our innovation,” she said.
Boecore, through a combination of work-from-home programs and a focus on employee safety at the workplace, has thus far weathered coronavirus without issue.
But Boe, who also serves as the chamber’s board chairwoman, said she fears for the newest smallest firms that are joining the space race in Colorado Springs.
“The brand new people are probably suffering the most,” she said.
And Colorado Springs is home to a lot of brand new players, thanks to programs including the Catalyst Campus technology accelerator east of downtown that’s helping incubate the nation’s newest space firms.
“Small businesses appreciate the help,” she said of the Pentagon’s focus on keeping new space firms healthy.
What those small businesses bring to Barnes is a combination of speed and agility that’s been missing from military space programs. The Pentagon until recent years has focused on massive satellite programs from traditional defense contractors that were frequently slow to develop and damaging to even the Air Force’s huge bank account.
Now, the military wants its satellite programs to have months of development rather than decades, going from drawing board to launch pad at light speed.
“The faster you can go the less expensive things tend to be,” Barnes said.
That speed also comes with a new scale of work. Air Force constellations have traditionally included just a handful of custom-built space craft, driving up the cost.
SpaceX, Elon Musk’s upstart space company, has begun launching the first of an estimated 12,000 satellites that are planned to deliver internet communications.
“It can really change the dynamic,” Barnes said.
Barnes is leading a Pentagon panel that’s examining the health of small space businesses to determine whether more help is needed.
And Lamborn, a leading Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, said lawmakers are eager to help.
The chamber’s Ash said keeping those aerospace firms going here could be the key to refiring an economy that’s gone from red hot to icy in just two months.
“Once we can start using retail establishments and patronizing businesses like restaurants, we're already going to have a significant segment of the population that gets their income from a healthy industry,” he said. “They’ll be ready to spend.”