Science fiction is transforming into science reality, as more and more CEOs in the billionaire space race use Seattle as their launching pad to conquer the commercial space industry.
Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos founded Blue Origin in September, 2000, with its headquarters in Kent, Wash. On November 23, 2015, Blue Origin secretly launched a rocket into space and landed it successfully back on earth. Stratolaunch Systems is backed by Paul Allen, and has its corporate headquarters in Seattle. Elon Musk, owner of SpaceX, opened an engineering branch of the company in Redmond, Wash. in June of this year.
Looking beyond the billionaire space race, Seattle is already home to an established space industry that has been quietly operating under the radar for decades.
Bob Uptagrafft, Executive Director of the Northwest Aerospace Alliance, says it’s no surprise the city is a perfect space hub.
“The seeds were planted years ago by the success of aerospace,” says Uptagrafft. “If we look at local companies, like [Aerojet] Rocketdyne as an example, they have for the last 30 years been producing booster jet rockets that drive satellites through space.”
Aerojet Rocketdyne, located in Redmond, is a veteran among Seattle space companies. Since they opened their doors in 1968, the company has designed and built small rockets to maneuver in-space spacecraft and satellites. “Rockets from Redmond” have powered space probes and landers that have visited all the planets of our solar system. They also played a key role in the historic flyby of Pluto with NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft, which has traveled nearly three billion miles in just under 10 years to reach the dwarf planet.
“We had 16 rockets; 16 different thruster engines,” says Ron Felix, Vice President of Space Systems for Aerojet Rocketdyne. “But what we take the most pride in is the satellite itself: powered by 100 percent pure Aerojet Rocketdyne Redmond power.” Aerojet Rocketdyne is currently researching new technologies. It’s using 3D additive manufacturing, commonly known as 3D printing, to “print” a 4-inch, cube propulsion rocket from titanium powder. Earlier this year, NASA awarded the company $18 million to develop an ion thruster for deep-space travel.
Tethers Unlimited, Inc. is another local veteran space company located in Bothell. The company was founded in 1994 and has won more than $11 million in contracts from NASA and the Dept. of Defense since 2010. The company has a reputation for constantly pushing the limits on innovation and creative in-space manufacturing.
“Here at Tethers Unlimited, a lot of us are real science fiction fans,” says Rob Hoyt, CEO of Tethers Unlimited, Inc. “What we like to do is kind of take the ideas that are in the science fiction domain and figure out how to drag them into the domain of science reality.”
One of these creations is a new plastic recycling system created for the International Space Station. The machine recycles the plastic waste packed in cargo boxes during re-supply missions, and spits out plastic printer filament for use with the on-board 3D printers.
“There’s something like 25 pounds of plastic waste that’s sent up [on re-supply cargo missions],” Hoyt says. “Normally they would have to stuff that in a return vehicle and burn it up in the atmosphere to get rid of it, but that mass on orbit is worth about ten thousand dollars per pound, so that’s almost a quarter million dollars of raw material that we can recycle into feedstock for building new space systems.”
Tethers' latest projects include carbon fiber trusses that will be manufactured by robots in space, and testing a thruster rocket that uses fuel as water.
In addition to the veterans like Aerojet Rocketdyne and Tethers Unlimited, there are also some newbies joining the Seattle space companies. Planetary Resources, an asteroid mining company, was formed in 2010 and achieved notoriety two years ago when they created a Kickstarter campaign for their ARKYD telescope, with the promise of a “selfie” in space. The future looks promising for the company, as legislation was recently passed that recognizes the right for U.S. citizens to own asteroid resources they obtain in space, a major hurdle the company was facing up until now.
Spaceflight, a space technology company based in Tukwila, also began in 2010. The company focuses on commercial satellite components and spacecraft. They recently purchased SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket to expand its satellite and spacecraft launch services through offering dedicated rideshare missions.
The result is more commercial competition and more talent being brought to the Seattle area. Dr. Rachel Maulbauer, who moved from Georgia to work at Tethers Unlimited, sums it up:
“It’s not just NASA anymore,” says Maulbauer. “There’s Tethers, we’ve got SpaceX – there’s just so many choices at this point. There are so many cool things – especially in the Seattle area – it’s just been a boom for the space industry.”
Stacey Jenkins is the Managing Producer of What's Good 206. She is an Emmy-award winning producer who is passionate about pushing the boundaries of digital media and training the next generation of multimedia journalists. Stacey has been a Digital Content Producer at KCTS 9 for the past four years; her stories have been showcased locally on IN Close as well as nationally on SciTech Now and the PBS NewsHour's Art Beat. Stacey’s experience also includes working as a senior producer for KPTS, as an assistant media instructor and producer for Portland Community College and a TV news reporter for the CBC in Canada.
Fun Fact: Stacey’s guilty pleasures include over-the-top Halloween decor, eating sweetened condensed milk straight from the can and Maroon 5’s “Sugar” video.More stories by Stacey Jenkins