An industry conference lands in Seattle this week to get glimpses of the area’s accelerating private-industry space sector, one supported by some of the most well-known tech luminaries.
Seattle’s growing commercial space-exploration hub is stealing the spotlight this week from rival clusters across the country.
A crowd of about 700 space-industry executives, engineers and investors descended on Seattle for the NewSpace Conference, which kicked off Tuesday and is designed to highlight private-industry space development.
This week marks the first time in the 11-year-old trade show’s history that it has been held outside Silicon Valley, a recognition of the Seattle area’s growing role in the commercialization of what used to be a business dominated by government and defense-industry interests.
Seattle’s space cluster
Aerojet Rocketdyne operates a Redmond office that builds small rockets that have been used to propel spacecraft to every planet in the solar system.
Blue Origin, the Jeff Bezos-founded rocket builder, is headquartered in Kent.
SpaceX, the rocket builder founded by Elon Musk, operates an office in Redmond that is dedicated to designing a constellation of broadband satellites.
Tethers Unlimited is a Bothell space-technology company with a history of supplying groundbreaking research to customers such as NASA and the Department of Defense.
Spaceflight Industries, in Seattle, helps coordinate logistics to get customers’ satellites into space, and sells images from satellites.
Planetary Resources, in Redmond, hopes to mine asteroids.
Follow along: Many conference sessions are broadcast live online at https://www.youtube.com/user/spaceconferences/featured
Source: Space Frontier Foundation, the companies
“There’s a lot more going on here than people realize,” Jason Andrews, chief executive of Spaceflight Industries, said at a panel of local executives Tuesday.
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Seattle-based Spaceflight, which helps manage the logistics of satellite launches and sells images taken from orbit, said Tuesday it had raised $18 million from investors. “Seattle is going to be on the map for a long time.” Andrews said.
Executives here say the region’s corporate giants set the stage for the growth in space companies in the past few years.
That includes factors such as Boeing’s aerospace talent and, later, the software and telecommunications expertise thrown off by Microsoft, wireless pioneer McCaw Cellular, and their corporate offspring.
“Originally, you had Boeing as the aerospace company in Seattle, and that spawned off a certain number of businesses,” said Fred Wilson, director of business development with Aerojet Rocketdyne.
Aerojet employs hundreds of people in a Redmond office originally founded by Boeing alumni, designing rockets that have propelled spacecraft for NASA and private companies for decades.
“Now we’ve got a growing number of space companies in the Seattle area, a growing employment base,” Wilson said.
The industry’s recent growth spurt has its roots, in part, in a consumer-electronics boom that has shrunk the components of satellites, opening the door to smaller launch vehicles.
Pressure on government-funded spaceflight budgets in the U.S. and Europe, meanwhile, has shifted attention to the private sector.
It also doesn’t hurt to have the support of a few billionaires who grew up watching the early days of manned spaceflight.
Vulcan Aerospace is controlled by Paul Allen, the Microsoft co-founder. Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos backs Blue Origin, the Kent-based rocket builder. The company Tuesday reiterated its hope that test pilots will go up in its New Shepard rockets by next year, with commercial flights in 2018.
Elon Musk, who co-founded PayPal and heads Tesla, set up an office for his competing SpaceX in Redmond.
For much of the industry, company goals, and potential profits, remain over the horizon.
That includes Vulcan’s major project — a massive rocket-launching plane called the Stratolaunch. Vulcan Aerospace President Charles Beames said Tuesday that Vulcan would announce partners on the project “very soon.”
And while companies such as rocket builder Aerojet boast decades of experience in building things, others, including Redmond asteroid-mining hopeful Planetary Resources, are investing in the future.
Vulcan, which also invests in aerospace companies with its venture-capital arm, had seen a change in which companies are drawing attention and cash, Beames said. The focus is shifting from cool demonstrations of potential aerospace technology, or “ ‘Hey, let’s try this, let’s try that,’ to good business plans, sound investments and the discipline associated with that.”
Investors bet $18 million on Spaceflight Industries
Seattle-based Spaceflight Industries has raised $18 million from investors to advance its satellite imagery from space.
The company also announced it has acquired OpenWhere, a Virginia company that will help Spaceflight with its BlackSky technology, which allows customers to look at real-time satellite images of Earth.
The funding round was led by Mithril Capital Management in San Francisco, a venture fund started by billionaire Peter Thiel and Ajay Royan. Mithril raised its own $600 million fund in April.
Spaceflight helps manage logistics to get its customers’ satellites into space, then it sells images from the satellites. The company also plans to launch 60 of its own satellites by 2020. Spaceflight-owned hardware will cover “key zones” of Earth to give customers hourly updates, rather than data every week or month.
Spaceflight Industries said it expects the final funding round to total about $25 million, bringing the company to more than $50 million in funding. Current investors, including Vulcan Capital, Razor’s Edge Ventures and RRE Venture Capital, also participated in the round.
“By helping partners to easily put advanced hardware in the sky and bring pixels back to Earth, and by making space data intuitive to access, Spaceflight has built a breakthrough platform that will take our worldview to the next level,” Mithril’s Royan said in a statement.
— Rachel Lerman