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Image: Blue Origin celebration
Employees at Blue Origin’s headquarters in Kent, Wash., cheer as they watch the landing of the company’s New Shepard test spaceship on Nov. 23. “How do we steal that video?” Lt. Gov. Brad Owen joked after watching a clip showing the celebration. (Credit: Blue Origin)

Washington state legislators got an introduction to the state’s space industry today at Seattle’s Museum of Flight – and voiced amazement at how much is going on.

“I feel so illiterate in this field, it’s unbelievable,” state Sen. Mike Hewitt, R-Walla Walla, remarked at one point during today’s meeting of the Legislative Committee on Economic Development and International Relations. Afterward, Hewitt said he knew “100 percent” more about the field than he did at the start of the hearing.

Previously: Three reasons why Seattle’s big on space, and three frontiers to watch

State Sen. Maralyn Chase, D-Shoreline, marveled when she heard Aerojet Rocketdyne executive Roger Myers list all the missions his company in which his company has played a part, ranging from the Apollo missions to the moon, to the space shuttle program, to robotic missions that have visited every planet (yes, including Pluto).

“I would wager that most of the people in this state do not know what you’re doing in Redmond,” Chase told Myers.

That was the point of today’s hearing, presided over by Lt. Gov. Brad Owen: to let legislators know that there’s much more than Boeing to the state’s profile in the aerospace industry.

The Washington State Space Coalition lists 30 ventures with connections to outer space and the Evergreen State. The list includes billionaire-backed ventures such as Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin and Paul Allen’s Vulcan Aerospace – plus Planetary Resources and Kymeta, which have received funding from Charles Simonyi and Bill Gates, respectively. The list also includes Hobart Machined Products, which manufactures parts for military and civilian space efforts but employs just 10 people.

Legislative hearing
Lt. Gov. Brad Owen, second from right, examines a door assembly that was made for Sea Launch in the 1990s by Hobart Machined Products in Washington state. Officials at the hearing included, from left, Mike Hewitt, Karen Fraser, Curtis King, Randi Becker, Owen and Bob Hasegawa. (GeekWire photo by Alan Boyle)

That critical mass of business activity, and the backing of billionaires and venture capitalists, are among the reasons why Washington is becoming a space hub, said Joe Landon, the Seattle-based chairman of Space Angels Network.

Another reason is the region’s high level of engineering talent: Landon pointed out that “the software is becoming more valuable than the hardware” in a field where smaller satellites are providing bigger capabilities. SpaceX’s billionaire founder, Elon Musk, admitted as much when he opened up a Seattle engineering office earlier this year: “A lot of you guys don’t seem to want to move to L.A.,” Musk said.

Space Angel Network’s figures show that $17 billion in non-governmental funding has been invested in commercial space ventures over the past decade. Landon said 2015 is shaping up as the biggest year yet, with about $700 million projected to be put into startups.

The hearing occasionally took on the tone of a science class. For example, when Myers touched on the New Horizons mission to Pluto, Sen. Bob Hasegawa, D-Seattle, couldn’t resist asking whether Myers thought Pluto was a planet. “It was a planet when we launched, and therefore in my heart it will always be a planet,” Myers replied.

During a later exchange, Sen. Karen Keiser, D-Kent, asked why there were no launch facilities in the state. Myers explained that Florida, Texas and Southern California were closer to the equator, which makes it easier to put payloads into orbit from there. “I’m sorry, but we can’t fight gravity,” Myers said.

The main topic of discussion was how to nurture the state’s space industry. Every one of the speakers called for giving commercial spacecraft manufacturers the same tax breaks that commercial airplane manufacturers get.

During this year’s legislative session, state Rep. Jeff Morris, D-Mount Vernon, introduced just such a measure, known as HB 2226. The idea could be considered during the session that starts next month. By some accounts, the impact on tax revenue would be about $1.1 million, which amounts to less than a hundredth of a percent of the state’s $38.2 billion operating budget for 2015-2017.

Owen’s House-Senate committee meets two or three times a year to study economic trends but does not deal directly with legislation. Nevertheless, several of the committee members said extending the tax breaks would be worth it to keep Washington’s space ventures in the state. “This is protecting our investment,” said state Rep. J.T. Wilcox, R-Yelm.

Space industry representatives also called for more efforts to promote education in science and technology, plus more support for continuing education in aerospace.

As Washington’s space industry grows, the financial enticements from other states are growing as well, said Rosemary Brester, president and CEO of Hobart Machined Products. “Weekly, monthly no less, we are recruited by other states,” she told the legislators.

Brester said it was just as important to support bigger companies – such as Aerojet Rocketdyne and Boeing – as it was to grow the smaller companies. After all, she said, smaller companies like hers depend on the region’s larger companies to buy their goods and services.

“If they’re not here, we’re all going to go,” she said.

After the hearing, Wilcox made it sound as if the political science required to support the state’s space industry can sometimes get as complex as, well, rocket science. “There may not be a ton we can do to help,” he said, “but there’s a ton we can do to destroy the opportunity.”

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