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Space Needle and stars
“The sky’s the limit” for space ventures, according to the head of Washington state’s Office of Aerospace. This composite photo sets Seattle’s Space Needle against a field of stars. For more of photographer Mikul Eriksson’s work, visit MikulEriksson.com or click on the image.

There’s a neighborhood in Seattle that jokingly calls itself “the center of the universe,” but this week the title is no joke – at least when it comes to the entrepreneurial side of the space industry. The Space Frontier Foundation’s NewSpace 2016 conference is making it so.

The annual conference has been traditionally been held in California’s Silicon Valley. But from now on, the Space Frontier Foundation plans to bring the show to Seattle every other year. “If you guys mess it up, well, we’ll never come back,” Jeff Feige, the foundation’s chairman, told a group of Seattle space enthusiasts during a recent preview of the meeting.

John Thornquist, the director of Washington state’s Office of Aerospace, says no one will mess it up.

John Thornquist
John Thornquist is director of the Office of Aerospace at the Washington State Department of Commerce. (Credit: Jeff Luke via LinkedIn)

“Because of our burgeoning space community here, it makes sense to have it up here – and we look forward to having it in the years to come,” he told GeekWire. “I think it’s appropriate to recognize the state of Washington as a space hub on the West Coast because of the commercial work that we’re doing.”

Seattle has long been known as the Jet City, thanks to its connection to the Boeing Co. Its status as a Space City is less obvious: There’s nary a launch pad in sight, the nearest NASA center is in Silicon Valley, and the city’s most visible rocket is arguably a sculpture in the Fremont neighborhood (a.k.a. the Center of the Universe).

Boeing’s aerospace roots, and its wealth of engineers, are among the factors contributing to the Pacific Northwest’s status in the space industry. Another factor is the Seattle area’s prominence as a center for software development, data analytics and cloud computing – engineering sectors that take on greater importance as space operations become more data-centric. That’s a big reason why SpaceX’s satellite initiative is headquartered in Redmond, Wash.

Then there’s the fact that the region’s dot-com billionaires, such as Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, are putting hundreds of millions of dollars into high-flying ventures such as Blue Origin and Vulcan Aerospace.

The agenda for NewSpace 2016, which opens on Tuesday at the Motif Seattle Hotel and finishes up with Thursday night’s awards gala at the Museum of Flight, features many of the Seattle area’s leading space ventures. Here’s just a sampling:

  • Blue Origin, which plans to offer suborbital space trips as well as orbital launches.
  • Vulcan Aerospace, which plans to use the world’s biggest airplane as a platform for rocket launches.
  • Planetary Resources, which is building a network of Earth-observing satellites and eventually plans to mine near-Earth asteroids.
  • Spaceflight Industries, which facilitates launch services and is working on its own satellite network for Earth observation.

NewSpace 2016 is also bringing in space industry pioneers from out of town, including Mark Sirangelo from Sierra Nevada Corp., which is working on a mini-shuttle to carry cargo for the International Space Station; Jason Dunn from Made In Space, which built the space station’s first 3-D printer; Jane Poynter from World View, which is working on a balloon platform for near-space tourism; and Nevada billionaire Robert Bigelow, who’s receiving the Space Frontier Foundation’s “Vision to Reality” award for Bigelow Aerospace’s work on inflatable space modules.

Historically, NewSpace has been “the disruptive space conference,” Feige noted.

“The only reason there’s anything going on in the space business is because of entrepreneurship,” he said.

But this year’s conference blends new-space entrepreneurship with old-space experience: Representatives of NASA, Aerojet Rocketdyne and other longtime players in the space game will be in attendance, alongside the brash upstarts.

Crew capsule assembly
A Blue Origin engineer assembles a parachute cover at the company’s production facility in Kent, Wash., with the New Shepard suborbital spacecraft’s crew capsule in the background. (Credit: Blue Origin)

In a way, Seattle is a brash upstart as well: Washington state may not have a orbital-class launch pad, but Thornquist said it has the kind of expertise in advanced manufacturing and data storage and analysis that could put it in a “nice niche” for the next stage of space entrepreneurship.

“We’re not sending satellites and payload and vehicles up into space just to be in space,” he said. “They’re there for a reason, usually to collect information or to deliver payload. So in that sense … this is a really nice area of tech companies that can help in processing that information and use that data.”

Does that mean the Pacific Northwest’s aerospace cluster can grab the space spotlight from, say, Cape Canaveral, or Houston, or Los Angeles, or Silicon Valley? Thornquist says that’s the wrong question to ask.

“There obviously will be competition, just in the sense that space is similar to the way aviation has been over the years. People will compete for the work that is out there,” he said. “But I don’t see this as a pie that we’re trying to split up. I think the pie is growing in size.”

Check out the website for NewSpace 2016 for registration information, and check back with GeekWire for this week’s coverage of the conference.

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