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Charles Beames, president of Vulcan Aerospace talks about the Seattle space scene at NewSpace 2016. (GeekWire photo / Nat Levy)
Charles Beames, president of Vulcan Aerospace, talks about the Seattle space scene at NewSpace 2016. (GeekWire photo / Nat Levy)

The first NewSpace conference in Seattle opened Tuesday, a giant leap for the Seattle space scene.

It is also the first time executives from the region’s space companies can sleep in their own beds during a big conference.

The growing space sector in the Seattle area represents the next evolution of the regional economy, according to a panel of executives from Seattle-area space companies, moderated at the conference Tuesday by GeekWire aerospace and science editor Alan Boyle. Boeing and, later, technology companies like Microsoft and Amazon brought talent to the area and paved the way for Seattle’s space ascendance.

“Boeing and the aerospace engineering pool that Boeing brought to the Seattle area was a key spawning ground for space companies in the Seattle area,” said Fred Wilson, director of business development of Aerojet Rocketdyne. Based in Redmond, Aerojet Rocketdyne was one of the area’s first space companies. It was founded in 1959 by four Boeing engineers. Former employees work at many space startups around the area.

To succeed, space companies need to bring together people from a variety of fields, panelists said. Small space startups in the area are recruiting top people in technology, finance, marketing and other disciplines to turn their big ideas into sustainable business models. Space ventures aren’t just about aerospace engineering and hardware anymore, but about information technology, and that’s a big reason why Seattle is attracting space ventures.

“If you think about the future and space you need access to three things: it’s about software, it’s about big data, it’s about capital, and Seattle is an epicenter for all three,” said Jason Andrews, CEO of Spaceflight Industries.

All of the panelists agreed that Seattle’s quality of life is one of its biggest assets. It attracts the kind of people space companies need to succeed, not just aerospace engineers. That means a company can expand without having to go elsewhere to find the right people, said Chris Lewicki, president and CEO of asteroid mining company Planetary Resources.

Seattle does have its challenges. It lacks a NASA office or a launch pad. But that hasn’t deterred many of the companies here from growing.

Last July, when the Space Frontier Foundation announced the 2016 NewSpace conference would be in Seattle, no one had successfully launched and landed a rocket, said Rob Meyerson, president of Jeff Bezos’ space company Blue Origin. Now both Blue Origin and Elon Musk’s SpaceX — which has an office in Redmond — have done it. When the conference announcement happened, Blue Origin had 450 employees. Today, it has 700.

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