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Blue Origin BE-4 engines
Blue Origin’s BE-4 rocket engines are produced at its production facility in Kent, Wash. (Blue Origin Photo)

If the dreams of commercial space ventures all come true, the year ahead could bring the biggest rush of rockets the world has known.

We’ll see privately funded landers touching down on the moon, humans taking suborbital space trips on ships built by Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic, astronauts riding on space taxis made in the USA by Boeing and SpaceX, and new breeds of rockets big and small.

Not all those dreams will necessarily come true. That’s the way it goes with rocket science. But 2018 holds more than enough promise to get the juices flowing for Eric Stallmer, president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation.

“2018 is going to be probably the biggest year ever in the commercial marketplace,” he told GeekWire.

And some of the biggest players in that marketplace are going to be in Seattle on Thursday for “A New Space Age,” a one-day conference presented by The Economist at the Museum of Flight. The speakers include:

  • Lori Garver, general manager of the Air Line Pilots Association and former NASA deputy administrator.
  • Robin Gatens, deputy director of NASA’s International Space Station Division.
  • Naveen Jain, co-founder and chairman of Moon Express.
  • Steve Jurvetson, partner at Draper Fisher Jurvetson and a board member for SpaceX, Tesla and Planet.
  • Chris Lewicki, president, CEO and “chief asteroid miner” at Planetary Resources.
  • Yuri Milner, founder of DST Global and the Breakthrough Initiatives.
  • Mark Sirangelo, head of space systems for Sierra Nevada Corp., which is testing the Dream Chaser space plane.
  • George Whitesides, chief executive of Virgin Galactic and The Spaceship Company.

Why is the “New Space Age” being celebrated in Seattle? Although the nearest spaceport is almost 1,000 miles away, Stallmer counts the Jet City among the top four hubs of the commercial space industry in the U.S. (He won’t name the other three for fear of starting an argument.)

“The brainpower that’s in Seattle, the excitement — you can’t deny that it is a major hub for space activity,” he said.

Part of the reason for that is the legacy of companies such as Boeing and Aerojet Rocketdyne, which have fostered aerospace engineers for decades. Another part has to do with the billions that have been invested by the likes of Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos (in Blue Origin) and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen (in Stratolaunch and SpaceShipOne).

There’s also the fact that the Seattle area is just a bit more livable than, say, Southern California. SpaceX CEO Elon Musk admitted as much in 2015 when he announced the opening of a satellite development facility in Redmond, Wash.

“There’s a huge amount of talent in the Seattle area,” Musk told the engineers in attendance, “and a lot of you guys don’t seem to want to move to L.A.”

Other space ventures headquartered in the Seattle area include Spaceflight Industries, which focuses on launch logistics as well as satellite imaging; Planetary Resources, which is gearing up to start mining asteroids within the next few years; Systima Technologies, which has a supporting role in building NASA’s Space Launch System; and Tethers Unlimited, which is working on 3-D printing applications for space operations.

All those companies employ thousands of engineers, mechanics, designers, developers and other workers required for private space efforts. Blue Origin alone has more than 1,000 employees — most of them working at its headquarters in Kent, Wash. — and more than 100 open positions to fill.

The bigger picture is that the commercial space industry is already well into its ascent nationwide.

“The private-sector investment that has gone into the commercial sector in the last two years alone has more than doubled the previous eight years,” Stallmer said. “It’s $10 billion over the last two years.”

For more than a decade, there’s been a debate over how “New Space” startups such as SpaceX stack up against “Old Space” veterans such as Boeing and Lockheed Martin. But Stallmer says the entrepreneurial, innovation-centric approach to spaceflight is now taking hold at companies old and new.

“The lines are being more and more blurred,” he said. “I don’t like to paint people into corners for what they’re doing. Some of our legacy companies are doing fantastic work, and have been for the last 50 years. I think there’s just a different way that we’re doing business, a different way that people are thinking, and it’s causing a lot of excitement in the industry.”

So does Stallmer think Old Space has become old hat?

“I always respect my elders,” the 46-year-old said. “I don’t like to call anyone ‘old’ or guess their age. They have their line of work, their business units, and I’m just trying to help my companies succeed in every way and every endeavor that they pursue.”

A handful of tickets remain for “A New Space Age,” which begins at 8:20 a.m. PT at Seattle’s Museum of Flight. GeekWire is one of the conference’s media sponsors. Keep track of the event on Twitter by following the hashtag #EconSpace.

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