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New Shepard crew capsule
Engineers work on New Shepard’s crew capsule at Blue Origin’s Kent factory. (Credit: Blue Origin)

A new employment study indicates that roughly 3,000 people are directly employed by Washington state’s space industry, and roughly half of them are at Blue Origin, Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos’ space venture.

Most of Blue Origin’s 1,500 employees work at the company’s headquarters and production facility in Kent, Wash. So Erika Wagner, Blue Origin’s payload sales director, has a good grasp on what draw space-savvy engineers to the Seattle area.

“When we ask our new employees why they’re coming … I’m going to guess that about half of them tell us that Seattle is part of the reason they say yes,” Wagner said today at a luncheon forum presented by the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce. “They have other options on the table, but they’d like to live here. They want to go hiking, or they want to go boating, or they want to have access to the symphony or the opera here.”

Seattle’s blend of the great outdoors and a vibrant cultural scene adds to the region’s legacy in engineering, software and aerospace, fueled by Boeing, Microsoft and more recently Amazon.

Most of Blue Origin’s employees stick around: Wagner said the turnover rate amounts to less than 4 percent of the workforce annually. But what is it that motivates the ones who leave? There’s a bit of irony in Wagner’s answer to that question.

“A significant percentage of them say the reason they leave is Seattle,” Wagner said. “It’s the rising cost of living, it’s the weather, it’s the traffic, it’s the whatever. It’s very much both one of our strongest assets, and one of our biggest challenges.”

The Seattle area’s assets for the space industry, and its challenges, were the focus of today’s forum.

Space industry panel
Panelists for the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce’s forum on the space industry include EarthNow’s Kyu Hwang, Space Angels’ Joe Landon, Blue Origin’s Erika Wagner and Seattle author Sam Howe Verhovek. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

Economic activity traced specifically to space still makes up a small share of the total aerospace industry in Washington state. The latest figures compiled by the Puget Sound Regional Council set the space sector’s economic impact at $1.7 billion. In comparison, the economic impact of the wider industry, ranging from rockets to passenger jets to drones, is estimated at $69.9 billion annually.

Nevertheless, the space industry’s local impact is growing rapidly, thanks to Blue Origin and other ventures ranging from century-old Boeing and decades-old Aerojet Rocketdyne to more recent startups such as Planetary Resources and EarthNow.

Joe Landon, who serves as the chief financial officer for Redmond, Wash.-based Planetary Resources and chairman of the Space Angels investment group, said Seattle’s space ventures often have to look far afield to find the talent they need.

“We don’t have much home-grown talent,” Landon told the luncheon crowd.

Wagner said there’s a particularly acute need for expertise in avionics, electrical engineering and computer science.

“Most software engineers haven’t thought about being part of our industry,” she said. “It makes recruiting that much harder, especially when we’re competing against Silicon Valley startups for our talent pool here on the West Coast.”

A video from the Washington State Department of Commerce’s “Choose Washington” campaign states the case for the region’s space industry:

For Kyu Hwang, EarthNow’s vice president for applications and customer development, technical expertise is just one part of the equation. “We also need a lot of innovation in business models,” he said.

Bellevue, Wash.-based EarthNow, which plans to use a satellite constellation to beam down real-time video of our planet, only recently stepped out of the shadows. It’s still operating in semi-stealth mode, but Hwang said the venture is well into the process of enlisting traditional and not-so-traditional customers.

“We really think real-time, on-demand-access, motion video … we think those three characteristics will enable Earth observation to tap into a mass market,” he said.

The Seattle area’s rising profile in software engineering, data analysis and cloud computing is seen as a net plus for the future: As the space industry matures, software smarts are looming larger. That’s a big reason why SpaceX put its satellite engineering center in the Seattle area, about 1,000 miles away from its corporate headquarters in the Los Angeles area.

Because of Washington state’s geography and population distribution, it’s not likely to ever play host to the spaceports that are available in other centers of the space industry, such as California, Florida and Texas. What’s more, the Evergreen State doesn’t have a NASA center to cozy up to.

But Sam Howe Verhovek, a Seattle writer who’s the author of “Jet Age: The Comet, the 707, and the Race to Shrink the World,” said the fact that the Pacific Northwest is off the beaten track may be a plus.

“I’ve heard a couple of intriguing theories over the years, including, in a weird way, that it’s easier to fail here. It’s OK, it’s expected. It’s sort of part of a venture capital mentality,” Verhovek said at today’s forum. “You pick yourself up and dust yourself off. It’s what we do.”

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