REDMOND, Wash. — One of Congress’ leading Democrats, House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, met with leaders of the Seattle area’s space community today to make a pitch for his “Make It in America” campaign. They pitched back with an idea of their own: “Test It in Washington State.”
The Puget Sound region is quickly becoming known as a hub for space ventures such as Blue Origin, founded by Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos; and Stratolaunch Systems, created by the late Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. SpaceX, Spaceflight Industries and LeoStella have a growing presence here as well.
Predating them all is Aerojet Rocketdyne, which traces its lineage in Redmond back to the 1960s and has built thrusters for a wide spectrum of NASA spacecraft — including the Mars Insight lander that’s due to touch down on the Red Planet next month.
Washington state’s space industry currently generates $1.8 billion worth of economic activity annually, according to a recently published report. But during today’s session at Aerojet’s Redmond facility, headlined by Hoyer as well as Rep. Suzan DelBene, D-Wash., several attendees noted that Washington is lagging behind other states such as California, Texas and Florida in one big area.
“There’s just a lack of infrastructure here,” said Kristi Morgansen, interim chair of the University of Washington’s Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics. She said UW’s engineering students have to travel as far away Bend in central Oregon, a seven-hour drive from Seattle, to conduct their rocket tests.
Curt Blake, president of Seattle’s Spaceflight Industries, noted that the nearest NASA center is Ames Research Center in California. Blue Origin currently builds its BE-4 rocket engines at its headquarters in Kent, Wash., but has to test them in West Texas. Stratolaunch is testing its PGA rocket engine in Mississippi. And Ken Young, general manager of Aerojet’s Redmond facility, said his company’s electric propulsion thrusters have to go to NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Ohio for testing.
The solution? How about building a full-fledged rocket test facility in Washington?
Fired up about rockets
The idea isn’t totally new: Moses Lake, in Central Washington, was proposed in the 1990s as a spaceport and test facility for what would have been Lockheed Martin’s VentureStar spaceship. (The VentureStar never got off the ground.)
“We would consider Moses Lake close enough,” Morgansen said.
“And we would consider Moses Lake close enough as well,” David Field, an associate dean of engineering at Washington State University on the eastern edge of the state, said half-jokingly.
Kelly Maloney, president and CEO of Aerospace Futures Alliance, suggested the now-vacant Weyerhaeuser corporate campus, a 430-acre spread south of Seattle near Federal Way. But Aerojet’s Ken Young said the best place just might be on his own company’s corporate campus in Redmond, where his team is already developing thrusters for use on NASA’s future Gateway in lunar orbit.
“We’ve told NASA Glenn … that we would partner with them to build a facility out here,” Young told GeekWire after the roundtable. “We already have the people who know how to run it, so the cost containment for a place like that is much cheaper.”
The issue is that the cost — estimated at $25 million to $30 million up front, plus $5 million per year for upkeep — is still too pricey for Aerojet to justify on its own.
“If it was a private-public partnership, we would invest some, the government would invest some, maybe even academia would invest some, and we’d be sharing the cost,” Young said. “And the cost would be less if it was co-located with an existing set of test capabilities like we have here. That’s something we’re very willing to do.”
DelBene told GeekWire she was willing to look into the idea as well. “Absolutely,” she said. “It would be a shared resource between academia, the public sector and the private sector.”
Tackling trade restrictions
During today’s meet-up, Hoyer took on a homework assignment of his own.
Several attendees complained about the burden associated with the federal government’s International Traffic in Arms Regulations, or ITAR. The regulations are meant to reduce the risk of transferring sensitive technologies to rival nations such as China, but they also generate a lot of red tape and seemingly unnecessary restraints on aerospace trade.
Much of the responsibility for overseeing ITAR was shifted from the State Department to the Commerce Department as part of a regulatory reform program, but the reforms are incomplete. As a result, some of Aerojet’s business deals have been stuck in limbo, Young said.
“State canceled our licenses, and Commerce doesn’t have a process in place … We’ve got stuff sitting at the loading dock that can’t go out the door,” he said.
Hoyer promised that he’d study the issue.
“I don’t know a lot about ITAR, but I wrote a note down. I’m going to look at it,” the Maryland Democrat said. “If we fix ITAR, that may be worth this meeting in and of itself.”
In addition to serving as a listening session, today’s roundtable gave Hoyer an opportunity to spread his “Make It in America” message, which focuses on education and job training, entrepreneurship and infrastructure investment as strategies to boost American manufacturing, job creation and international competitiveness.
He even added a spacey spin to that message for the benefit of the event’s attendees — who included Brian Bonlender, director of the Washington State Department of Commerce, as well as representatives from Blue Origin, Boeing, Janicki Industries, Spaceflight Industries, Stratolaunch, Systima Technologies and Tethers Unlimited.
“I remember where I was … when Sputnik went up, 1957,” said Hoyer, who is 79 years old. “Americans were shocked. Stunned.”
As a result, the National Defense Education Act was signed into law a year later to provide more funding for the educational system and bolster America’s ability to compete with the Soviet Union.
“We need to do that in terms of STEM — science and technology, and engineering and math skills,” Hoyer said.