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Washington state’s space industry doubles its economic impact in just four years

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LeoStella satellite for BlackSky
Technicians work on satellite components at LeoStella’s facility in Tukwila, Wash. (GeekWire Photo)

A newly published report says that the economic impact of Washington state’s space industry has more than doubled in just four years — and lays out strategies for keeping the growth curve climbing.

“Space is indeed the new frontier,” said Axel Strakeljahn, who’s president of the Port of Bremerton’s Board of Commissioners as well as chair of the Central Puget Sound Economic Development District Board.

The report, released today by the Puget Sound Regional Council and the Washington State Space Coalition, estimates the overall economic impact of the region’s core space economy at $4.6 billion annually, supporting a little more than 13,000 jobs.

That’s a significant jump over the figures laid out in the first assessment of the state’s space economy, published in 2018. Back then, the economic impact was pegged at $1.8 billion, with a labor force estimated at 6,200 employees.

The growth of Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture is a big factor behind that upward curve: Four years ago, the Kent, Wash.-based company had a workforce of more than 1,500 employees — but the updated report uses a figure of 3,000, and the employment level is said to be even higher now.

Blue Origin isn’t the only contributor to the Seattle area’s space boom. The report also notes the rise of smaller companies — including Stoke Space and Starfish Space, startups that were founded by Blue Origin veterans in Kent; LeoStella, which is building satellites in Tukwila; Wave Motion Launch Corp., which is working on an unorthodox jet-gun launch system in Everett; and Radian Aerospace, which is pursuing plans for a reusable space plane at facilities in Renton and Bremerton.

Amazon’s Project Kuiper and SpaceX’s Starlink — two high-profile efforts to build satellite constellations for global broadband internet access, both based in Redmond — come in for a mention as well. The report estimates Project Kuiper’s workforce at 800 employees, and Starlink’s workforce at 900.

In addition to the direct contributions made by Washington state’s space companies, the report factors in the space economy’s indirect contributions (for example, purchases of supplies and equipment) and induced contributions (for example, restaurant meals and housing expeditures). The impacts of those multiplier effects are estimated at $1.6 billion annually.

Brian Rider, chief technology officer at LeoStella, said the backers of his company looked at a variety of locations around the country before deciding to put their satellite venture in Tukwila — and he pointed to one factor that tipped the decision in Washington state’s favor.

“We did it because of the talent,” Rider said during today’s official rollout of the report at Seattle’s Museum of Flight.

That’s consistent with the report’s emphasis on the region’s skilled engineering workforce, which is a legacy of Boeing’s century-long influence. The report also pointed to significant investment in space ventures by the likes of Bezos and the late Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, who founded Stratolaunch in 2011.

Rider struck a cautionary note, saying that all those historical legacies may not be “quite enough for the future.”

“We can’t stop here,” he said.

The authors of the report laid out five strategies for fostering Washington state’s space economy:

  • Assist with venture capital for smaller space companies.
  • Support space-related startups with business incubators and other services.
  • Expand supplier relationships between companies within the region.
  • Grow local talent to fill workforce, including boosting the number of students in STEM programs.
  • Support state tax credits for spacecraft and satellite manufacturing.

“We do need a little bit of investment, a little bit of help from our public-sector partners to match the enthusiasm and the investment that our private-sector partners are making here, and that they’re making every day,” said Emily Wittman, who heads the Washington State Space Coalition as president and CEO of the Aerospace Futures Alliance.

As impressive as $4.6 billion may sound, the impact of the region’s space industry is dwarfed by the impact of the aviation industry, just as it was when the 2018 study was done.

A 2020 study conducted for the state Department of Transportation estimated annual aviation-related business revenues at $107 billion, supporting more than 400,000 jobs. Aerospace manufacturing — led by Boeing — accounted for nearly half of those revenues.

Analysis for the report and update was performed by BERK Consulting, and was supported by contributions from Blue Origin, City of Kent, Suquamish Tribe, City of Redmond, Snohomish County, City of Federal Way, City of Everett, Port of Bremerton, City of Seattle, and the Aerospace Futures Alliance.

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