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To the stars through manufacturing — Wichita’s role in the burgeoning space industry

Tom Shine

Wichita is trying to capitalize on the growing space industry.

Wichita’s next big economic opportunity might be out of this world.

The Air Capital of the World is trying to capitalize on the growing space industry. That includes everything from space tourism to the commercial side of the business – like launching communication satellites – to the intersection of defense and space.

Sen. Jerry Moran of Kansas has brought the CEOs of two major space companies – Blue Origin and United Launch Alliance, known as ULA – to Wichita this year.

The visits were a way to develop relationships between the city and space industry executives, but more importantly to showcase what Wichita has to offer.

“It's one thing perhaps for me to be able to invite ULA to come visit,” Moran said during a tour last month of the Atlas Group, a Wichita aerospace manufacturer, with ULA CEO Tory Bruno. “My guess is if we didn't have anything to offer them, they would not come.

“And what the point of that is Wichita, Kansas, has the assets that companies around our country, in fact around the world, are looking for.”

Laura Forczyk agrees with Moran. She’s the owner of Astralytical, a space consulting and analysis firm near Atlanta.

“The great thing about space, because it's no longer centered on just a few NASA areas, space can really be anywhere around the globe, but especially within the United States because it is being so commercialized,” Forczyk said.

To attract interest from the space industry, Forsczyk said a city needs a track record of high-level technical manufacturing. It also needs a skilled workforce and the ability to recruit workers from colleges and universities

Wichita already checks those boxes. Plus it’s home to Wichita State University’s National Institute for Aviation Research (NIAR) and Wichita Tech’s National Center for Aviation Training.

NIAR and Spirit AeroSystems recently opened the National Defense Prototype Center, which will perform research on high-temperature materials used in the space and defense industries.

Because of its decades of manufacturing experience for general, commercial and defense aviation, the Wichita area has a network of more than 450 parts suppliers.

That includes everyone from Spirit, which makes large structures, to companies manufacturing smaller parts.

“Both Blue Origin and ULA, when they were here, they didn't just look at our largest machine shops … ,” said Tammy Nolan Porazka, vice president of Business Development for the Greater Wichita Partnership.

“They looked at people that did very specific functions that they might need. And they're similar to what is happening in aviation, but then they might need a slight modification for a space project.”

And Bruno, the head of ULA, said making the transition from aviation to space manufacturing is certainly doable for Wichita companies.

“There is a lot of overlap in the technologies and the equipment that is used to manufacture the specialty forms we use in space and rocketry,” Bruno said.

“And this area, I would say, is almost uniquely capable of making that crossover and leveraging those dual use capabilities to support both.”

Moran’s trip earlier this year with Blue Origin resulted in the company signing long-term contracts with four Wichita manufacturers: Accurus Aerospace, C.E. Machine, Harlow Aerostructures and Orizon Aerostructures. They will manufacture parts for the company’s engine program and orbital launch vehicle.

Blue Origin is owned by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.

Moran helps oversee the budgets for NASA and the Department of Defense, which run into the hundreds of billions of dollars. But that doesn’t mean Wichita has won the lottery, yet.

Forczyk, the space analyst, said the rewards won’t be immediate.

“I think that wherever there is an aviation hub that does not have a strong space presence yet, there is an opportunity for the politicians and the citizens and the business leaders there in that traditionally aviation hub to attract space,” she said.

“But it takes time to develop. It takes a lot of time, usually longer than people expect.”

But Bruno said the payoff – when that development finally happens – could be substantial.

“It'll be a significant number of jobs. It will be millions of dollars,” he said. “That's the kind of partnerships we're looking for.

“Wichita's going to be part of that. So it's a pretty bright future.”

Tom joined KMUW in 2017 after spending 37 years with The Wichita Eagle where he held a variety of reporting and editing roles. He also is host of The Range, KMUW’s weekly show about where we live and the people who live here. Tom is an adjunct instructor in the Elliott School of Communication at Wichita State University.