Houston, Cape Canaveral and ... Dugway?

Yes, one of these is most assuredly not like the others and some folks may not even know that the Defense Department’s Dugway Proving Ground in Utah’s west desert has become a prime landing location for returning space missions. But the places that have become synonymous with U.S. space flight and exploration may be quietly acquiring a new sibling as Utah parlays its decades of space-related activities into a more starring role in the burgeoning cosmos business.

As it turns out, there’s a whole lot of technology, components and know-how with Utah roots that have ventured, or will venture, beyond the boundaries of our home planet.

Aiming to fan the flames of those endeavors in the state, along with the companion industries of aerospace, defense, cybersecurity and advanced manufacturing, is 47G, a rebrand and reorganization of the former Utah Aerospace and Defense Association that earlier this year also absorbed the Utah Advanced Materials and Manufacturing Initiative. The nonprofit organization partners with government, private industry and academia on a mission it says aims to turn Utah into “the world’s premier ecosystem for aerospace, defense and cyber companies.”

The combined economic footprint of Utah’s space-related businesses, along with those in the aerospace, defense and advanced materials sectors, already account for 20% of the state’s annual GDP, and the space segment is among the fastest growing within that combined category, according to Aaron Starks, former chief revenue officer for World Trade Center Utah and now 47G’s president and CEO.

“I think and firmly believe that Utah’s future will be shaped more by this industry than any other,” he said.

The business of ‘newspace’

Starks said “newspace” industries, a term that refers to efforts to develop low-cost access to space and/or spaceflight technologies, is helping drive growth in Utah, a state that already has a vibrant history of space-centric work going back to the dawn of the Space Age in the mid-20th century.

“Newspace is an emerging category that is really more futuristic than anything we have seen in the state before,” Starks said. “We’re in an accelerated growth period and it’s one being driven by this evolution of space-related business and research.”

Starks easily reels off highlights of Utah’s long history of space bona fides, noting upper atmospheric research work Utah State University was doing in the 1950s turned out to be the early seeds of what would become the institution’s massive Space Dynamics Lab; Utah’s competition with Florida’s Kennedy Space Center in the early 1970s to host the Space Shuttle program (a contest that was closer than many people realize); and the increased use of Dugway Proving Ground as a preferred destination for a growing list of both private and public space flight operations.

Starks said Utah is well situated to benefit from a global expansion of space efforts as privately funded newspace industries, along with a growing movement for NASA and other national space agencies to outsource space exploration and research mission development work to private contractors, drive the need for innovation and advancements, and attract investment interest.

“Globally, we’re going to see more and more venture capital money pouring into space-connected industries,” he said.

Aerospace giant Northrop Grumman has had a Utah presence for over 80 years and is the state’s biggest employer in its sector. Pictured here is a test firing of the booster rocket the company developed for NASA’s Space Launch System. | Northrop Grumman

This rocket giant lives in Utah

Aerospace giant Northrop Grumman has a more than 80-year history in Utah, famously test firing its rocket engines at a facility in Promontory, not far from where the Golden Spike joined the last sections of the nation’s first transcontinental railroad. The company is the biggest aerospace employer in the state and continues to bet big on the Beehive State, earlier this year announcing a massive expansion and plans to add 1,200 new positions to its Utah workforce in the coming years.

The company conducts work in a wide array of areas, including aerospace and defense systems in Utah, but its rocket power components have become the workhorses behind cutting edge spaceflight systems, including NASA’s Space Launch System rocket, which successfully powered the first flight in the U.S. space agency’s Artemis program in 2022.

“Northrop Grumman’s propulsion systems business in Utah manufactures (solid rocket motors) for a number of programs and customers, including rocket boosters for NASA’s Space Launch System and two unique (solid rocket motors) for the Orion spacecraft’s Launch Abort System,” Jim Kalberer, Northrop Grumman’s vice president of propulsion systems, said in an email interview. “We also manufacture GEM 63 and GEM 63XL rocket motors that provide additional boost for United Launch Alliance’s Atlas V and Vulcan Centaur launch vehicles, which support a wide variety of undertakings including Amazon Kuiper and national security missions.”

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Kalberer notes Northrop Grumman rockets provide booster power for the United Launch Alliance’s new Vulcan Centaur launch vehicle and were aboard for eight of the ULA’s Atlas V launches, providing 27 boosters to date. The company also played an integral role in the success of the James Webb Space Telescope, including components that were manufactured in Utah. The Webb telescope launched into space on Christmas Day in 2021 and began sending images back to Earth about six months later. The instrument has since gathered the deepest and most detailed images ever recorded of the observable universe.

Northrop Grumman, like 47G, has sought to form partnerships and tap into expertise in Utah’s colleges and universities and the company has worked with students and faculty at the University of Utah, Weber State, Utah State, BYU and Bridgerland Technical College in Logan.

Elite lab developing ‘leading edge’ technology

USU can boast one of the longest histories of connection to space technologies thanks to the establishment of the Electro-dynamics Laboratories in 1959. It would later join forces with the University of Utah’s Upper Air Research Laboratory to form the Logan-based Space Dynamics Laboratory in the early 1980s.

The Space Dynamics Laboratory occupies a unique niche as a research and development entity wholly owned by USU but operating as an independent nonprofit that became a U.S. Defense Department University Affiliated Research Center in 1996. That UARC designation puts the Space Dynamics lab in elite company as one of only 14 institutions across the country tasked with providing and maintaining “advanced and sophisticated engineering, research, and/or development capabilities essential to the department’s mission and operations.”

Individual research centers have core competencies which, for the Space Dynamics Lab, feature researching and developing small satellite systems and subsystems to sensor technologies and cyber capabilities. Space Dynamics President Jed Hancock said technology developed at the lab has been widely deployed, including in telescope launches and components carried by the International Space Station as well as the recently completed Osiris-Rex mission that successfully gathered and returned material samples from a distant asteroid and returned them to Earth via a capsule that landed at Dugway Proving Ground last fall.

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While the lab and its 1,300-member workforce is primarily tasked with government-directed research, its innovations have wide-ranging impacts, including on the commercial side of space technology development, according to Hancock.

“Our charge is to be absolute thought leaders in technology and innovation in space and air and sea and the cyber domain for the (Department of Defense),” Hancock said. “We’re on the leading edge of advanced technology and rarely build anything twice.

“We are absolutely side by side in this with all the new space companies because we’re leading the technology that enables commercial companies and who they’re supposed to be. It’s a partnership in the industry and we all have a specific role to play.”

Hancock highlighted some of Space Dynamic’s current projects, including the development of small “cube” satellites that will be deployed to capture radio frequency images of the sun as part of ongoing efforts to better monitor solar activities. The lab is also playing a critical role in an Earth-defense mission to seek out and identify potentially lethal asteroids and other bodies that could be on collision paths with Terra Prime. That includes development of an infrared telescope, part of NASA’s Near-Earth Object Surveyor program, which is aiming to “discover and characterize most of the potentially hazardous asteroids and comets that come within 30 million miles of Earth’s orbit.”

NASA’s Space Launch System rocket, which includes boosters developed by aerospace giant Northrop Grumman. The company has had a Utah presence for over 80 years and is the state’s biggest employer in its sector. | NASA/Kim Shiflett

The coolest companies you’ve never heard of

RAM Aviation, Space and Defense hasn’t been around quite as long as Northrop Grumman or the space research programs at USU, but the privately held St. George company and its 300 employees will be celebrating its 50th anniversary next year. It has carved out a niche as a premier supplier of flight propulsion components and has a client list that reads like a who’s who of spaceflight technology developers.

RAM has built propulsion components for NASA’s Space Shuttle Program, the International Space Station and SpaceX’s vehicles as well as the company’s Starlink satellites. RAM propulsion valves are also built into Sierra Space’s Dream Chaser space plane, a newly developed spacecraft that, like the mothballed shuttle, lifts off on a rocket but lands on a runway like an airplane. Right now, the Dream Chaser space plane “Tenacity” is undergoing testing at Cape Canaveral, Florida, ahead of its first launch into low-Earth orbit aboard a ULA Vulcan Centaur rocket, expected sometime later this year.

RAM CEO Gregg Robison said the company, which also develops components for non-space vehicles like Lockheed Martin’s F-35 fighter jet, is seeing some of its fastest growth in the spaceflight industry.

“Ten years ago, the work on valves for space-related vehicles was probably around 1% of our volume,” Robison said. “Now it’s 20% and the fastest growing area for us.”


RAM’s high-precision valves are part of vehicle thruster assemblies, the propulsion devices that are fired at variable rates and times to steer and control the position of a spacecraft while in flight. Robison said RAM has built its business and customer base by developing a manufacturing process that achieves extremely high levels of precision and has in-house expertise that can help advance the work of spacecraft developers by fabricating prototypes faster and better than its competitors.

Robison said he sees two areas that are currently powering the most growth in the space industry: satellites and space exploration. He explained that companies like SpaceX have been able to develop efficient designs that have drastically reduced the high cost of putting spacecraft and satellites into orbit, a process that has opened the doors for increased access and additional innovation in the industry.

He said RAM’s ongoing success is a metaphor for what’s happening on a broader level across Utah, as the business of spaceflight and the development of space technology accelerates at an increasingly rapid pace.

“There are dozens of companies here, quiet companies like ours, that are growing and doing amazing work but most people have never heard of them,” Robison said. “There’s a reason companies like Northrop Grumman are investing so much in expanding their operations in Utah ... things are definitely taking off in Utah.”

First launch of the United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan Centaur vehicle, which carries booster rockets developed by aerospace giant Northrop Grumman. The company has had a Utah presence for over 80 years and is the state’s biggest employer in its sector. | NASA/Kim Shiflett
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