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Teeming with engineers, Alabama's Rocket City USA is luring hot new industries to town

Teeming with engineers, Alabama’s Rocket City USA is luring hot new industries to town

Boeing, Aerojet Rocketdyne and Lockheed Martin have all been constructing or expanding space-related facilities within the past two years.

Privately held Sierra Nevada Corporation is working with the city to begin landing its Dream Chaser space plane, which will carry cargo for NASA, at the Huntsville International Airport starting in 2023. Huntsville International will be the first — and only — commercial airport licensed by the FAA for a space plane landing.

Blue Origin is spending $200 million to build its rocket engine factory, a 350,000-square-foot facility in Huntsville that will employ 300 people and is expected to open early next year. Jeff Bezos’ space company will produce up to 40 engines per year, supplying not only its orbital New Glenn rocket that’s under development but United Launch Alliance’s next-generation rocket, Vulcan Centaur, under development at ULA’s rocket factory 30 miles east of Huntsville in Decatur, Alabama.

The company is also refurbishing Marshall‘s historic Test Stand 4670 — once used for Saturn V rockets and Space Shuttle engines — where it is testing several engine variants.

Huntsville “has this great receptacle of talent there that you can tap into, and it’s been decades in building. So we wanted to go to where the talent is,” says Blue Origin CEO Bob Smith. “You get great support from the government, so everyone from Gov. [Kay] Ivey to Sen. [Richard] Shelby all the way down to Mayor [Tommy] Battle have been great supporters of actually developing the space economy there.”

Smith adds, “It’s really going to anchor us into that space community, which is going to be really powerful for decades to come.”

Blue Origin also recently teamed up with Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Draper to bid for NASA’s lunar lander competition, which will comprise part of the agency’s broader Artemis initiative to send an American man and woman to the moon in 2024.

The lunar lander will be managed by Marshall. Already, the rocket currently tasked with the mission, the Space Launch System, or SLS, is under the center’s oversight. Parts of SLS are built all over the U.S., with the core stage, or backbone of the rocket, produced by Boeing. Elements of the rocket get shipped to Huntsville for testing.

“Our top priority right now is focusing on the Space Launch System, which is the next heavy lift vehicle that is required to take the Orion capsule, that takes our astronauts into space to the moon, and be able to deliver the systems that are required to support them,” says Jody Singer, Marshall Space Flight Center director.

But unlike Apollo or even the Space Shuttle program after it, Artemis increasingly represents the evolution of the business relationship between government and commercial space. “It’s no longer just the government saying, ‘This is what we want to build and the dollars that go with it,’ we have a true partnership that we work together to decide,” says Singer.

Even on the military side, as the U.S. prioritizes space as a national security issue, Huntsville is in the running for the Department of Defense’s newly activated Space Command against a handful of sites around the U.S. SPACECOM is the military’s 11th warfighting command and seen as a precursor to President Donald Trump‘s proposed Space Force.