Space an Emerging Focus in US and Washington-Asia Connections

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by Sean Connell
A Japanese H-IIA rocket with the NASA-Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), Global Precipitation Measurement (GPM) Core Observatory onboard, is seen launching from the Tanegashima Space Center, Friday, Feb. 28, 2014, Tanegashima, Japan. The GPM spacecraft will collect information that unifies data from an international network of existing and future satellites to map global rainfall and snowfall every three hours.Image: NASA/Bill Ingalls.

Though Washington’s aerospace industry is best known for Boeing’s iconic jet airplanes, Seattle is gaining increasing recognition as an emerging center of new space industry businesses. These businesses are driving a broader evolution of the role of private companies within the space sector, with significant implications for business, privacy, and security. At a time when a growing number of Asian countries are actively expanding their own space programs and capabilities, developments in Washington’s space sector could shape economic and security considerations as space emerges as an important element within US-Asia relations.  

Washington companies have been active in US space programs from their earliest days. Boeing’s contributions to the Apollo project included lunar rovers, lunar orbiters and the first stage of the Saturn V. Rocket Research in Redmond—today part of Aerojet Rocketdyne and the world’s leading supplier of spacecraft propulsion systems and thrusters—developed systems used in satellites and the Mars Viking Landers. Hexcel, which manufactures composite honeycomb components in Burlington and Kent, has supplied parts to satellite launch vehicles and the James Webb Space Telescope. Joining these companies at the forefront of space technology development and manufacturing, a growing number of innovative entrants have emerged in the greater Seattle region. These include Blue Origin, Vulcan Aerospace, Planetary Resources, Spaceflight, Kymeta, and Black Sky, among others. Other local manufacturers are significant suppliers to space projects, such as Skagit County-based Janicki Industries, which builds tooling and components for NASA’s Orion Program, and Team Corporation, which manufactures vibration test equipment used in NASA’s Plum Brook Mechanical Vibration Facility. The region’s deep pools of engineering and software talent, big data capabilities, access to capital, and extensive aerospace supply chain have all been identified as factors contributing to this growth, while drawing outside firms like SpaceX to establish operations in the region. NewSpace, a space industry conference that brings together startups, established businesses, and government agencies with private investors and tech innovators, convened in Seattle in June 2016, reflecting growing attention to this burgeoning cluster.    

With Washington’s extensive aerospace connections with Asia, space is emerging as an area for new cooperation. This is particularly the case with Japan, given its long history of collaboration with the United States on space projects. Boeing and Aerojet have partnered for decades with Japan’s Mitsubishi Heavy Industries including in its development of launch vehicles. As Japan’s space policies continue shifting from their once exclusive focus on scientific research to incorporate security issues, and the relaxation of Japan’s “three principles” opens the door for Japanese manufacturers of space technologies to explore new international partnerships, interest is growing in opportunities for cooperation. In March 2016, the US-Japan Space Forum—a standing committee of US and Japanese space policy experts and officials organized by the Mansfield Foundation—convened in Seattle to meet and hear the perspectives of established and new space industry companies on potential areas for engagement. Additionally, the Space Security Initiative at the University of Washington’s Jackson School of International Affairs is working to connect the growing number of Pacific Northwest public and private sector stakeholders in space-related activities with Asia-focused expertise.

Other Asian countries are emerging as significant players in space, with important economic and security considerations. China has successfully achieved manned spaceflight and landed lunar probes, and is rapidly strengthening its space capabilities. South Korea and India have signed agreements with the United States to scale up collaboration in space. As this area takes on increasing importance within US-Asia relations, Washington’s space industry and those of other US space industry hubs—already revolutionizing the business of space—are positioned to play a key role in shaping these debates and creating new opportunities for collaboration.   

Sean Connell is a guest contributor to Asia Matters for America. He is employed by the Economic Development Alliance of Skagit County (Washington), and is a former Visiting Fellow at the East-West Center. This is an ongoing, multi-part series on the impacts and interrelationships between Washington State and the Asia-Pacific region. The views expressed are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the positions of any organization with which the author is affiliated. For more in this series, see Part I herePart II here, Part III here, and Part IV here.