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The Silicon Valley of Space Start-Ups? It Could be Seattle

Mr. Bezos founded Blue Origin in nearby Kent, Wash. — a company that recently launched its New Shepard rocket and returned it to a launchpad in Texas for the fourth time, demonstrating the reusability that is a key to making space access cheaper. Blue Origin recently said it planned to begin testing its rocket with astronauts next year, and aimed to begin sending space tourists on a short suborbital flight the year after that.

Mr. Allen’s Vulcan Aerospace is funding the creation of the largest airplane in the world by wingspan, Stratolaunch, which will drop rockets from about 30,000 feet moments before they blast into space. Vulcan believes its approach will allow it to send satellites into space more reliably and efficiently by, for example, flying around bad weather.


Blue Origin in nearby Kent, Wash., founded by Jeff Bezos of Amazon, recently launched its New Shepard rocket and returned it to a launchpad for the fourth time. Credit Blue Origin

The plane is being built in Mojave, Calif., outside Los Angeles, though Vulcan is in Seattle. Entrepreneurs credit Mr. Allen with helping to ignite the current commercial gusto for space in 2004 when a rocket-powered plane he financed, SpaceShipOne, won the $ 10 million Ansari X Prize for becoming the first manned, reusable private spacecraft to reach space.

Another high-profile space entrepreneur, Elon Musk, doesn’t have the same personal connection to the Seattle area. But he does visit to prospect for talent for his rocket company, Space Exploration Technologies, known as SpaceX. Headquartered in Hawthorne, Calif., SpaceX has centered its development of a satellite communications system in Redmond, Wash.

“The reason for it is pretty straightforward,” Mr. Musk, also the chief executive of the electric-car maker Tesla, told an audience in Seattle last year at a recruiting event. “There’s a huge amount of talent in the Seattle area, and a lot of you guys don’t seem to want to move to L.A.”

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One reason that Seattle is attractive is that space companies are no longer looking primarily for aerospace engineers.

Planetary Resources, a start-up in Redmond, Wash., has plans for one of the more implausible-sounding space businesses, dedicated to mining asteroids for materials like water. The hydrogen and oxygen in water can be processed in space into fuel for craft headed into deep space or satellites orbiting the earth, the company said.

The company’s chief executive, Chris Lewicki, said it planned to attach a probe to asteroids and use inflatable solar reflectors to concentrate the sun’s energy on the surface of the asteroid, allowing Planetary Resources to capture water as it is baked out.

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But Planetary Resources, which has attracted investments from Larry Page and Eric Schmidt, top executives at Google’s parent company, Alphabet, first plans to use infrared and hyperspectral imaging sensors to analyze asteroids for the most promising targets, essentially a big data problem. The company will begin testing the sensors later this year when it plans to launch a new spacecraft, Arkyd 6, to scan the earth for natural resources.

Mr. Lewicki said in an interview that one of the company’s largest teams was its software group. The supply of software and traditional aerospace talent made the Seattle area an obvious choice, said Mr. Lewicki, who worked at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory on its Mars missions.

“It’s a powerhouse on both the software and hardware side,” said Joe Landon, the chairman of the Space Angels Network, which connects private investors with space start-ups.

A few years ago, the state formed a consortium, the Washington State Space Coalition, to help raise the fledgling industry’s profile and improve communication among entrepreneurs, academics and government representatives. In a coup, the coalition lured a private space industry conference, NewSpace, to Seattle last month after it had been held in Silicon Valley for almost a decade.

“What we’re trying to do in the state of Washington is we’re trying to nurture that ecosystem,” said John Thornquist, head of the state’s Office of Aerospace.

Money is flowing into the new space industry, though at a significantly slower rate than it is into more traditional technology companies. Since 2000, the investment in space start-ups has totaled $ 13.3 billion, including a record $ 2.7 billion last year, the Tauri Group, a research firm, estimated.

How much of that found its way to Seattle is difficult to say, partly because Mr. Allen and Mr. Bezos, who are believed to be spending heavily, won’t say how much they’ve invested.

Still, it remains to be seen whether Seattle’s space scene can move beyond the relatively small number of companies and investors propping it up now to become a durable industry. At the NewSpace conference, an executive from Aerojet Rocketdyne, which has been making space propulsion systems in the area for decades, told an audience to expect failures.

“Many of the current new space companies are not going to be around in 10 to 20 years,” said Fred Wilson, Aerojet Rocketdyne’s director of marketing and business development.

Seattle has seen its space ambitions lose momentum before.

In 1965, Boeing opened the Boeing Space Center, a facility on 430 acres in nearby Kent, where it developed lunar rovers used on Apollo missions. In 2010, Boeing began selling off chunks of the property and moving employees to other locations.

Now, one of the big tenants is Amazon, which has a couple of warehouses there.

Correction: August 1, 2016

Because of an editing error, an earlier version of this article misidentified the city in which Boeing is based. It is Chicago, not Seattle. (Though the company moved its headquarters to Chicago from Seattle in 2001, about half of its workforce is still in Seattle.)

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