Content originally published by the Denver Post on February 15, 2015.
The appointments of U.S. Rep. Ed Perlmutter and U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner to key congressional committees overseeing national space policy and science exploration could help propel Colorado to the top of the aerospace heap.
"We now have stability in Congress to make sure dollars and projects underway in Colorado don't get curtailed," said Metro Denver Economic Development Corp. CEO Tom Clark. "This is significant momentum to us in terms of moving that Colorado brand forward — we don't have to spend so much time looking over our shoulders."
Perlmutter's appointment to theHouse Committee on Science, Space and Technology is mirrored in the Senate, where Gardner will serve on the Senate Subcommittee on Space, Science and Competitiveness.
These posts give Colorado a visible seat at the national aerospace and science table for the first time since 2009, when Mark Udall, who served on the House committee, was elected to the Senate.
Gardner and Perlmutter say they have goals — big ones — for the coming year. At their core is the Colorado-centric Orion mission, which is integral to NASA's ambitious plan to send humans to Mars by 2030.
Orion, designed and built by Littleton-based Lockheed Martin Space Systems, almost fell victim to budget cuts in 2010. Budgetary constraints will keep Orion from heading to space until 2018. The spacecraft's first crewed mission is not scheduled until 2021.
"We all have to be in this for the long haul, so if I can shrink some of these time periods for Orion, I will," said Perlmutter, a Democrat from Jefferson County. "President Kennedy said we're going to the moon, telling us it was all hands on deck, and they did it. So what kind of effort would be required to get this thing moving and focused, knowing full well they were pretty much on their last legs a few years ago?"
Gardner, a Republican from northeastern Colorado, agreed, saying he will "lean heavily" on NASA and others to make sure the mission stays on task and on target.
"Delays create questions on future funding," he said. "We have to make sure that we are always looking forward."
Colorado currently ranks No. 1 in the nation for private aerospace employment as a percentage of total employment, according to data from the Metro Denver Economic Development Corp.
The state is home to aerospace behemoths like Lockheed Martin Space Systems, Ball Aerospace, Sierra Nevada Space Systems, United Launch Alliance and DigitalGlobe, and many research institutes in the state were involved with some of 2014's biggest space stories, including NASA's Mars MAVEN mission and the European Space Agency's Rosetta comet landing mission.
Yet, despite these high-profile missions, Colorado isn't necessarily what first comes to mind with the mention of aerospace. Gardner hopes to change that and make Colorado "first in space," both in perception and reality.
"One of the most amazing experiences I've had over the last four years serving in Congress is traveling to places near and far and meeting people doing absolutely amazing things in Colorado that no one knows about," Gardner said. "Whether it's the covered wagons of 100 years ago, or a spaceship of tomorrow, that's what makes Colorado unique — we are always looking forward."
Federal funding is central to the state's aerospace economy. Colorado companies and agencies received $1.8 billion in NASA prime contract awards in 2013, $9.2 billion in Department of Defense contracts, and $60.3 million in Small Business Innovation Research awards in 2013, according to Vicky Lea, EDC's aerospace director. The 2013 data was the most recent available.
Additionally, $379.2 million from the National Science Foundation came to the state in 2014, funding research at places like the University of Colorado, Boulder's Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics and the Aspen Center for Physics.
While the committees on which Perlmutter and Gardner now serve don't directly allocate these funds, they do influence legislation and policy.
This has caused concern for many in the space and science communities, especially in the newly GOP-controlled Senate, where Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz now helms the Subcommittee on Science, Space and Competitiveness. Cruz, who has outlined an ambitious plan for space exploration, also calls global warming a "so-called scientific theory."
Gardner said he will not be swayed by others' views and will stand up for Colorado.
"I'm one of the few Republicans who has already shown I will vote against my party when it comes down to it," he said. "I'm not afraid to buck the party line, and I've proved that."
As for Perlmutter: There are two quotes on the wall of the House Science and Technology Committee meeting room in Washington, D.C. One is from the Bible. The other is from Alfred Lord Tennyson: "For I dipped into the future, far as human eyes could see, saw the vision of the world and all the wonder that would be."
And this, Perlmutter said, inspires him. It also confirms his decision to advocate for space after serving years on the House Financial Services Committee.
"I love space exploration, and I've always believed that humans, but especially Americans, are explorers at heart," he said. "There are individuals that are skeptical about all this stuff and really are not big fans of science, which is startling in this day and age. But that's what's going to be so fun about it — there will be plenty of political wrangling."
This isn't a new role for Perlmutter, who was integral in University of Colorado Boulder landing the bid for the National Solar Observatory in 2011. However, he said this new seat allows him the ability to better advocate for agencies, programs and other areas of space exploration research at the core of Colorado's economy.
He's already started: Last week, he urged NOAA and the Obama administration to make the country's aging fleet of weather satellites a priority.
But keeping the dollars flowing and missions on track will take more than just passing legislation.
"We are in a good spot, but you can never get too comfortable that we're number one. We'll only be at the top of this aerospace ladder if people are always vigilant and fighting for it," Perlmutter said. "You could be on every committee in the Congress, but it means nothing if you don't actually work for it."