50 years after moon landing, "explosive growth" in space industry

SEATTLE — In the Bothell laboratory of Tethers Unlimited, puffs of compressed air simulate thrusters moving two satellite mockups in orbit.

"Right now they're maneuvering to keep lined up," said CEO Rob Hoyt.

His company builds small space components, like satellites that click together like LEGO bricks and a compact robotic arm designed to operate inside the space station.

Since Tethers Unlimited started in 1994, many more local companies have joined the space industry, which was long dominated by companies like Boeing.

"We've got a good mix of old, established companies and new companies that are trying to change the way business is done," Hoyt said of the local space industry.

The presence of the local space industry is on display this week at the NewSpace Conference in Renton.

Big players now include Kent-based Blue Origin, founded by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos.

Bezos envisions millions of people living and working in space.

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Elon Musk's SpaceX has an office in Redmond.

Kelly Maloney of the Washington State Space Coalition said there are now hundreds of companies here working on space exploration.

A lot of that growth has come in the last five years.

"Initially a lot of the companies here were in 'stealth mode' in Washington State. They wanted to keep a low profile," Maloney said.

Jeff Feige chairs the Space Frontier Foundation, which is putting on the NewSpace Conference this week in Renton.

"Seattle's really, really unique in that it has a bunch of attributes that other cities don't," Feige said.

He said space companies are coming here for workers experienced in several sectors, including heavy industry, traditional aviation and software.

"There's this explosive growth in the sector right now," Feige said.

Unlike NASA’s moon landing 50 years ago, the next wave of exploration will be by private industry, increasingly powered by investors.

They're looking to space for manufacturing, energy production, even a place to live.

"Space isn't a program, it's a place," Feige said.

Watch an extended interview with Jeff Feige in the video player below.