Long Beach pushes to become hub for booming space industry

In a 180,000-square-foot former assembly plant in East Long Beach’s Douglas Park, technicians for Virgin Orbit build rockets designed to carry small satellites—some as tiny as a toaster.

Across the street, small satellite company RocketLab is busy setting up its new corporate headquarters.

And a half mile down the road, engineers for space startup SpinLaunch are working on secretive technology that could catapult small rockets into space. The company is planning to conduct its first flight tests in New Mexico this fall.

Southern California—and Long Beach—has long played a key role in the aerospace industry, but much of the industry has dwindled in recent decades as major companies, like Boeing and Northrop Grumman Corp., relocate to other regions.

When Boeing shuttered its C-17 cargo plane production site in Long Beach in 2015, the Wall Street Journal called it the “end of Southern California’s jet age.”

But now, a new era is beginning, with major commercial space companies, like Virgin Orbit and SpaceX in Hawthorn, setting up roots

And Long Beach is taking note. The city, fueled by the new additions of Virgin, RocketLab and SpinLaunch in Douglas Park, is positioning itself as a hub for the booming space industry.

“There’s a lot of discussion about what’s happening in the industry, and in Long Beach, we’re very fortunate to have the talent pool as well the building space and infrastructure,” said Long Beach Economic Development Director John Keisler. “There’s a transition and we’re evolving with it.”

A hub for satellite manufacturing

Keisler said Long Beach in recent years has developed a strategic plan to retain talent and lure top aerospace companies.

After the Boeing C-17 plant shuttered, the city secured a $3.9 million economic transition grant from the U.S. Department of Defense to help connect impacted workers with local opportunities and develop a new vision for the area.

Keisler said the city learned about special permitting, building codes and other regulations for space companies when it helped billionaire Richard Branson’s Virgin Group set up shop in Douglas Park in 2015. The city now has a fast-track process for other such companies who express interest in moving to Long Beach.

“We already have a game plan, we’ve got the checklist, we make it easier than anywhere else in the country right now,” Keisler said.

Two engineers working on a rocket engine work inside a clean room at the Virgin Orbit plant In Long Beach Wednesday Feb.13, 2020. Photo by Thomas R. Cordova.

The city also connects the businesses with information on tax credits and other financial incentives, as well as connecting them with the governor’s office and elected officials at the state level.

“We hold their hand like an ombudsman through the process,” he said.

And in January, Long Beach formed its first Aerospace Council to address unique needs in the aerospace industry. The council, which meets monthly, includes about 20 companies. They range from small, longtime businesses like Deering Industries —an aircraft hardware surplus store that’s been Long Beach since 1952—to big names like Boeing and newcomers like SpinLaunch.

Later this year, the city is planning to host an aerospace summit to send the message that Long Beach is a key player in the new “space race,” Keisler said.

While aerospace has historically been dominated by military other government contracts, the industry has been newly commercialized as big tech companies like Google and Amazon race to put fleets of small satellites into to space to bring internet connection to the the entire planet.

Long Beach, with its rich aerospace manufacturing history, could become a new satellite manufacturing hub, Keisler said.

“We think there is a lot of growth for this particular market,” he said.

Dueling space companies

Virgin Orbit now has about 500 employees at its Long Beach headquarters. On a recent visit, engineers and technicians were working on six, 70-square-foot rockets in various stages of production.

These smaller rockets are designed to attach under the wing of a Boeing 747 jet named Cosmic Girl and will fire off into space when they hit an altitude of 35,000 feet. The rockets will deliver smaller payloads into space for a relatively low price of about $12 million per rocket or $40,000 per kilogram.

The company is planning for its inaugural launch in Mojave next month. If all goes well, Virgin hopes to eventually launch about 20 rockets a year, said spokesman Kendall Russell.

Two employee work among the bottom end of a rocket while at the Virgin Orbit plant In Long Beach Wednesday Feb.13, 2020. Photo by Thomas R. Cordova.

And it’s almost all made in Long Beach. Nearly 95% percent of the rocket, including the carbon fiber, is manufactured in-house, Russell said.

“We make almost everything here, which is rare,” he said.

Russell said the the company isn’t too concerned about having competitors in close proximity, but employees have been keeping their work conversations a little quieter when having lunch at The Hangar, a popular nearby food court.

Just down the street, SpinLaunch, is working on a different type of technology that it hopes will revolutionize how small satellites are launched into orbit.

The startup, founded by Jonathan Yaney in 2015, is developing a kinetic energy-based launch system that would fling satellites into space for a low cost. It recently won its first U.S. Department of Defense contract to develop a small satellite launch system prototype and has generated more than $45 million in funding.

Diane Murphy, a SpinLaunch spokesperson, said the company was attracted to the weather, talent pool and rich aerospace history when it decided to move from Silicon Valley to its new 140,000-square-foot headquarters in Douglas Park last year.

Murphy said Long Beach is becoming desirable to a vibrant, fast-growing industry.

“Everyone wants to be here because of the climate, the colleges, and especially because they have these big, open facilities,” she said. “Long Beach is really becoming a hub for the innovators.”

SpinLaunch has about 80 employees and is hiring, she said.

Top talent

Forouzan Golshani, dean of the College of Engineering at Cal State Long Beach, said many of the new space companies are lured by proximity to the country’s best engineering schools.

Cal State Long Beach has long had partnerships with Boeing and other aerospace companies and frequently gives tours to new companies interested in learning about the large talent pool in Long Beach, he said. The College of Engineering, which has around 5,400 students, has updated its curriculum in recent years to keep pace with the booming space industry, he added.

Ten years ago the college had one rocket-building team. Now it has four, he said.

“We really need to raise awareness that it is a good field with high paying jobs,” he said. “These are great careers to be in.”

Whether it’s building satellites or even space travel, Golshani said he believes Long Beach will play a strong role in the future.

“We may not be manufacturing planes here anymore, but we have the potential to be a central piece of the aerospace industry once again,” he said. “It’s an exciting time for an industry that’s flourishing.”

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Kelly Puente is a general assignment and special projects reporter at the Long Beach Post. Her prolific reporting has taken her all over Southern California—even to the small Catalina Island town of Two Harbors. She is a Tiki mug collector and is currently pursuing a master’s degree in public policy and administration at Cal State Long Beach. Reach her at [email protected].
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