To the stars: Wichita looks to space as it works to diversify its aviation future

·8 min read

As billionaires usher in the commercial space age and world powers race to develop the next generation of space-based weaponry, Wichita is positioning itself to embrace off-world aviation, exploration and defense.

The twin crises of the Boeing 737 MAX grounding and the COVID-19 pandemic exposed volatility in the commercial aviation industry, which has served as the backbone of Wichita’s economy for decades.

Spirit AeroSystems, the city’s largest employer, laid off 5,000 local workers in 2020. So far, the company has added back roughly 1,200.

“If you look at what the 737 MAX did and then what COVID did, it kind of got us in a double whammy situation,” said John Tomblin, executive director of Wichita State’s National Institute for Aviation Research.

“I think by diversifying, you look at defense and space, you’re able to flatten out some of those peaks and valleys. It doesn’t make us so dependent on one segment of the industry.”

Tomblin, who is also WSU’s senior vice president for industry and defense programs, said Wichita’s labor force is positioned well to diversify.

South-central Kansas is home to three-fourths of the nearly 400 aerospace suppliers in the state, according to the Greater Wichita Partnership.

“The large percentage of engineers here who understand manufacturing and then the amount of manufacturing that we have in town, it positions us uniquely equipped to take on any advanced or future type of manufacturing — whether it be commercial or whether it be defense or rather it means space,” Tomblin said.

Fuselages for the 737 sit at Spirit AeroSystems in Wichita. Spirit plans to balance commercial aviation with U.S. military work and carve out a place in the burgeoning commercial space industry.
Fuselages for the 737 sit at Spirit AeroSystems in Wichita. Spirit plans to balance commercial aviation with U.S. military work and carve out a place in the burgeoning commercial space industry.

On the commercial side, one major rocket company has already brought its business to Wichita.

Last month, Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin inked multi-year contracts with four local suppliers — Accurus Aerospace Wichita, C.E. Machine Company, Harlow Aerostructures and Orizon Aerostructures — to support its heavy-lift launch vehicle and engine programs.

In June, Spirit reclassified its defense business as Spirit Defense and Space, a division executives say they hope to see grow from roughly 20% of company revenue to 40%.

For Spirit, that means balancing commercial aviation with U.S. military work and carving out a place in the burgeoning commercial space industry, which is projected to explode into a trillion-dollar market by 2030.

“If we can diversify the economy, we’ll have more jobs, better jobs, more stable jobs,” Sen. Jerry Moran told The Eagle.

Moran, who serves on committees allocating money for both NASA and the Department of Defense, said Wichita will have to adjust nimbly to the changing realities of the aeronautics industry to remain globally competitive.

“We are the Air Capital of the World, but I know from my experience, there are lots of other places who would love to have that title,” Moran said.

Commercial space opportunities

Earlier this month, the CEO of another major private rocket company, United Launch Alliance, visited Wichita to assess the city’s manufacturing capabilities.

ULA is responsible for launching 90% of U.S. national security satellites now in orbit.

“This is an incredible location,” CEO Tory Bruno said of Wichita during a stop at the Atlas Group, a supplier of complex aerospace products. “The aerospace technology and capabilities that I’m seeing here on my trip are impressive, and I plan to go home with a couple of suppliers.”

No contracts have been publicly announced, but Bruno said he expects to forge serious supplier partnerships in the city.

“It will be a significant number of jobs. It will be millions of dollars,” he said.

Before the Blue Origin and ULA visits, the Greater Wichita Partnership worked with both to identify gaps in their supply chains that local companies might be able to fill.

“We’re constantly telling the story, but when we can get them here on the ground, it’s a completely different experience,” said Tammy Porazka, vice president of business development at the Greater Wichita Partnership. “Then they can see the shops for themselves. They can meet the leadership and even the folks on the floor.”

It’s not unprecedented for private space companies to partner with Wichita manufacturers. In 2015, local company Leading Edge Aerospace produced the landing legs for SpaceX’s 15-story Falcon rocket booster.

Moran said several other high-profile private space companies have expressed interest in touring Wichita facilities.

Many of those same companies are already testing materials at NIAR, the largest academic aviation research and development institution in the U.S.

“We’ve been doing material testing for pretty much all of the — I don’t want to mention names — but pretty much all of the private space launch companies,” Tomblin said. “Particularly their nonmetallic materials. So if they put composites on them, there’s a very good chance that they’ve tested those materials through NIAR.”

Defense opportunities

On the space defense side, the U.S. military is financially backing efforts in Wichita to design and make prototypes for hypersonic weapons.

Last month, Spirit and NIAR celebrated the opening of the National Defense Prototype Center, a joint facility supported by a $5 million federal grant awarded when the Department of Defense named south Kansas a defense manufacturing community, one of 11 in the country.

Space-based programs are already taking priority at the shared center on Spirit’s campus.

“It’s pretty hard to talk about defense and not talk about space,” said Duane Hawkins, Spirit’s vice president of defense and space. “They’re very much intertwined, and a lot of the systems that are out there now deal with both areas.”

Duane Hawkins, left, and Josh Boehm help run the defense and space side of Spirit AeroSystems, a part of the company that is likely to grow in coming years.
Duane Hawkins, left, and Josh Boehm help run the defense and space side of Spirit AeroSystems, a part of the company that is likely to grow in coming years.

The prospect of war in space is no longer bound to the realm of science fiction. In 2019, NATO classified space as a new operational domain, joining air, land, sea and cyberspace.

Moran said defending the country’s satellites will be a top U.S. priority in the coming years.

“What happens when they can disable or shoot down a satellite that is our national security communication system? What happens when you can shut off all the gas pumps at the gas stations across the country through a cyberattack in space?” Moran said.

“There is also, unfortunately, the capability of having war in space. We are hugely entering the realm of hypersonics, so it can mean defensive or offensive. We need to be able to defend ourselves against the destruction of our assets.”

Hypersonic weapons, which travel at five times the speed of sound, cannot be intercepted by traditional missile defense systems. Whereas ballistic missiles follow a predetermined trajectory, their hypersonic counterparts can change course on the way to a target.

Experts agree that the U.S. lags years behind China and Russia in offensive and defensive hypersonic capabilities.

With the establishment of the National Defense Prototype Center, Wichita could factor heavily into U.S. military efforts to make up ground in space.

“We’re very far behind, and this is an effort for us to catch up,” Hawkins said.

Spirit has at least 70 hypersonic programs in development, said Josh Boehm, Spirit’s vice president of defense, business development and strategy.

“The ability to create a prototype that is scalable and producible is going to become even more important,” Boehm said. “And that’s where the National Defense Prototype Center is going to be a real asset to the government.”

Hawkins said the skills required for commercial aircraft manufacturing are highly transferable to the defense manufacturing work Spirit is pursuing.

“That’s what makes this such a great thing is there really isn’t any additional type of things on the defense side that isn’t done to some degree on the commercial side,” Hawkins said.

The biggest difference, he said, is that workers on classified military projects have to complete an additional clearance process.

Wichita has a long history of defense manufacturing. During World War II, Boeing produced 4.2 B-29 planes a day, Hawkins said.

He said Spirit’s new emphasis on defense doesn’t mean the company is turning its back on commercial aviation.

“Obviously we’re not asking the commercial guys to stop growing so we can catch up,” Hawkins said.

“But we also are getting back into what I would call our roots, which is really defense business.”

Launching Wichita into space

Spirit is poised to enter the commercial space game, too.

By the end of the year, the company will have finalized its market strategy for space, Boehm said.

“A part of that is also going to hit on space tourism and the types of activities that companies like Blue Origin and SpaceX and Sierra Nevada are undertaking,” Boehm said. “I mean, there’s a dynamic, highly innovative industrial structure.”

But Spirit executives say they’re also committed to working with NASA and other entities dedicated to scientific exploration in space.

Boehm said Spirit has a history of partnering with NASA on thermal protection systems for their planetary science missions.

The company also has a contract with NASA to carry back samples from Mars in 2026.

Moran said civil and defense opportunities will abound for Wichita and the surrounding area in years to come.

U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran, left, introduces NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine at an event commemorating the 50th anniversary of the moon landing at the National Center for Aviation Training in July 2019.
U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran, left, introduces NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine at an event commemorating the 50th anniversary of the moon landing at the National Center for Aviation Training in July 2019.

“I’m an appropriator for NASA. I’m an appropriator for the Defense Department. In both instances, our role in space is only going to increase,” Moran said.

He also expressed confidence that Wichita can carve out a role in the rapidly expanding commercial space industry.

“Both of those arenas are in a growth model, and we ought to take advantage of that opportunity.”

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