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Keeping Our Edge Requires Strategic Shift

For many years, Colorado’s natural beauty and abundant resources were my home state’s major economic drivers. While hunting, fishing, climbing and sightseeing remain as important to Coloradans today as they were decades ago, our newest economic boon has stemmed from an abundant intellectual and technological base.

Alongside venerable industries that thrive due to a wealth of terrestrial splendor, Colorado is now a hub of remarkable innovation thanks to an influx of scientists, entrepreneurs and innovators who have committed themselves to advancing aerospace, renewable energy, bioscience and advanced manufacturing. In the process, they have entirely redefined the Centennial State and propelled us into a leadership role in the 21st century global economy.

Colorado-based aerospace companies, large and small, have made enormous contributions to nearly every technological leap forward in the past decade. From the Delta rockets that have delivered dozens of satellites safely into orbit to highly specialized sensors and the ingenious sky crane system that lowered the Curiosity rover to the surface of Mars, Colorado’s aerospace industry has given us countless reasons to look skyward and marvel at what we have been able to accomplish.

I have worked hard to ensure that my experience and committee assignments reflect the diversity of aerospace interests in my home state. For 10 years, I served on the House Science Committee, and I chaired its space and aeronautics subcommittee. Now in the Senate, I serve on the Armed Services and Intelligence committees, and I am proud to serve as the newest chairman of the Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee, with jurisdiction over military intelligence programs, cyber and space programs and missile defense, among others.

Colorado is active in all of these areas, and the example we’re setting in aerospace is a model for the nation. We are now home to the second-largest aerospace economy in the nation — employing more than 66,000 workers across the military, civil and private sectors and contributing $8.7 billion to the Colorado economy in 2011.

Even as the federal government has been forced to reduce spending and eliminate funding for a number of longstanding scientific efforts, the aerospace industry in Colorado and across the nation continues to create jobs, drive innovation and help our nation stay ahead in the global economic race. That success has been the result of the same thinking that has maintained the United States’ technological advantage over our global competitors and adversaries.

But we can’t expect to retain that edge without making changes that reflect a dynamic marketplace and technology that is evolving at a breakneck pace. And the industry’s Achilles’ heel — its reliance on federal funding — exposes it to greater risks and uncertainty at a time of damaging federal budget cuts.

One of the key points of a recent Brookings Institution report gets at how federal funding shortfalls and fiscal uncertainties threaten states whose aerospace sectors heavily depend on federal funding. The report, produced in partnership with the Colorado Governor’s Office, the Colorado Office of Economic Development and the private sector, considers ways in which states like Colorado can weather automatic budget cuts — known as the sequester — and fiscal uncertainty at the federal level by making a “strong and strategic pivot” to seize commercial opportunities in emerging space markets and committing anew to innovation. The report also emphasizes key roles that the federal government, the state and industry must play individually and in partnership to create an environment in which Colorado’s space economy can take flight. In particular, the report notes: “For public policy — especially economic development and innovation policy — to be effective in a federalist system, states and the federal government must forge a close and symbiotic partnership resting on frequent communication and policy coordination.”

I could not agree more. And that is why I am hosting monthly calls with the entire Colorado congressional delegation, the governor and industry leaders from across the state to understand the challenges and opportunities facing the industry and how to address them.

The aerospace industry also is facing a problem common to so many industry sectors across Colorado and the nation: demographics and a shortage of skilled workers. We need scientists to continue the research and development efforts that fuel economic growth, entrepreneurs to build new industry sectors and create jobs, and skilled workers to fill demands for new high-technology jobs.

That is why Congress and our partners in the state legislature need to ensure that we are supporting science, technology, engineering and math — or STEM — education. As the co-founder of the House STEM Education Caucus and co-chairman of the Senate Science and Technology Caucus, I know that STEM education will help ensure that we do not fall behind China, India and our other competitors in the global innovation race.

We also need to make sure that the United States welcomes innovative people and businesses who will support and expand our aerospace sector. Our immigration system, as it stands today, encourages us to educate and support foreign entrepreneurs to obtain the skills they need to create the next Google, Microsoft or Apple, only to kick them out of the country once they complete their education. Especially given an aging work force, a shortage of science and math graduates, and an increasing demand for skilled workers, such a shortsighted approach puts aerospace and other high-technology startups at risk.

That is why I am working across the aisle with Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) to pass the Startup Visa Act, which would help foreign entrepreneurs and highly skilled college graduates of U.S. universities to create jobs in the United States.

As the private sector expands in scope and scale, government sectors will also continue to play an increasingly important role for the aerospace industry in Colorado and around the United States. As we defend our nation from adversaries with increasing technological capabilities, our military and intelligence communities will rely more and more on space-based technologies to monitor activity, deliver troops and payloads to precise coordinates, and communicate effectively over great distances. On the civilian side, the entire world will continue to benefit from weather and climate monitoring satellite constellations that help to forecast storms and changing weather patterns to help save lives and protect property.

While I believe that Colorado is ideally positioned to lead on many of these missions, the United States will require a truly national effort that expands across government and throughout industry to maintain the strategic and technological advantage that we have enjoyed for decades. Our partners in industry must continue to innovate, drive costs down and bring the very best ideas and technology to the table, while the federal and state governments need to facilitate new commercial opportunities by rewarding innovation, supporting research and development, and promoting STEM education initiatives.

Above all, we must keep our eyes and our imaginations directed skyward. Barely a half-century after the Wright Brothers’ first flight, mankind made its first venture into orbit. Now, aerospace technologies that would have been dismissed as science fiction only a few years ago have become an essential component of our daily lives. And that breathtaking pace of technological advancement continues to increase. Space is no longer out of reach for all but global superpowers. Instead, it presents opportunities as vast as the cosmos itself for our state, our nation and our world.

 

U.S. Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) serves on the Senate Armed Services and Intelligence committees and is the newest chairman of the Senate Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee, which oversees global military issues including cyberdefense, military space programs, nuclear weapons and intelligence programs.

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