Montana. Green pastures, grazing farm animalsand a rocket
launch site in the back 40. Sound too futuristic? It won't be too
far out if the state of Montana achieves its mission.
That goal is to develop aerospace technology as a key industrial
sector within the state. With 28 active aerospace companies, the
state has a "small but strong aerospace industry. MSE Technology
Applications [in Butte] is the strongest aerospace-related company
in the state. They work with top rocket scientists," according to
Mike Gold, who recently stepped down as the director of the Montana
Aerospace Development Authority (MADA).
The state wants to add to its aerospace industry because "the
industry offers quality long-term jobs. I believe it is a fieldas
far as commercial space activitythat is in its infancy. It
is similar to the Internet and [information technology] revolution,"
Space companies are locating in Montana because big cities are
overcrowded and expensive, Gold said. "Montana offers potential
companies open space, loyal employees, an aerospace-educated workforce
and reasonably priced land."
Montana's geographic location also makes it a good place for space
launches. "Where [Montana] sits on the globe and its altitude provide
both an ease of entry into space as well as an exit," said Evan
Barrett, executive director of the local development corporation
The industry appears poised for future growth, according to sources,
as industry competitors race to engineer faster, lighter, more reliable
rockets as well as reusable engines. "It costs $10,000 per pound
to launch a space craft. The industry needs to bring this cost down
tenfold, to $1,000 per pound," said Gold. When that happens there
will be an explosion of new technology, he said.
A big push is being made by U.S. Sen. Conrad Burns to bring aerospace-related
companies to Montana, said Dwight McKay, Burns' state director.
Burns serves on the NASA Committee, McKay said, and added that NASA
is looking for a partnership with the private sector to conduct
launches. Burns also created a space technology board and has kept
Montana aerospace companies informed about federal contract opportunities
related to space technology, McKay said.
One of the best-known reusable launch vehicles, VentureStar, developed
by Lockheed Martin, may have a launch site in Montanapossibly
at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Great Falls, McKay said. Montana
officials will know within a year, and if it happens, McKay said,
the state economy will get a boost.
"One of the biggest ways the aerospace industry will benefit Montana
is that it will create more primary jobs that pay more, and you
have more spinoffs for other jobs," McKay said. "Right now, as far
as new space technology companies to Montana, it is a wait-and-see
type situation, to see what venture capitalists want to do."
For example, Rotary Rocket of San Bruno, Calif., is seeking private
funding for a test launch site in Montana for which NASA will provide
matched funds for technical help, said McKay. But the launch site
in Montana is pending because of a lack of funding, according to
Richard Stockmans, Rotary Rocket's director of business development.
Part of the industry's growth in the state has been from within.
MSE Technology Applications in Butte is the largest aerospace company
in Montana and deals with advanced energy and aerospace programs.
The company, built and owned by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE),
began in 1974 during the energy crisis. In the late 1980s, MSE diversified
into areas other than energy, and in 1996 the company purchased
its facility from the DOE. Currently, MSE has 230 employees, the
majority of whom are scientists and engineers. In June, 175 other
MSE employees left to form a subsidiary company in Montana called
HKM Engineering Services.
"We've taken skills under the DOE program and reapplied that to
the aerospace industry," said Dave Micheletti, manager of advanced
energy in aerospace programs for MSE and current executive director
of MADA. He said the foundation and springboard of Montana's aerospace
economic development initiative is MSE's initiative. "In just five
years, we've become industry leaders," Micheletti said. "This represents
some of the most advanced research done anywhere in the United States.
Having a world-class aerospace facility becomes a very attractive
Continuing its growth, MSE is constructing a new test facility
next to its site in Butte, which will be used to develop and test
a supersonic nozzle for the U.S. Air Force. The new facility is
scheduled to begin operations by June 2001.
The state recently passed House Bill 555 authorizing up to $20
million in state bonding to aerospace companies that create new
jobs, to be repaid by increased tax revenue generated by new aerospace
projects. "We don't have any one [company] specifically [in mind]
for the funds to be utilized yet," Gold said.
The bill's genesis came from the impending VentureStar project,
according to Barrett. "Jobs created by the project would offset
payment," Barrett said. "It clearly needs some tweaking, but has
One example that the bill needed tweaking was evident in the breakdown
in recent negotiations between state officials and Bigelow Aerospace
of Las Vegas, Nev. Bigelow's move to Montana fell through because
of timing and the minimum employee requirements to receive funding,
which "is a lethal thing to impose on a company," said company president
Robert Bigelow. "Maybe in the future, some years down the road,
we could do something in Montana," he said.
There also are a number of other incentive programs for the industry
The Montana Board of Investment loan program can provide up
to $16 million for working capital equipment for any single project.
The Small Business Innovative Research Program (SBIR), a federal
program designed to benefit companies with fewer than 500 employees,
offers over $850,000 in different phases.
The Community Development Block Grant Project awards loans
up to $200,000 at 8 percent for a single job project.
The Board of Investment Infrastructure Program lends money to
local government, which then lends to local companies.
So far, five aerospace-related companies in Montana, including
MSE, have been awarded SBIRs, according to Tim Nagel, program coordinator
for the Montana Department of Commerce. MSE will be the first aerospace
company to use the Board of Investment's loan program, and, along
with the U.S. Air Force, will also use the infrastructure program.
[For further discussion of economic development programs in Montana
and other Ninth District states, see the April
and July issues of the
Higher education also plays an important role in the space industry.
Montana state universities in Bozeman and Billings both have NASA
TechLink centers, funded by NASA and the U.S. Department of Defense.
Boeing Corp. is the number one employer of MSU-Bozeman graduates.
Chandra Morris, director of communications of TechLink at MSU-Bozeman,
said TechLink identifies the needs of technology companies and serves
as a matchmaker. TechLink has access to people in research centers
whose project may match with technology in their region, which includes
Montana, the Dakotas, Wyoming, Idaho, Oregon and Washington state.
University students are also involved in the aerospace industry.
Founded by NASA, the Montana Space Consortium at MSU-Bozeman allows
students to assist in the development of space projects. According
to Morris, this year students are helping with the Slender Hypervelocity
Aerothermodynamic Research Probe (SHARP) aerospace vehicle that
will be launched out of Casper, Wyo. SHARP also refers to the sharp
edges NASA wants to use on the leading portions of its space vehicles
to make the takeoff and re-entry more efficient. TechLink brokered
a deal between NASA-Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif.,
and Wickman Space Craft and Propulsion, Casper, Wyo., for students
to build models of SHARP, which loads into the nose cone of a rocket
and is later launched for independent exploration.
While some might be surprised at the state's position in this
high-tech field, Micheletti said, it's the result of good foresight
and planning. For example, Montana lowered its business equipment
tax to make the state more competitive.
"What Montana has done is to advertise that it is a good place
to do business by recruiting aerospace organizations, contacting
companies and informing them of the favorable business climate,"