Colorado companies make a lot of cool stuff, but it’s hard to beat what United Launch Alliance is building from its Greenwood Village- based headquarters. This past Saturday ULA’s GPS IIF-11 mission lifted off from Cape Canaveral, Florida, hitting a 30 minute or so launch window after being delayed a day due to technical issues. ULA’s Atlas 5 rocket assembly was flawless, lifting the 11th GPS satellite into orbit of what will be a 12-satellite ‘constellation’ for both civilian and military use.

For the ULA technicians on-hand in Colorado, the launch seemed routine. For those in the viewing gallery, like me, it seemed anything but. Experiencing a launch from ‘mission control’ was a throwback a couple decades to Apollo and later to the space shuttle. It’s rocket science, and it’s a flat-out rush.

Actually it’s high-tech manufacturing at its best, informed by science and technology and supported by advanced supply-chain management. That we don’t call it manufacturing or classify it as such in Colorado says a lot about how far the sector has fallen in the hierarchy of most-favored trades. We call it aerospace, which of course it is, but ULA is one of Colorado’s most important and high-profile OEMs.

A joint-venture between Lockheed and Boeing, ULA boasts the marketing tagline ‘America’s Ride to Space.’ It’s every bit of that. A ULA rocket assembly will lift the next human into space in a Boeing capsule called ‘Starliner.’ That is, they’ll be next if ULA can beat its upstart competitor into orbit, Elon Musk’s SpaceX. ULA hopes to launch in October 2017. Two years from now. It’s an aggressive timeline.

The first Starliner will also follow ULA’s high-profile Mars mission, slated for next March, this on the heels of New Horizons and the stunning success in flying by Pluto that began on a ULA rocket assembly. It was also announced Monday that ULA has won a NASA contract for a commercial satellite launch, in addition to new programs that will improve the company’s competitive standing in an increasingly crowded field.

Can ULA become the new GM or Ford of Colorado? All three companies design and manufacture sophisticated vehicles. Each employ thousands of people and buy from local contract manufacturers and suppliers.

It’s not likely until more components are actually made here, though it shouldn’t matter. ULA’s rockets are assembled along a supply chain that begins in Colorado but extends throughout the southeast U.S. and today, into Russia for engines. ULA’s headquarters are here, along with design and engineering. Much of the fabrication and assembly is done in Decatur, Alabama. Final assembling and roll-out of the spacecraft happens in Florida — or California, as ULA missions also launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base.

The design and engineering jobs wouldn’t exist independent of manufacturing any more than GM’s car designers would, but we’ve created an arbitrary distinction. Warehouse or trucking jobs that depend on manufacturing don’t count either: Today we don’t correlate them with ‘manufacturing.’ If we did, economic data would reflect a more influential sector. As the Wall Street Journal‘s Justin Lahart points out this week, “goods production, most of which is manufacturing, represents 30 percent of gross domestic product.”

It’s a pesky side note to what’s otherwise a celebration of one Colorado’s most accomplished companies. And with more high-profile space missions to come, the light will only shine brighter on ULA and the region’s burgeoning manufacturing economy.

Bart Taylor is publisher of CompanyWeek. Reach him at

[Nominate a manufacturing ‘game changer’ like ULA as part of the Colorado Manufacturing Awards. Here’s more information.]