Arizona Space Industry Generates Over $250M Annually, Creates 3,300 Jobs

The UA is the dominant influence in the state's astronomy and planetary research endeavors.
Jan. 15, 2008
The Large Binocular Telescope at 10,500 feet on Mount Graham, after snowfall in January 2007. (R. Pogge)
The Large Binocular Telescope at 10,500 feet on Mount Graham, after snowfall in January 2007. (R. Pogge)
The Phoenix Mars Lander launches from Florida's Cape Canaveral Air Force Station aboard a Delta II rocket. (NASA)
The Phoenix Mars Lander launches from Florida's Cape Canaveral Air Force Station aboard a Delta II rocket. (NASA)
The 6.5-meter MMT on Mount Hopkins, Ariz., is the reincarnation of an earlier pioneering telescope.(Howard Lester, MMTO)
The 6.5-meter MMT on Mount Hopkins, Ariz., is the reincarnation of an earlier pioneering telescope.(Howard Lester, MMTO)

Arizona is known around the world as a haven for astronomy and space aficionados, featuring some of the world's preeminent observatories, state-of-the-art telescopes and leading contributors to space exploration. The University of Arizona is the state’s largest contributor to the development of astronomy, planetary research and optics endeavors in Arizona.

A new study by researchers at the UA’s Eller College of Management indicates that astronomy, planetary and space sciences research also has a significant impact on the state's economy.

The study, which researchers cited as the first report of its kind in Arizona, concluded that astronomy, planetary and space sciences research had more than a $252 million impact on Arizona's economy in the 2006 fiscal year. Their research also reported that these industries generated more than 3,300 jobs in the same time period.

Also during that time, The University of Arizona, long an international leader in these areas, contributed more than $120 million and nearly 1,900 jobs. UA research activity accounts for 57 percent of all the industry jobs and 48 percent of the financial impact referenced in the study.

Researchers credit investment by agencies such as NASA and the National Science Foundation as a major impetus for job creation. Most of the jobs are created through university departments, research organizations and observatories. Additional jobs are generated through local purchases of equipment and business supplies necessary for operations and through spending by out-of-state visitors attracted to observatories and universities.

Vera Pavlakovich-Kochi, senior regional scientist at the UA and the lead author on the study, said that "impact" was interpreted very strictly, with emphasis placed on job creation, exports of goods and services, local business expenditures and spending by visitors.

"We defined economic impact in a conservative way," Pavlakovich-Kochi said. "We looked primarily at the expenditures that were made in Arizona and measured the flow of money once it is re-spent in Arizona."

The primary sources of economic impact that were counted include expenditures by individual employees in astronomy, planetary or space science enterprises, operational expenses incurred by observatories and research organizations in Arizona, capital investments and spending by visitors, such as guest scholars or people visiting planetariums, observatories and specialty museums.

The study does not include factors such as the creation of private enterprises, the value of the publicity that research efforts bring to their respective institutions and the educational benefit to students participating in university research. "We're focusing on a small portion of everything and we know there are much larger impacts that we did not include in this study," Pavlakovich-Kochi said. "Astronomy and space sciences put Arizona on the map internationally and many relationships with industry, especially optics and defense, are developed by this research. Those impacts are beyond what is cited in this report."

With world-renowned assets such as the Steward Observatory, the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, known as LPL, and the College of Optical Sciences, the UA, and by extension all of southern Arizona, has the most far-reaching influence on the state’s space industry. Of the 43 observatories, university departments and associated institutions cited in the report, 31 are located in southern Arizona.

The UA is a world leader in space-borne exploration of the solar system. The UA's planetary sciences department and LPL do more space science research by far than any other U.S. university.

Soon after the LPL was founded in 1960, its scientists worked on the first NASA missions that mapped and photographed the moon, opening the Apollo era of moon landings. Since, they have helped lead or support nearly all U.S. planetary missions, including the first-of-a-kind solar system exploration by Pioneers 1 and 2, the Viking missions to Mars, the Voyager missions to the outer planets, the Galileo mission to Jupiter, Mars Pathfinder, Mars Odyssey, Mars Global Surveyor, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, the Messenger mission to Mercury and others.

The UA is the first public university to lead a Mars mission, the Phoenix Mars Lander, which is scheduled to land on the Red Planet on Memorial Day.

"LPL teaches undergraduate and graduate students. LPL creates new knowledge. LPL creates jobs," said Michael Drake, LPL director. “With an approximately $3 million state appropriation, LPL has generated an average of $30 million per year of competed federal grant and contract expenditures for the past five years, a return on the state's investment of about 10-to-1. Much of that money is spent in Arizona," Drake said.

The UA has had a leading role in making Arizona a world leader in astronomy, Steward Observatory Director Peter Strittmatter said.

The University established the first major observatory in southern Arizona in 1916, and it laid the foundations for Arizona's Optics Valley.

"The preeminence of astronomy-related research and development in and around Tucson owes its history in large part to the role the UA played in enabling the establishment of the first national observing facility for optical/infrared astronomy on Kitt Peak in the 1960s and 1970s," Strittmatter added.

Many of the mirrors for telescopes at prominent Arizona observatories – including the Kitt Peak National Observatory, the Multiple Mirror Telescope Observatory, the Large Binocular Telescope Observatory and the Vatican Observatory – were cast by the UA’s Steward Observatory Mirror Laboratory.

"The Mirror Lab, the brainchild of professor Roger Angel, is a unique facility," Strittmatter said. "Only the Mirror Lab can fabricate mirror blanks using spin-cast borosilicate honeycomb technology, finish them optically to exquisite tolerances with the unique, stressed lap polishing systems, and integrate the completed mirrors into telescope support systems before they are shipped to the observatory site."

"The goal of every observatory is to get amazing astronomical data and really good science from the best observing sites," said Faith Vilas, director of the UA/Smithsonian MMT Observatory on Mount Hopkins, Ariz. "In order to do that, observatories depend on many, many consumables, such things as electricity, fuel, liquid nitrogen to cool instruments, and materials for maintaining telescopes and telescope facilities. And observatories also depend on people, like the extraordinary MMT observatory staff who are willing to go up day and night to keep the observatory running."

Optical sciences was established at the UA in support of astronomy education and technologies in the 1960s, College of Optical Sciences Dean James Wyant said. But optical sciences has grown explosively, especially in the last decade, into other areas, including quantum optics, photonics, medical as well as astronomical imaging and optical engineering, he said.

"Our college is now affiliated with more than 50 industrial partners who influence our curriculum, hire our graduates and fund a considerable amount of research," Wyant said. He estimates that the more than 30 optical sciences spinoff companies now do business within the state, and another 11 or so “second generation” companies have been spawned by these.

"We've had five major faculty spinoff companies that now generate between $100 million and $200 million in annual revenue for Tucson alone," Wyant said.

Research in astronomy, planetary sciences and optics is a core strength of Arizona’s economy and the UA hosts many of the world’s most prominent scientists and research centers in those fields.

"Astronomy is a motor for economic activity in Optics Valley," Strittmatter said. "We need to make sure the motor is kept running."

Efforts to keep the motor running must include controlling light pollution, preserving frequencies needed for radio astronomy and remaining competitive when it comes to funding, Strittmatter said.

"Astronomy is excellent at inspiring young people to enter the fields of science and engineering, and we need to exploit that for the benefit of the state," Strittmatter said.

Other researchers involved in the study include Alberta Charney, UA senior research economist, and Lora Mwaniki-Lyman, UA research economist. Along with Pavlakovich-Kochi, they prepared the report for the Arizona Arts, Sciences and Technology Academy. All three are researchers at the Eller College of Management’s Economic and Business Research Center.