Cantwell Says Commercial Space Brings Unprecedented Workforce Opportunities

October 17, 2023

During the subcommittee hearing on safety and innovation in commercial human space activities, U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), Chair of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, emphasized the need to build a robust space workforce to keep pace with the emerging commercial space industry to ensure both safety and innovation demands are being met.

“We're very excited about all of this. In the State of Washington, we like to say that Seattle is the ‘Silicon Valley of Space,’” Sen. Cantwell said. “I’m very concerned about workforce needs at FAA, at NASA, in the space sector in general, and what we need to do to further incent or encourage young people… particularly women, to go into that field.”

Commercial space, in partnership with government, is becoming increasing important to America’s economic competitiveness and scientific leadership.  Commercial space tourism is projected to grow to $1 trillion by 2040. The Washington state space industry has an economic impact of $4.6 billion annually and supports more than 13,000 jobs. Headquartered in Kent., Blue Origin employs 5,000 people in the state and SpaceX employs 1,300 people in Redmond. Washington state is expected to have a shortage of 60,000 STEM workers by 2026.

“What do we need to do to get this right at NASA and in the private sector in encouraging a very, very robust space workforce?” Sen. Cantwell asked the witnesses.

“I would simply put it in two buckets,” Wayne Monteith, President and General Manager at National Aerospace Solutions, responded. “Number one, I think we need to have a much more robust intern program to get the college grads or future college grads interested early into government service and those technical fields. And number two … when I was in FAA, we had started looking at how do we move back and forth, not from government agency to government agency, but from government agency to industry and back. Because I think the entire system would be better served from having more technically knowledgeable and advanced employees on both sides.”

“Look at programs that invest in demographics that you don't typically see in industry. Women, people of color, they don't have the same opportunities as others,” said Sirisha Bandla, Vice President of Government Affairs and Research at Virgin Galactic, who used herself as an example. “And it's interesting because I am a woman, person of color. I joined this industry and believed I could succeed in this industry because I met people from this industry doing incredible things. And that made it real and made it a possibility. So, let's look at programs that reach out to those communities that don't have those opportunities.”

Phil Joyce, Senior Vice President of the New Shepard Business Unit at Blue Origin talked about how the Washington State-based company is playing “the long game” to expand the workforce with their new STEM program geared toward children: “How do you do that? You get more women, more people of color engaged. And you start that in an incredibly early age to make it more attractive, more appealing to those groups to join the type of workforce that we need in this industry and the FAA needs to regulate. Make the pool bigger, start early.”

“As I've traveled to various facilities around the country, it's clear to me that there are a lot of technical people at our space facilities that don't have four-year degrees. And we need to send out a big loud message everywhere that these are technical jobs that are well-paying jobs,” Sen. Cantwell concluded.

Sen. Cantwell has been a champion for Washington state’s space industry and the aerospace workforce, and currently oversees NASA and the space industry as Chair of the Committee. Last year, Sen. Cantwell spearheaded the passage of the CHIPS and Science Act, one of the largest five-year federal research and development investments in U.S. history. The Act included the first new NASA Authorization since 2017, enshrining the NASA Artemis missions to the Moon and eventually Mars in U.S. law. The Artemis program has 42 suppliers in Washington state. Earlier this year, Sen. Cantwell hosted a Washington state space summit with NASA Administrator Bill Nelson, where Sen. Cantwell talked about how the space industry has doubled and has brought thousands of jobs to the state. Read more on Washington state’s space economy and Sen. Cantwell’s actions here.

View the video and transcript of Sen. Cantwell’s remarks and questions here.