Space City of the Southwest

By Dave Perry

Tucson is on the map of the universe.

More precisely – and precision means everything in space – the universe is being mapped, probed and photographed, from Tucson.

We’re launching balloons, testing space suits, finding near-earth objects, and grabbing pieces of an asteroid. We’re receiving stunning images from a telescope one million miles away, creating mirrors for the most powerful telescope ever built, using radio waves to look beneath the Earth’s surface, and identifying what man-made objects are floating around the Earth. And the Moon.

At University of Arizona, the celestial inquiry generates hundreds of research-funded jobs–a Super Bowl’s worth of economic enterprise … every year, and without the high-impact collisions of a football game (in space, with a few exceptions, high-impact collisions are stridently avoided).

“It’s like having a Super Bowl every year in this community, with a tremendous ripple effect of jobs and spending to benefit our local economy,” said Joe Snell, president and CEO of Sun Corridor Inc. “Space is truly Wildcat country.”

The private space companies here create hundreds of skilled jobs in Southern Arizona,        capitalizing on the talent generated every year by UArizona. At  Raytheon’s Space Factory, we’re  creating the defensive missiles that can halt ballistic threats.

It’s true – Tucson is the Space City of the Southwest. And, perhaps, beyond.

Space is “hugely beneficial to the community,” said Erika Hamden, director of the UArizona Space Institute. “Each of these basic missions brings in a lot of money,” tens of millions of dollars a year. There are many “really, really good jobs that are directly related to working on those missions, and they feed into other jobs,” she said.

Why here?

Mark Marley, department head and director of UArizona’s Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, spent 20 years at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley. Marley learned why Silicon Valley is what it is – an ecosystem for high technology and innovation, fueled by ideas from world-class academic institutions, pushed forward by capital from investors and banks, with resulting high-tech business brought to market by the private sector.

“Tucson is like that, but in the space sector,” Marley said. “We have all the pieces that feed off of each other.” Engineering. Optical Sciences. Telescopes. Dark skies. Culture and history. Questions from NASA. Answers to those questions. And a private sector “that’s grown up to support” and in fact, maximize the thinking.

“In all of these things, we need each other,” Marley said.

UArizona and Tucson have “something unique that no other place on the earth has,” said Vishnu Reddy, a UArizona associate professor in the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory and leader of Space4, UArizona’s space surveillance, planetary defense, astrodynamics, machine learning and data science effort.

It’s a combination of technical know-how, an intellectual brain trust, academic facilities, and brainpower, “plus the amazing Arizona weather. There are not many places on the Earth that have 300 clear days a year.”

And, Reddy notes, greater Tucson appreciates science. It is “supportive of astronomy” through dark skies initiatives and practices. “It a culture that comes from deep within the intellectual composition of the city,” Reddy said. “There’s no other place I could possibly be than in Tucson.”

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