Huntsville, Alabama, was known as Rocket City in the 1960s, when NASA built giant Saturn V rockets here to launch American astronauts to the moon. The city’s economy was so reliant on the space program that once those Apollo missions wrapped in 1975, Huntsville nose-dived into a recession.
Fortunately, along came the Space Shuttle, Spacelab and the International Space Station programs. But this quiet southern city has recently entered a new phase in its high-flying industry. In 2017, Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, Aerojet Rocketdyne and Boeing all established or expanded their operations in Huntsville, transforming the city into a new hub for private space.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there’s solid logic for heading to the Deep South:
Huntsville is home to some 3,930 aerospace engineers, more than any other metropolitan area in the U.S.
That figure tops Los Angeles, with its 3,130 aerospace engineers, Houston’s 3,060 and Washington, D.C.’s 2,500. And when you add in the rest of sweet home Alabama, the total number of aerospace engineers jumps to 4,470 as of 2016, which is the nation’s highest concentration.
This technical workforce is one reason private aerospace companies are flocking to Huntsville. Boeing currently has 2,700 employees in the city, and last June the company announced plans to add 400 more on projects like the Space Launch System that will eventually help NASA transport humans to Mars.
Where most cities have a skyline, we have a ‘spaceline’ composed of a Saturn V rocket.
Tommy Battle, mayor of Huntsville, Alabama
In October, Aerojet Rocketdyne broke ground on their new aerospace manufacturing plant and headquarters in Huntsville, which will create 1,200 jobs. When Blue Origin opens its new Huntsville facility by the end of 2020 to produce the BE-4 rocket engine, it will bring 342 engineering and manufacturing jobs to the city, with 700 additional jobs at nearby stores and restaurants.
All that activity is good for the state coffers. Boeing currently kicks in $ 2.3 billion annually to the Alabama economy. Huntsville’s Marshall Space Flight Center, home to many of NASA’s local programs, is the third largest employer in the state, contributing $ 3.3 billion annually. In fact, Marshall has a greater economic impact on Alabama than the state’s entire agricultural industry.
To be sure, the state sweetens the pot. Under the Alabama Jobs Act, Blue Origin gets reimbursements and tax credits of $ 8.7 million for job creation and a $ 30 million credit for investment in the state over 10 years.
While tax incentives are a top reason for some aerospace companies to choose Huntsville, an important enticement may not be the wonky rocketeer quotient. “Huntsville was a logical choice for us simply because it’s such a welcoming community,” says Mohammed Khan, senior vice president of defense for Aerojet Rocketdyne and Huntsville site leader. Maybe, but let’s get back to that highly educated workforce. When Huntsville’s mayor, Tommy Battle, began talks with Blue Origin, that topic continued to come up. “Much of our discussions revolved around talent,” Battle tells OZY.
When it comes to luring employers, one of the country’s lowest costs of living doesn’t hurt either. The mid-career median pay is $ 96,400 in a city with an average home price of $ 152,170, according to ZipRecruiter. After Huntsville, Thousand Oaks, California, had the second highest growth in technical jobs in 2017 and has a similar mid-career salary average of $ 105,000. But the average home price in Thousand Oaks is $ 673,000.
Battle intends to keep the industry here for years to come. “Our students in Huntsville City Schools [are] learning the basics of code in elementary school,” the mayor says, “and they get exposed to engineering and manufacturing in middle school.”
It’s not surprising in a city that sees flight as part of its identity. “Where most cities have a skyline,” Battle says, “we have a ‘spaceline’ composed of a Saturn V rocket.” And it’d suit the mayor just fine to spike the Huntsville spaceline with a few more tubular skyscrapers, but this time ones emblazoned with the logos of entrants in the private space race.