While Greater Austin claims its rightful place as the country’s pinnacle of aerospace development, the potential continues to loom on the horizon.
Eighteen independent electric motors propel HEXA, an electric aircraft from Austin-based company LIFT Aircraft. It was designed to be piloted without a license. Here, it flies in front of the Pennybacker Bridge in Austin. PHOTO COURTESY OF LIFT AIRCRAFT
The moment word got out that Greater Austin is home to a wealth of aerospace companies, the city’s reputation automatically jumped from “weird” to “cool.” Take, for example, Firefly Aerospace in Cedar Park and its awe-inspiring garden ornament. “[That’s a] first-stage rocket booster in the parking lot,” explains Risa Schnautz, the company’s senior manager of marketing and communications. While the more than 40-foot-long spacecraft is no longer in use, it is one of many the space transportation company has created to support government and commercial missions from low Earth orbit to the surface of the Moon and beyond. So far, Firefly has successfully delivered satellites and, as of September 2023, launched the U.S. Space Force’s VICTUS NOX mission with only 24-hour notice. “This launch set a new responsive launch record from the previous 21-day record and proved to the world that the United States Space Force can rapidly respond to national security threats and conflicts in space,” she explains. The company also recently completed the Blue Ghost lunar lander’s structure, representing Firefly Aerospace’s first mission to the Moon when it launches in 2024, carrying commercial and government payloads to Mare Crisium.
Using multifunctional displays, Austin-based SkyGrid assists remote pilots in making both long-term strategic and immediate tactical decisions. PHOTO COURTESY OF: SKYGRID
While locals will likely not witness any of those spacecraft aiming for the stars, what we might see in the nearer future are neighbors flying around in HEXA, personal electric aircraft resembling giant drones. According to Matt Chasen, the founder and CEO of LIFT, the Austin-based company behind HEXA, the development of its first Vertiport location started two years ago and overlooks Lake Travis. Chasen says LIFT expects to launch customer operations before the end of 2023 and already has more than 15,000 people on a waitlist to train and pilot HEXA.
But before we get concerned about a Jetsons-esque traffic jam in the sky, rest assured that Austin-based SkyGrid, a joint venture with The Boeing Company and AI platform builder SparkCognition, has already developed a sophisticated software platform primarily designed to support the operation of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) in the national airspace. Jia Xu, SkyGrid’s CEO, explains: “Our goal is to ensure that these remote pilots can execute their roles safely and effectively. We’re passionate about unlocking the vast potential of autonomous flight on a large scale, from small drones to urban air taxis and beyond.”
Also working diligently to protect us is BAE Systems, one of the world’s largest defense companies. Its Austin Business Center is home to nearly 700 employees who design, develop and manufacture aircraft survivability equipment (such as missile warning and countermeasures). BAE also innovates for a wide range of programs in the areas of autonomy, cyber and sensor development, explains Don Davidson, director of BAE Systems’ Austin Business Center: “We opened our new $150 million state-of-the-art engineering and production facility in 2023. One of the reasons we chose Austin was the proximity to the new Army Futures Command and the Austin Capital Factory, which is central to the innovation and entrepreneurial ecosystem in Austin,” he says.
Alpha, a rocket from Firefly Aerospace in Cedar Park, launched from Vandenberg Space Force Base in September and deployed a satellite in low Earth orbit. PHOTO COURTESY OF FIREFLY AEROSPACE
One thing is for sure: Whether we are flying personal aircraft and parking lot-sized rockets or developing the technology necessary to keep everyone safe in the sky and beyond, Austin is easily on a trajectory to becoming the center of the aerospace universe.