Northrop Grumman broke ground Monday on a 25,00-square-foot facility specializing in cargo bound for space, the latest expansion to Maryland's slowly growing space industry.
The $20 million center near Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport will be used to create and test space payloads and will feature a three-story, 6,000-square-foot clean room, a climate-controlled, air-locked facility where sensitive equipment can be made free of contaminants. That clean room will be the largest on the company's 129-acre campus in Anne Arundel County.
Northrop Grumman's multibillion-dollar contracts with the U.S. government are "crucial" to national security and represent an opportunity for growth, said Sen. Ben Cardin, who attended the groundbreaking.
Maryland companies have secured $7.3 billion in federal contracts, and the aerospace and defense field generates $35 billion in economic activity each year, according to the Department of Business and Economic Development.
Northrop Grumman's Maryland Space Assembly and Test facility "will lead to future growth in the space domain," Cardin said. "This region is critical to leading the world in success today."
The building will employ 150 people through construction. Once complete, it will house 80 engineers and technicians, though up to 60 percent of the jobs will be filled by existing Northrop Grumman employees.
In other recent industry developments, Caroll County-based Land Sea Air Manufacturing purchased the 90,000-square-foot former Knorr Brake facility for $3.5 million. The growing aerospace manufacturer is expected to add up to 50 employees this year, from a staff of 16, according to DBED.
And Lockheed Martin moved a 78-employee operation last year from Pennsylvania to Middle River.
"The space industry in the United States has grown," said Gloria Flach, Northrop Grumman corporate vice president. "As a result, we need to extend and expand our space industry's capabilities."
Space payload systems include GPS devices that guide the flight of rockets, cameras capable of mapping the galaxy and capsules designed to protect astronauts from the vacuum of space.
Northrop Grumman officials declined to specify what kinds of payload systems will be produced at the new facility, saying the technological landscape for space products constantly shifts.
Scott Lee, Northrop Grumman's vice president of space systems, said federal officials have expressed a growing interest in making payloads more efficient for less money. At the company's Arundel campus, space payload production used to be divided between buildings throughout the campus, which led to a more expensive product.
"We're involved in this to increase affordability, and that comes by smaller electronic parts that let you do more and more," Lee said.
Northrop Grumman has come a long way from the Apollo 11 lunar camera that broadcast humanity's first steps on the moon, said Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, who also attended the groundbreaking. He said the U.S. government "needs to make space a priority."
"The U.S. has always been a leader in space and space technology, and it's because of companies like Northrop Grumman that we maintain that position," he said.
Federal contractors are still feeling the effects of the uncertainty created by last year's government shutdown and the federal sequester.
The cuts and the possibility of future ones have hurt many Maryland companies reliant on government contracts, and government funding for space programs, including research and product development, has been reduced.
Future federal budget cuts ought not come at the expense of space-related contracts, Lee said.
"There are areas where the nation is cutting back, but this can't be one of them," Lee said.