50 years of rocket building coming to close in Colorado

Rocky Mountain News

DENVER ” A half-century of rocket building appears to be coming to an end in Colorado.

What began as the site of a top-secret rocket factory outside Denver at the height of the Cold War is now a Lockheed Martin plant slated to stop producing rockets some 50 years later.

Among other dignitaries, President Reagan visited the facilities twice during his presidency. Britain’s Prince Andrew strolled through the plant last October.

The rockets that have been built ” nearly 600 to date ” have carried everything from nuclear warheads to astronauts like Neil Armstrong and Frank Borman to top-secret spy satellites. During this time, Colorado could claim bragging rights as the nation’s biggest rocket maker.

“It’s been a great ride,” said James McAnally, once president of Lockheed’s astronautics division, which oversaw the company’s operations here. He’s worked at Waterton Canyon for 37 years.

“A lot of the people can be very, very proud of the job that they’ve done.”

Lockheed Martin Corp.’s new joint venture with Boeing Co. calls for Lockheed to shift its production of Atlas booster rockets to Boeing facilities in Alabama. Lockheed’s Waterton Canyon facilities will serve as the headquarters of the venture, United Launch Alliance.

“It’s a profound change not to have Waterton Canyon the home of launch vehicle production. The rockets have been manufactured in Colorado for the last 50 years,” said Linda Strine, a former Lockheed executive who now is CEO of Infinite Links, a Denver firm that handles government and public relations.

Robert Scott, the outgoing CEO of the Greater Colorado Springs Economic Development Corp., called it an unfortunate development.

“It’s not just about Lockheed. It’s about everyone that has fed into that,” he added, referring to affected Lockheed workers and suppliers.

Why is the plant getting shuttered? There aren’t enough launches to divvy up between two aerospace giants that currently operate separate rocket production facilities.

“This is clearly a situation where there’s a great deal more capacity than demand,” said Jeff MacLauchlan, vice president of financial strategies at Lockheed.

All of this comes amid a slump in the commercial launch business. In particular, the Internet meltdown torpedoed grandiose plans for large networks of satellites delivering high-speed communications. At the same time, the business of launching satellites into space for Uncle Sam has proved to be a money-losing venture.

“It’s a tough market,” analyst John Pike, director of, said of the rocket business.

As a result, Boeing and Lockheed ” who’ve been bitter rivals ” unexpectedly opted to team up rather than continue to go it alone. The companies say the move ” which must pass antitrust scrutiny ” will save the government up to $150 million a year as duplicate facilities and personnel are cut.

Ultimately, Lockheed’s Atlas V rocket and Boeing’s Delta II and Delta IV boosters will roll off the line in Decatur, Ala.

“It makes sense to combine these and have them at a single facility,” said Paul Nisbet, an aerospace analyst with JSA Research in Newport, R.I.

Colorado will continue to play a large role in the rocket business, given the plans for United Launch Alliance to set up headquarters here.

Despite the loss of rocket manufacturing jobs, the headquarters will gain administrative and engineering jobs from Boeing’s Huntington Beach, Calif., facilities.

And Lockheed’s Waterton Canyon operation will continue to make Earth-orbiting satellites and interplanetary spacecraft, such as the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter that will be launched from Florida’s Cape Canaveral in August.

Today, about 4,500 employees work at Waterton. About 900 are involved in the Atlas rocket program, although Lockheed says most don’t participate in actual production.

The Waterton Canyon rocket factory’s roots date to the mid-1950s.

In 1955, the Glenn L. Martin Co. of Baltimore proposed to the U.S. Air Force building a factory southwest of Denver to manufacture Titan I intercontinental ballistic missiles.

“At the time, most of the aerospace industry was on the coasts,” said Lockheed spokesman Evan McCollum. “They wanted this very important ICBM factory to be in a safer inland site.”

The Martin Co. later became Martin Marietta and now is Lockheed Martin space systems. And the Titan I’s larger and more powerful successor, Titan II, was selected by NASA for use in the Gemini manned spaceflight program in the 1960s.

The Titan was used to launch 10 manned Gemini spacecraft, carrying astronauts that included Gus Grissom, Michael Collins and Buzz Aldrin ” along with Neil Armstrong and others. Lockheed has built 526 Titan rockets to date. Not all have flown.

Lockheed’s involvement in the Atlas program here dates to the mid-1990s.

In 1994, Martin Marietta bought General Dynamics’ Atlas rocket division and moved much of the assembly operations to Waterton Canyon from San Diego.

The following year, Martin Marietta merged with Lockheed to form Lockheed Martin, the world’s largest aerospace company.

Although the Atlas rocket dates to the 1950s, General Dynamics first began marketing the Atlas family as a commercial launch vehicle in 1987. The first commercial launch occurred July 25, 1990, when an Atlas roared into space carrying a NASA satellite.

To date, 57 Atlas rockets have been built in Waterton Canyon.

Lockheed isn’t the first to close its rocket-production operations in Colorado.

In March 2003, Boeing announced it was closing its rocket-assembly operation in Pueblo and moving the work to Decatur.

The plant was opened in 1987 by McDonnell Douglas, which originally developed the Delta rocket series. Boeing continued to operate the facility when it acquired McDonnell Douglas.

For James McAnally, the former Lockheed president here, the news of the Lockheed rocket plant’s closure is not easy to digest.

“It’s a tough pill to swallow,” he admitted. “There’s a lot of pride in the product you put out.”

Lockheed Martin:


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