NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — Every fall, visitors coming to the Air Force Association’s annual conference outside of Washington have to walk past a massive, several-story tall banner from Northrop Grumman.

The banner varies year by year, showcasing the company’s priority program. In recent years, it’s largely been focused on the B-21 bomber, Northrop’s signature project. But this year something different took its place — a cosmic background with the slogan “Defending Every Domain Starts with the Highest Domain.”

The banner is the most physical representation of something that was unmistakable during the conference: that after years of being the awkward stepchild for these events, space is officially in the spotlight.

There were plenty of other signs. SpaceX CEO Gwynne Shotwell gave a keynote address, with Amazon head Jeff Bezos, who owns the Blue Origin launch company, the closing keynote of the entire show.

Having a company head give a solo keynote at AFA has traditionally been rare; having two industry keynotes unheard of. And yet, they received the same stage time as speeches by Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson or Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein.

Northrop Grumman's ad, based around space capabilities, dominates the Gaylord convention center where the Air Force Association conference is held. (Aaron Mehta/Staff)
Northrop Grumman's ad, based around space capabilities, dominates the Gaylord convention center where the Air Force Association conference is held. (Aaron Mehta/Staff)

Arguably the biggest news to come out of the event was a memo, signed out by Wilson, saying a potential Space Force could cost the Pentagon $13 billion over five years. And the topic was brought up during multiple appearances from both Wilson and Goldfein, as well as their subordinates.

Vice President Mike Pence made an appearance at the show, the highest-ranking visitor at AFA in memory. Although he didn’t comment on space directly, Pence’s presence, as the administration’s point person on space issues, was certainly noted by the crowd.

And that visit was underlined by Deputy Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan, who spent more time on space than any single issue during his Wednesday keynote, when he said “it’s really encouraging that, from the highest levels of the government, people are interested in space.”

Which, of course, sums up the reason for all the attention. President Donald Trump has put a verbal emphasis on increasing America’s presence in space, in a way that no president in recent memory has.

How that all plays out — and whether the administration aligns realistic funding for its various space proposals — remains to be seen. But industry and the Air Force alike see a clear opportunity to cash in on the focus on space, and it’s created a flurry of interest in the sector that would have been unthinkable even a few years ago.

And that was obvious at this year’s AFA show, literally from the first thing people saw when they walked into the conference Monday, to the last speech they heard as the show wrapped up Wednesday.