It was Jules Verne who first recognized this region's aerospace potential.
He picked Baltimore as the site for his 1866 novel, "From the Earth to the Moon," about a group of men -- members of the influential Gun Club -- who build a cannon to shoot three men, two dogs and two chickens to the moon.
It was a prophetic choice. Less than a century later, the Baltimore area took a leading role in the birth of the nation's space program. The Viking rocket, which once held the world altitude record, was built by the Martin Co. (now Martin Marietta Corp.) at Middle River in the 1940s.
The Vanguard rocket, called upon to lift the nation's sagging morale and put America's first satellite into orbit, was made at Martin's Baltimore County complex. So were the Titan rockets that powered two-man Gemini spacecraft into orbit during the 1960s.
Neil Armstrong's historic first step on the moon was captured by a television camera that Westinghouse engineers produced in Linthicum. And the no-torque drill used by Apollo astronauts to bore into the moon's surface came from the Black & Decker plant in Towson.
Space still is a big business in Maryland -- one that continues to fly high, even as a declining Pentagon budget has grounded or curtailed many defense programs.
Just how big a business, no one seems able to say.
"I think it's a lot more than most people realize," David L. Blanchard, president of Loral Aerosys, a satellite service division of Loral Corp. in Seabrook, says of the space industry's contribution to the state economy. "It could be as much as $4 billion a year."
A new state study of the economic impact of the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt offers some insight into the industry's importance.
Goddard, NASA's first major scientific laboratory devoted to space exploration, generated $2.1 billion in business in the state last year, according to a study by the Department of Economic and Employment Development.
The study says that Goddard is responsible for 26,690 full-time jobs, $904 million in salaries and nearly $62.4 million in state and local taxes.
And such economic strength is growing. Goddard, which is involved in the construction of satellites as well as tracking and communicating with satellites in orbit, has a $2.4 billion operating budget. It's funding is expected to reach $4.2 billion by fiscal 1996.
Still, few people appreciate the industry's impact on Maryland.
The space program is the "secret jewel of Maryland's economy," says John Steele, a spokesman for Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, D-Md., who chairs the subcommittee that controls the NASA budget.
"Most people are not aware of it, but Maryland ranks fifth in the nation behind California, Florida, Texas and Alabama in terms of the dollar value of NASA prime contracts," he said.
NASA awarded contracts totaling more than $478 million to Maryland companies last year, not counting awards under $25,000.
"When people think of space they don't think of Maryland," says Janice M. Bellucci, a Montgomery County lawyer who heads STAR Inc., a space industry consulting company. She also is vice president of the two-year-old Maryland Space Business Roundtable, a Rockville-based organization that promotes the industry.
"In Alabama they know what it means," says Ms. Bellucci, a lawyer and businesswoman who admits that if she could live her life all over again she would like to be an astronaut. "They know what it means to the print shop, the hardware store and the fast-food restaurants."
There is less awareness of the industry here because it is not clearly defined and is spread out, Ms. Bellucci believes. "Most people in Maryland perform a service rather than manufacture hardware."
A sampling of Maryland's diversified space industry includes:
* The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, which has built more than 50 satellites and spacecraft since 1959. It is currently working on a $260 million, 5,400-pound MSX satellite that will be used to track enemy missiles and locate dummy warheads as part of the "Star Wars" missile defense system.
Stamatios M. Krimigis, head of APL's space department, says the operation has a budget of about $130 million this year and a staff of 400 full-time workers, plus 130 on-site contract personnel. Its biggest customers are NASA, the Navy and the Strategic Defense Initiative Office.
* Booz, Allen & Hamilton Inc. in Bethesda, a good example of a space industry service company. Its commercial, military and international space business amounts to about $40 million a year in sales and employs more than 400, says company spokeswoman Marie Lerch.
One of the company's biggest contracts -- a $100 million, 10-year pact -- is for support and engineering oversight of the space station Freedom, which will be built in the mid-1990s.
It also determines which parts go on which shuttle flights so that construction can proceed smoothly.