Retooling Local Assets for Burgeoning Commercial Market
by Carl Kotala
Commercial spaceports may have seemed a little like something out of a “Star Wars” script during the height of the 30-year Space Shuttle era, but when it comes to space travel in the current day and age, there is no question where the future is heading … and how Central Florida, Cape Canaveral and the Kennedy Space Center need to adapt.
“If we want to remain the nation’s spaceport state, and remain competitive, we need to be able to provide what the marketplace is looking for,” said Frank DiBello, president and chief operating officer of Space Florida, the state’s aerospace economic development agency.
That marketplace, according to DiBello, is worth $300 billion with roughly 80 percent of it being on the commercial side. That’s a pretty big pie, no matter how many ways it is sliced … and with 34 spaceports either existing or in the planning stages around the world – 17 of them located in the U.S. – there are a lot of options out there.
Staying In the Sweet Spot
That’s why Space Florida is trying to position the state to be ready to host next-generation industries that will be launching manned and unmanned vehicles in the coming years, with Cape Canaveral and the Kennedy Space Center being the natural target area because of their sweet spot location (15-20 degrees north of the equator) and their built-in infrastructure.
“Even before the Space Shuttle program ended, there was already a proliferation of space ports across the country,” said Ramon (Ray) Lugo, director of UCF’s Florida Space Institute. “When you look at Texas and New Mexico as two examples, they didn’t just pop up right after the shuttle program ended. But they’re definitely becoming more prominent as companies like SpaceX are making decisions where to base their operations.”
“… I’d be the last person to say Company X or Company Y shouldn’t go to this place or the other, but we located the Kennedy Space Center in Florida for a reason. (It’s) because of the physics of being here, and I think those reasons are still good reasons to be in Florida.”
Since the shuttle program ended in 2011, Space Florida has already made good use of some of its structures, spending $35 million to turn the dilapidated Operations and Checkout building into a world-class manufacturing facility that Lockheed-Martin is using to build its Orion spacecraft, a move that will create anywhere from 350-1,000 jobs.
Another excess shuttle building, Orbiter Processing Facility No. 3, was taken over from NASA via a use permit and will be the site of where Boeing will build its CST-100 spacecraft. DiBello said it is the first time Boeing and Lockheed-Martin have built spacecraft in Florida, rather than California.
Making the Leap
With Congress declaring half of the U.S. portion of the International Space Station to be used as a research lab, Space Florida created a nonprofit organization known as the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS), which submitted a bid and was selected to manage that lab.
While all of those moves represent a big step forward for Space Florida, DiBello said it will take the acquisition of 150 acres of land, and the Shuttle Landing Facility from NASA to truly make the big leap into the commercial space market.
The land, located in the former citrus community of Shiloh, is at the northern end of the Cape. Work on an environmental impact report began in April and should take roughly one year to complete. Ideally, Space Florida would like to begin work on building a spaceport there in 2015 so it can be operational by 2016. The major snag is that NASA … doesn’t want to give up the land.
“We’re in a continuing dialogue with them and expect that we’ll be able to work out some kind of agreement to establish a commercial capability at the Cape,” DiBello said. “NASA’s been a great partner over the years. I don’t see any change in that. What we’ve asked them to do is very difficult, so it’s understandable they would have some reservations about it.”
Reviving Our Market Share
Having that commercial capability is critical, particularly when looking at the way the marketplace has changed over the years. In 1989, the United States launched 100 percent of all commercial satellites in the world. Ten years ago, that number dropped to 40 percent. In 2010 and 2011, that number dropped to zero before SpaceX launched two in 2012 to put the country back in business.
“The commercial marketplace spoke, and it spoke with its feet,” DiBello said. “It went to the French, it went to the Russians and it went to the Chinese. If we want to win that business back, we have to be commercially responsive.”
Should the Shiloh project come through, DiBello said he already has three companies that are interested, two of which he could name – SpaceX and Blue Origin – and six that are interested in operating out of the shuttle launch facility.
SpaceX owner Elon Musk has already declared Texas the leader for his company’s spaceport home, but DiBello is optimistic Florida will be able to make a competitive offer.
SpaceX or Not, This Is the Target
Why is it so important the spaceport not be on federally-owned land?
“There is an inherent conflict that exists between the requirements of a military mission commander or a NASA mission … they are responsible for the protection of national security assets and for giving priority for DOD (Department of Defense) and national security missions,” DiBello said
“I wouldn’t want them to think any differently. But if you’ve got a commercial customer, with a revenue-generating satellite on his launch pad, and he expects to be in orbit on Oct. 18, he doesn’t want to be told that he can’t launch that day because there’s a higher priority payload. He wants to be able to go as scheduled.”
While SpaceX is clearly what DiBello called the “Big Kahuna” of the commercial market right now (in five years, the company could be launching anywhere from 12-20 times a year), he made it clear Space Florida isn’t putting its entire effort on landing Musk’s company.
The Cape already has a rich history when it comes to space travel. DiBello wants to see that tradition continue, while also venturing into new, exciting territory. “We’re going to be doing this independent of what is decided with SpaceX,” DiBello said. “We’re doing this because this is what the state needs to do to be able to remain competitive and to continue to be a vibrant part of the nation’s space program. We’re committed to this path in a very real way. We want to keep Florida in the lead for the next generation of space activity.”