Subscribe to Florida Trend


May 22, 2018

Space Business


With the shuttle program set to phase out in five years, the state's space industry lacks a cohesive strategy to stay ahead in the space race.

Neil Skene | 7/1/2005
Five years ago, Florida Sens. Connie Mack and Bob Graham and Gov. Jeb Bush traveled to Kennedy Space Center for a "summit" conference to highlight the urgency of attracting space business to Florida. Bush would later tell schoolchildren that his favorite show as a kid was "The Jetsons" and that he called Frank Brogan, his first lieutenant governor, "Elroy the Space Boy."

Since then, the world's only two privately financed astronauts soared into space -- from a new spaceport in New Mexico. A Delta rocket plant that Florida hoped for was built -- in Alabama, with a $149-million state subsidy. Orlando's hopes for a centralized administrative services center for NASA, the national space agency, were dashed when a $24-million subsidy from Mississippi lured it away. New Mexico put up $9 million to capture a new annual X Prize exhibition focusing on commercialization of space.

The shuttle program is set to be replaced by a moon-to-Mars program that will employ many fewer professionals.

Meanwhile, Brevard County ponders the demise of the space shuttle program in about five years and the loss of thousands of professional engineering jobs along with it when a new, lower-maintenance "crew exploration vehicle" comes into use.

So what of all the talk at the "space summit" in January 2000? "It was a series of orchestrated speeches and sound bites," says frustrated state Sen. Bill Posey, a Republican who was there and who has represented part of the Space Coast in the Legislature since 1992.

"Gov. Bush should make space as important as Scripps," adds another Brevard legislator, Republican Rep. Bob Allen, who chairs the House Space and Technology Committee. "He will get four to 10 times the payback he'll ever get from Scripps. Florida should be the superhost for the next generation going to the moon and Mars." The Scripps Research Institute's Florida campus, the biggest economic-development coup of Bush's governorship, came with a $300-million subsidy from the Legislature. Allen and Posey, along with other space boosters in the private sector, want a similarly bold commitment to the space industry.

"Things aren't moving fast enough," says Silas Baker, the retired director of the Atlas rocket program at Lockheed Martin and a member of the board of the Florida Space Authority. "We've got to find a sense of urgency."

New Mexico put up $7 million to build facilities that landed the X Prize exhibition, which demonstrated private space projects like Burt Rutan's SpaceshipOne.

Bush implicitly acknowledged as much in mid-June with the appointment of a special commission to reshape the state's space strategy and provide cohesiveness to an effort that's fragmented among a plethora of space-related organizations. Bush emphasized, as he did half a decade ago, the importance of the industry.

When asked about the state's previous efforts, Lt. Gov. Toni Jennings, who also chairs the space authority, said: "Let's not think about the past. It's just probably time to revisit the whole issue of how space and aeronautics fit into what we've been talking about with the diversification of our economy. We know that Florida is the place to be for space. The issue is how Florida positions itself... to support the growth of the industry and be sure we're in the best posture."

To the moon
It is a time of dramatic change in the space business. The space shuttle program, now a quarter-century old, is nearing obsolescence despite some re-engineering since the Columbia disaster in 2003. The shuttle will be retired after the International Space Station is finished around 2010. President George W. Bush has endorsed a program of putting astronauts back on the moon by 2020, building a permanent base there and using it as a way station to Mars.

The scientific and logistical challenges of a moon-Mars program rival or exceed those of the race to the moon in the 1960s, which solidified Florida's fame as the "gateway to space." The venture will stimulate new basic research in life sciences, astrophysics, propulsion and even biotech. It also means design, building and integrating components of a new spacecraft and propulsion system.

President Bush envisions a permanent base on the moon that would serve as a way station to Mars.

In other words, a lot of money is going to be spent. And Florida's space industry covets a bigger share than it has gotten from just the "launch business," glamorous though it may be. Kennedy Space Center is virtually certain to keep handling manned launches. But as the competitive losses to Alabama, Mississippi and New Mexico dramatically demonstrate, Florida is going to have to scrape for other new business, including the lucrative job of designing, building and assembling the pieces of the moon-Mars spaceships.PONDERING THE FUTURE: "A big part of the future is going to be small commercial payloads and space tourism," says Winston Scott, who heads the Florida Space Authority.

The launch business alone won't even maintain current employment levels. A major goal for the new spacecraft for the moon-Mars program is that it have far lower costs for maintenance and ground support. Kennedy Space Center Director Jim Kennedy says as many as half of the 14,000 professionals employed there might not be needed for the new "crew exploration vehicle," as it is being called.

To create jobs for them, Florida is looking not only for a broader role in NASA's flagship program but also for a big piece of two other parts of the space business that are now in their infancy. "A big part of the future is going to be small commercial payloads and space tourism," says Winston Scott, a former Navy test pilot and shuttle astronaut who became head of the Florida Space Authority two years ago.

To chase that business, his agency is considering building its own "spaceport," separate from the U.S. Air Force's Cape Canaveral Air Station and the Kennedy Space Center. Scott expects a study on the idea, and on the best competitive opportunities for Florida, to be finished by September.

A separate spaceport may seem excessive, given the launch capacity that already exists at Canaveral. But the launch pads are old, and Posey and others believe the constraints imposed on private launches by the Air Force make Florida uncompetitive: Fees, limited launch dates because of military priorities and a host of performance criteria. Air Force Brig. Gen. Mark H. Owen, the commander of the air station and nearby Patrick Air Force Base, says the standards ensure launch safety and give necessary priority to his military mission. "The economic development of Florida is not one of our principal charters," Owen says. But he says he will help a private Florida spaceport and noted the competitiveness of New Mexico in building one.

New Mexico's effort dramatically demonstrated the future of private space projects. In October, a team led by aviation pioneer Burt Rutan won the $10-million "X Prize" for flying a manned vehicle into suborbital space twice within two weeks. Their SpaceshipOne and its pair of solo astronauts had a flight trajectory similar to astronaut Alan Shepard's first American space flight in 1961, but this time the project was privately funded, with most of the money coming from Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. Rutan and his partner, Richard Branson of the Virgin airline and music empire, want to run a private mission to the moon eventually -- and be on it.

Somewhat ironically, the prize was dreamed up by space entrepreneur Peter Diamandis, who also heads Zero Gravity Corp. in Fort Lauderdale. Diamandis' firm offers ordinary people a flight on a Boeing 727 that climbs to 40,000 feet and then goes through a series of roller-coaster-like undulations to simulate weightlessness. (It costs $3,750.)

Laying the groundwork
Space has long been a trademark business in Florida, from the time of the first rocket launches from barren, remote Cape Canaveral in 1950. The space authority, set up by the state in 1989 during Bob Martinez's governorship (when Bush was state Commerce Secretary), says the space industry has a direct economic impact of $4.5 billion. Brevard County has only half of the state's space businesses, with another 100 in 45 other counties. There are 14 space-related businesses in Pinellas County, including Honeywell Space Systems and Raytheon, and 11 each in Orange and Broward. Smaller companies dot the state, from the Eglin Air Force Base area in the Panhandle to the Keys.

Most politicians, however, still see space as a Brevard issue. Its biggest advocates are from that area, and industry groups have tended to focus more on business development than political development. Forty-six counties may have space-related businesses, but Posey and Allen haven't been able to craft a visible and vibrant "space caucus" in the Legislature to move legislation through both houses. The space authority, traditionally run by people from the industry since its creation, hasn't added much political heft or any new political strategy, such as galvanizing intensive lobbying from local organizations when a critical decision is at hand.WEIGHTLESS: Peter Diamandis' Zero Gravity offers flights aboard a Boeing 727 that undulates at 40,000 feet, creating weightlessness. The thrill ride costs almost $4,000.

Things aren't much better at the federal level. The two U.S. senators who joined the "space summit" have left office. The state's senior senator, Bill Nelson, is still in his first term and is in the minority party, so his minor celebrity from having actually flown on the space shuttle doesn't count for much. He's the ranking Democrat on the space subcommittee, but any initiative has to get past two potent Republicans from competing space states, Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas and Trent Lott of Mississippi.

Brand-new Sen. Mel Martinez has no committee assignments that affect space. Florida's best-positioned federal legislator is six-term U.S. Rep. Dave Weldon, whose district includes part of Brevard and who is vice chairman of the appropriations subcommittee that handles money for space. That's a useful position -- as long as somebody in Florida can settle on what to ask him for. The most mentioned goal is winning a directive from Washington that the Air Force be more accommodating to private launches, although there is plenty of debate about what that would mean exactly.

Both Allen and Posey say they'll welcome Bush's engagement on space issues at the federal level. "Our governor has the best bully pulpit," says Allen, "and needs to be up there."

Scott, 54, who took over at the space authority in July 2003, brings the celebrity of an astronaut and the confidence of a test pilot to his role as strategist and pitchman for the Florida space industry. But with Florida's efforts scattered among a growing number of private and state-sponsored organizations with overlapping boards and administrators and overlapping responsibilities, Scott has about as much authority and control of all this as a cheerleader has over a football team.

Posey, a member of the space authority board, says Scott is "the right person in the right place at the right time," but adds, "we are sending Winston off with a bow and arrow to fight people with shotguns."

Scott thought $1 million would be enough to win the X Prize exhibition, since Florida already had the facilities that New Mexico would spend $7 million to build (plus another $2 million for marketing). But even with the Legislature in session, neither the legislators nor the governor pushed for a quick appropriation (which, in the absence of broad political support, would surely have kicked off a mass of competing claims on the money). All Scott's agency could do to sweeten its proposal to the X Prize group was offer "marketing help" within existing tourist-promotion efforts.

The state's space authority has been bootstrapping its way to a more robust budget without state money.

It's not that nothing has happened. It just hasn't produced an influx of new space business. The space authority built a $26-million, 100,000-sq.-ft. life sciences lab on Kennedy Space Center land near the visitor center and is trying to create a 400-acre "space park" of space businesses around it. The authority also owns three old launch pads at Cape Canaveral Air Station and a hangar near the shuttle landing strip at Kennedy.

One big success, using little state money, was arranging financing to expand the privately managed tourist facilities at Kennedy Space Center. The authority put together $35 million in bank financing to be repaid out of sales of merchandise, food and tickets. It is now arranging private financing for a $50-million "space experience" ride and exhibit at the site.

The authority has been bootstrapping its way to a more robust budget without more state money. It takes a percentage of the financing deals like the tourist center financing. It has a $295,000 contract with the government of Ireland to provide an aerospace educational experience for Irish students here and used that income to hire staff who also create educational programs for Florida students, such as a new Space Academy.

"The whole idea is outreach and revenue," Jennings remarked at the March meeting of the authority board. "Am I single-minded? Revenue."

A 'fine line'
If Scott wants to do a business deal, however, he has no money to put up. That money would have to come through the governor's Office of Tourism, Trade and Economic Development, the gatekeeper for all economic-development efforts. Marketing and subsidies often involve Enterprise Florida, the state's main economic-development arm, which has its own vice president whose jurisdiction includes the space industry. The "independent" space authority depends heavily on the governor's office, which until now has been cool to space backers' aspirations.

"We walk an interesting fine line," Jennings pointedly told the authority board. "We are an independent agency," Jennings said, "but our budget comes through the governor's office. We need to be sure we speak with only one voice." She went on to warn the authority's staff to watch out when "our friends in the Legislature decide to get creative."

Those friends in the Legislature, like Allen and Posey, wanted to ante up $4 million, the amount of sales taxes collected at the Kennedy visitor center, to boost marketing and business development. The proposal passed both houses in different forms, but got trapped in the Senate as part of the legislative gamesmanship on the last day of the session. The Space Coast legislators did win a chance to use some economic-development funds managed by Enterprise Florida.

What else do they think it will take to succeed? Allen proposes a $50-million "revolving fund" to help finance new businesses. Posey emphasizes the need for Air Force policies more conducive to private launches at the Cape. Scott wants a tighter organizational structure that can move with more speed and determination. Everyone wants more "urgency," but most didn't have very specific answers on who should be doing what faster.

It will apparently fall to the governor's new space commission to figure out those specifics. The question is whether the effort will amount to more than just another "space summit

Tags: Space Coast, Around Florida

Digital Access

Add digital to your current subscription, purchase a single digital issue, or start a new subscription to Florida Trend.

An overview of the features and articles in this month's issue of Florida Trend.


Florida Business News

Florida Trend Video Pick

Something besides nudists showed up at Haulover Beach: a rare flamingo
Something besides nudists showed up at Haulover Beach: a rare flamingo

A South Florida beach better known for its nude sunbathers got a rare visit this week from another oddity: a pale pink flamingo.


Earlier Videos | Viewpoints@FloridaTrend

Ballot Box

Do you think Florida's election systems are secure?

  • No
  • I have doubts
  • Yes

See Results

Ballot Box