March 21, 2018

Floridian of the year: Frank DiBello, rocket man

Mike Vogel | 12/28/2016

Cape Canaveral Spaceport

The nation came to Florida to launch rockets because the state’s proximity to the equator gives them an extra boost from the Earth’s spin, and the ocean provides a margin for error. The spaceport averages about 30 launches a year by the military, NASA and private companies. Space Florida says Brevard has more than 800 aerospace companies that employ more than 22,000 people. Statewide, the number of aerospace-related companies is more than 20,000, employing 140,000.

The Orion Project 

Lockheed Martin’s Orion project is a milestone for Florida and, it hopes, for U.S. space efforts. The next Orion crew and service module mission is scheduled to last more than three weeks and travel 70,000 miles beyond the moon, farther than any human-rated space craft has ever gone. Orion is scheduled to go up in 2018. An unmanned mission will go beyond the moon; another with a crew will go to the moon’s vicinity.

The NASA contract is managed from Houston, but the craft is being built at the Cape. There, Lockheed employs 200 in a refurbished Apollo building where the Apollo command and service modules and lunar rovers were handled and where the Apollo astronauts lived while at the Cape. Some 90% of hourly workers had worked in the shuttle program. “The most complicated spacecraft Lockheed Martin has ever built,” says Jules Schneider, Lockheed’s Orion assembly integration and production manager at the Cape. The Exploration Mission- 1 Orion will be delivered to NASA in 2018.

Meanwhile, in July, Lockheed said it would add 300 jobs at its Astrotech Space Operations in Titusville to improve the company’s spacecraft manufacturing and test capabilities.


Boeing’s Starliner project is the company’s venture for launching humans into low-earth orbit destinations such as the International Space Station. Its $4.2-billion NASA contract covers at least two and up to six missions to the space station, plus test flights. It’s the first time NASA contracted with a commercial company for a human space flight mission. Designed in Houston, it’s being built at Kennedy Space Center in a modernized NASA building and will launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

Made In Space 

Based in Mountain View, Calif., Made In Space aims to bring manufacturing to space, making the case that it will be cheaper and more efficient to manufacture components in space from raw materials than to launch them from Earth. It has a 3-D printer on the International Space Station and this year plans to send up a fiber-optic pulling machine. Locally, it plans to add engineering and marketing workers to its strategy and business development office in Jacksonville. It has won federal contracts and grants to further develop space manufacturing and construction. Space Florida has been a help in the company’s growth, says Spencer Pitman, head of product strategy in Jacksonville. “What we want to be is the GE of space,” he says.


Elon Musk’s SpaceX disappointed the state in 2014 when it said it wanted to develop a private spaceport in Texas. It still launches from Florida, however. One of its Falcon 9 rockets blew up on a pad here in September. In October, Space Florida’s board cleared the way for $5 million to upgrade a separate pad for SpaceX to use. A larger Falcon 9 rocket originally was scheduled for flight this year.

The Evolution of Space Florida

Space Florida, based at the Cape, is the state’s latest iteration of a state economic development organization devoted to space. The Legislature created its predecessor in 1989; later, that agency was broken into three organizations based on function, which were consolidated back to one in 2006 known as Space Florida. The agency is organized as a special district covering all of Florida and the civil, military and commercial sectors. It answers to a board of directors, whose members are appointed by the governor and legislative leaders. Like a seaport or airport, it has the ability to go into the bond market and to lenders to raise money to develop infrastructure.

Blue Origin 

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, a graduate of Miami Palmetto Senior High, and his Blue Origin will build and launch their Glenn reusable rocket from the Cape and land it there as well. Construction of the factory is under way. Bezos wants to launch before the end of the decade. Blue Origin is upgrading launch complex 36. “Locating vehicle assembly near our launch site eases the challenge of processing and transporting really big rockets,” Bezos says.

Moon Express

In August, Moon Express became the first private enterprise granted federal approval to travel beyond Earth’s orbit. It plans to launch from the Cape and land a robotic spacecraft on the moon this year and inaugurate an era of commercial lunar exploration and resource recovery. “In the immediate future, we envision bringing precious resources, metals and moon rocks back to Earth,” says co-founder Naveen Jain. The California company was founded in 2010 by Jain, billionaire founder of InfoSpace, Bob Richards and Barney Pell.


OneWeb plans to build a factory in Exploration Park just outside the Kennedy Space Center fence where it will construct hundreds of satellites to bring high-speed internet connections to the globe. The OneWeb project relies on $17.5 million in state transportation infrastructure spending and financing from Space Florida to build its facility. It’s projected to employ 250. It hopes to get the first satellites into space in 2018. OneWeb founder Greg Wyler in April said some of the satellites would be launched from Florida and from Virgin Galactic spacecraft here. It also will launch with Arianespace in French Guiana and from Russia. OneWeb’s backers include Airbus, Hughes Network Systems, Qualcomm and others. Wyler has a home in Sewall’s Point in Martin County on the Treasure Coast.

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