Florida tries to expand beyond the three-decades old vehicle.
Orbital Sciences’ choice showed how quickly the launch business is becoming a commodity where the low-cost bidder is likely to prevail. In the new space arena, tenure and reputation count for little. Unmanned rockets have been launched from a federal facility on Wallops Island since the 1940s, but Virginia didn’t get its launch-site operator’s license until 1997 and didn’t start building its own launching pad — a joint partnership with NASA — until 1998.
Meanwhile, even as the federal government projects modest growth in the number of launches over the next five years, more states and countries have gotten into the game. In addition to Florida, California and Virginia, states such as New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, Colorado and Alaska all are vying for a piece of the launch business. More countries are also offering launch capabilities, marketing themselves as low-cost alternatives for the growing number of private firms placing satellites, cargo and tourists into space.
Headed to Florida:
A Falcon 9 engine fires up at a test site in Texas. After all tests are complete, the SpaceX rocket will launch from Cape Canaveral early next year. [Photo: SpaceX]
Orbital Sciences’ choice of Wallops Island was a reminder to stunned Florida officials that despite a reorganization of its space-boosting groups, various PR campaigns and annual Space Days at the Legislature, the state hasn’t been able to craft a compelling launch business plan.
“The launch business has been ours to lose, and we’re doing a pretty good job losing it,” says state Sen. Bill Posey (R-Rockledge), a board member of the state’s public/private industry support group Space Florida.
One persistent conundrum: The Kennedy Space Center’s infrastructure is a vital element in Florida’s bid for launch business. But the state has little control over launch facilities there. Posey and others criticize the Department of Defense, which controls the airspace over the Cape Canaveral region, for failing to embrace the private launch business. Red tape is thick, regulatory hurdles high, Posey and others complain.