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Floridian of the year: Frank DiBello, rocket man

Space exploration has lent itself to outsized figures: Alan Shepard, John Glenn and the rest of the Mercury Seven. Neil Armstrong and the New Nine. So too with the 21st-century private space industry: Elon Musk and SpaceX, Jeff Bezos and Blue Origin, Richard Branson and Virgin Galactic, Greg Wyler and OneWeb.

Then there’s Frank DiBello, a mild-mannered consultant. He’s past 70. His “first” in space had nothing to with flight: He started the first space-devoted practice group at a major accounting firm. He’s measured, deliberate. The only thing that’s flashy about him is the bright pocket square in his very proper suit.

But DiBello and Space Florida, the economic development organization he leads, have exerted an outsized influence in building a new commercial future for Florida in space.

DiBello’s leadership bore notable fruit in 2016: OneWeb began site preparation work for its factory in Exploration Park, just beyond the Kennedy Space Center fence, that will crank out upward of 800 satellites. Across the road, a fleet of heavy Caterpillar equipment and rows of concrete culverts testify to Blue Origin’s progress on the factory it’s building. There, it will make rockets to fire from launch pad 36, which it’s redeveloping. Moon Express continues development on its lunar vehicle, which will be shot from launch pad 17.

All that came on the heels of Space Florida’s 2015 acquisition of the old shuttle runway from NASA — a key element in transforming the space center into a multi-user spaceport used by government and private aircraft and spacecraft alike. Space Florida upgraded the runway in 2016.


To appreciate the shift that’s occurred and how Space Florida is transforming the state’s space industry, one needs to understand Florida’s historical role in space. From the Mercury program through Apollo and on to the shuttles and International Space Station program, rockets took off from Florida — but the launches were pretty much all the state did. Mission control was in Houston. Research, engineering and construction took place there and in California, Alabama and at a slew of other sites to which contractors, presidents and Congress spread taxpayer dollars. The astronauts didn’t even live here.

The region was grateful for NASA, its contractors and the thousands of well-paying jobs the launches brought here. But those jobs depended on the vagaries of government funding, a fact brought brutally home first when NASA canceled the Apollo program and then, most recently, in 2004 when the federal government announced the end of the shuttle program, which would take 9,135 jobs at Florida contractors with it.

A few years later, in 2009, Space Florida spiraled into crisis. With the final shuttle flights looming for 2011, its executive director resigned amid media scrutiny and complaints from private sector executives about Space Florida’s performance. DiBello, then working with the Economic Development Commission of the Space Coast, was hired to take over Space Florida.

He came prepared. After studying mathematics and engineering at Villanova, he’d made a career in consulting, mostly in Washington, on defense, aviation and space. At KPMG, his space group’s client roster included nearly every major industry player.

While Musk was still a college student and Bezos was still four years from founding Amazon, Di- Bello already was serving and advocating for a private space industry. The late astronaut Deke Slayton, who called on DiBello for help in refinancing a private space company, called DiBello “a corporate head shrinker” who gets people to work out their problems by asking the right questions.

DiBello started a venture capital fund focused on private space companies. He also was a volunteer executive, focusing on military branches, NASA and the Defense Department, for the Reagan-era Grace Commission that rooted out government inefficiencies. He served as volunteer president of the USO for a decade. His Space Florida office, in a state building just outside the Kennedy Center fence, is replete with honors from his career, as well as models of aircraft and spacecraft.

At Space Florida, DiBello sought to lessen Florida’s dependence on big federal programs, bring spacerelated supply chain companies here — the likes of battery or solar panel makers — and position Florida for the private space age, an age in which NASA and the Air Force still do The Next Big Thing but the preponderance of launches are commercial.

Space Florida and DiBello aren’t the only boosters on the pad. Florida’s space industry has gotten strong backing from Gov. Rick Scott, various state agencies, county and city governments, the North Brevard Economic Development Zone, and state and congressional legislators, including U.S. Rep. Bill Posey, who in 2015 played a key role in legislation to streamline regulations and foster commercial space sector activity. The 8,300-employee Kennedy Space Center — one of the largest employers in the area — also isn’t shy about seeking business. To make Blue Origin happen, the state transportation department is spending $26.4 million on infrastructure. The department and Enterprise Florida are spending $2.7 million more on roads, and the North Brevard zone is putting up $8 million for site work.

What DiBello brings, however, is a long history with space, his contacts and a keen ability to leverage Space Florida’s statutorily created financing ability. For Blue Origin, for example, Space Florida went to the capital markets to raise upward of $200 million that Blue Origin will use to build its factory and upgrade the old Atlas rocket launch pad that Space Florida leases from the U.S. Air Force. Blue Origin will use the money to build to its needs, then deed the factory to Space Florida and lease it back.

Other examples: Space Florida leased from NASA, gutted, renovated and subleases a shuttle building where Boeing is building its Starliner crew vehicle. Space Florida also financed a new building where Northrop Grumman is working on the nation’s next long-range bomber. Through Space Florida, the state put $35 million into retrofitting an old Apollo building where Lockheed Martin is building the Orion manned-space vehicle, the first spacecraft manufactured in Florida. “That was a big step for Florida,” says Space Florida Chief of Strategic Alliances Dale Ketcham.

“They are outstanding,” says Jules Schneider, Lockheed Martin’s Orion assembly integration and production manager in Florida. “It was a real good partnership.” 

Similarly, Space Florida will finance, own and lease the factory where OneWeb will manufacture satellites. OneWeb’s move to Florida started after a call from DiBello, through his thick web of contacts, to Wyler.


Space Florida also has made its presence felt beyond the Space Coast: It expects to see groundbreaking this year of a building for companies in the cyber and aerospace fields that it is financing in Pensacola. And it’s fielding calls for financing help in other parts of the state. In recent years, it was involved in a submersible drone research project in Palm Beach County and a turbine project in Hendry County.

The result of DiBello’s labors? For one, the narrative for the Space Coast has shifted from the woes resulting from the shuttle’s loss to a growth story. The area has largely made up the job losses, DiBello says. In 2014, Northrop began expanding and expects 1,800 new jobs in Brevard by 2020.

More broadly, Florida’s space business is now much more diversified. The state still does plenty of launching — “Cape Canaveral Space Port will be the busiest space port in the world” in 2016, DiBello said in an interview before the year closed.

But today, there are businesses making, not just launching, payloads and rockets here. Florida ranked second to Arizona in this year’s PwC ranking of aerospace manufacturing attractiveness, falling from first only because of an increase in aerospace wages. “Florida’s Space Coast is booming,” the firm said, citing SpaceX, Blue Origin and Boeing, which is building its space crew capsule here.

“I swore when I took this job that I never wanted to see Florida again injured or damaged by an overdependence on a large federal program that got canceled,” Di- Bello says. “We had been led down that path several times.” 

DiBello also has been working to improve capital formation in Florida. Space Florida has partnered with venture capital support group Florida Venture Forum on its earlystage capital conference. He says the $600,000 it offered in prize money has resulted in $82 million in investments to presenting companies. Since 2013, the state, through Space Florida, has offered $1 million in grants annually along with another $1 million annually from Israel’s “innovation authority” to aerospace research and development projects that benefit Florida and Israel.

Challenges lie ahead. Of late, state legislative leaders have become more skeptical about offering incentives. Incoming House Speaker Richard Corcoran, Rland O’ Lakes, last year led a House effort to eliminate Scott’s requested incentive money from the budget. At a Texas think-tank panel discussion in October titled “Economic Development: A Debate On Corporate Welfare,” Corcoran said it was wrong to take tax dollars from the masses to give to businesses to relocate.

Corcoran, in an interview, noted that House members will determine Space Florida’s funding. But, he said, Space Florida got recurring revenue — $4 million — for the first time from the state in the 2012-13 budget. By this year the figure had tripled. “That recurring grew and grew and grew. The fact that you have an astronomically growing amount of dollars tells me it should be scrutinized,” Corcoran says.

Scott remains committed to incentive money. Space Florida is funded to the tune of $10 million from the state, plus another $1 million for the Israel venture and $1.5 million to promote space tourism. It doesn’t get its own pot of incentive money to distribute.

DiBello says he’s confident of legislative support. He says Space Florida doesn’t manage incentives but instead uses its spaceport tools, such as its financing ability, like any airport or seaport in business development.

More on his mind are the infrastructure hurdles Florida faces in the increasingly competitive launch business. Some 18 spaceports are proposed or already licensed in the United States and 40 globally. In 2014, Florida lost a competition for SpaceX launches to Texas, where SpaceX envisions the world’s first exclusively commercial orbital launch pad. (A SpaceX executive recently told Texas legislators that Texas needs to invest more in space. She held up, as an example to emulate, Florida.) DiBello says the state needs its own commercial-only launch complex — his favored site is opposed by environmental interests — where private-sector companies won’t have to share facilities with NASA and the Air Force. Florida has experience, but newcomers like Texas are unencumbered by legacy regulation and layers of federal civilian and military oversight.

What the Cape needs, DiBello argues, is an “evolved governance and management structure” that will remove outmoded and duplicative government requirements. Streamlining, which will require congressional action, must be resolved for the space industry here to thrive, DiBello says. A new state-run or quasi-federal Cape spaceport authority would be able to gin up the money in private markets needed to develop the spaceport, something the Air Force and NASA shouldn’t and won’t do if, as predicted, 80% of space launches are commercial.

“I’m looking at a day when Elon Musk alone is doing 50 launches here. Ten years out, I could see 150 to 200 launches in a year. That’s basically five a week.” DiBello says.

“We’re going to have to evolve a more efficient operating model at the Cape. If Florida wants to win, we must move in this direction.” 

DiBello’s goal is to see the Cape well on its way to that new independent spaceport authority before he retires in a few years. By then, space tourism might be far enough along for him to realize his dream of going on a suborbital flight. He could tell his fellow passengers how Space Florida helped make it possible.

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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