Photo: NASA/Bill Ingalls
Florida Space Industry
Florida's Space Coast Renaissance: The private space race is on
In January, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ rocket-making company, Blue Origin, posted an animation of what its New Glenn heavy-lift rocket will look like launching from Florida. The accompanying text sounds for all the world like a promo for a new car — “more than 2X the available volume of any rocket flying today … the most capable upper stage in the market.”
The lingo punctuated just how much has changed in the quest for space in the 50 years since Florida and rocket launches became synonymous. Today, the space race is back, driven by the government but enabled by private companies that are bringing jobs, prestige and challenges to Florida. And this time, the state is serving as more than the nation’s launching pad.
Long subject to whims in congressional spending on space, the Space Coast’s economy turned in 2011 with the government’s decision to end the shuttle program. Direct employment at NASA in Florida remained fairly stable — fluctuating between 1,750 and 2,800 since the 1970s, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. But the shuttle’s demise fell hard on private contractors, who cut some 9,135 jobs.
Instead of slipping into an economic coma, however, the Space Coast capitalized on its skilled workforce. In less than a decade, the region has rebounded by attracting companies such as plane maker Embraer to join longtime Defense Department contractors Lockheed, Northrop Grumman and Harris in Brevard County.
Commercial rocket companies SpaceX and Blue Origin arrived, too, as the state and Space Florida — Florida’s port authority for space — invested in launch and manufacturing facilities. Boeing came to build its Starliner space capsule. Lockheed came to build its Orion deep-space crew transport, Blue Origin arrived to build a rocket factory for its New Glenn rocket and OneWeb came to build satellites. Florida, which for the most part was the place that launched spaceships — but didn’t build them — suddenly did both.
Today, “if it’s not the No. 1 fastest-growing aerospace cluster in the United States, I would be shocked,” says Philip “P.J.” Anson Jr., CEO of Jensen Beach-based STS Aviation Group, which serves the aviation industry globally.
A signal of the shift: Industry publication SpaceNews chose the Space Coast as its “Turnaround of the Year” award winner for 2018 and an “early frontrunner” for turnaround of the decade. The Cape saw 19 launches in 2017, making it the most active orbital launch site in the world. “To us, one of the clearest signs the Space Coast had rebounded economically is that there is now space commerce on Space Commerce Way,” Brian Berger, the editor-in-chief of SpaceNews, said in announcing the award.
Frank DiBello, Space Florida CEO, says he expects 2019 to be a “big year” for more relocations to Florida. For example, in January, Los Angeles-based Relativity, a startup led by former SpaceX hands, secured a launch pad at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station to test its 3-D-printed rocket.
Space Florida also plans to spend about $1 million to upgrade the space shuttle’s three-mile runway, which it now controls, for future launches.
Investment firm Space Angels predicts 2019 will be the “year of commercial space travel.” Boeing and SpaceX have scheduled Florida launches of seven-passenger spacecrafts the Boeing Starliner and SpaceX Crew Dragon. Bezos’ Blue Origin and Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic also may carry people to space this year, though launched from outside Florida.
As always, projections about space flight require a grain of salt. Industry watchers marked their calendar for a mid-December day when four rockets were to go off from California, Texas, Florida and French Guiana — but, for various reasons, not a single launch occurred. And in January, SpaceX laid off 10% of its workforce, though most of the hit seems to have fallen at the secretive company’s California headquarters.
Lost amid all the enthusiasm for U.S.-launched astronauts have been the leaps in lowering rocket costs, thanks to innovations such as boosters that don’t just drop into the ocean when they’ve spent their fuel, but land under power and can be reused.
Lower costs mean NASA expects to pay SpaceX and Boeing about $58 million per astronaut carried to the International Space Station, compared to the more than $80 million per seat it’s been paying Russia. Morgan Stanley says the cost to launch a satellite has fallen to $60 million from $200 million “with a potential to drop to as low as $5 million.”
Mass production of satellites — OneWeb’s 600-satellite constellation will be made in Florida — has cut costs from $500 million per satellite to $500,000, Morgan Stanley reports.
Falling launch costs plus the exponential growth in global data demand have made the case for blanketing Earth’s orbit with satellites to deliver broadband everywhere. Developers plan to launch 140 constellations with hundreds of satellites each — among them SpaceX’s Starlink — in the next decade.
Northern Sky Research analyst Shagun Sachdeva says that given financing, regulatory and manufacturing hurdles, “we will surely see the total number drop quite a bit.” But, she says, Florida will “remain well-positioned in terms of launch business.”