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The Post-Space Shuttle Trough

Mark R. Howard | 1/1/2010

Mark Howard
Mark Howard,
Executive Editor

For years, the most significant business-related headline from Florida’s Space Coast has remained the same: Shuttle to End in 2010, Thousands of Jobs at Risk. The handwriting on the wall is now being typed onto pink slips. Even if the shuttle’s final planned missions carry over into 2011, the program is winding down, and the companies that service and launch the shuttle have begun laying off hundreds of workers.

The organization that is supposed to do something about this is Space Florida, the state agency responsible for developing and coordinating space-related business and research in the civil, military and commercial sectors. Space Florida has a somewhat tortured history. It started life as the Florida Spaceport Authority in the late 1980s, then split into three organizations in the early 2000s. A special commission put the three pieces back together as Space Florida in 2006. Along the way, it seems, a forum would occur every few years at which state lawmakers, government officials and the space crowd
got together to kick the political football, remind each other solemnly how important the space industry is to Florida — it touches all 67 counties! — and promise to do something to help it.

A few things got done, but the state never ponied up enough money to compete for the occasional space plum (a commercial launch operation or rocket assembly facility, for example) against more aggressive states like Alabama with better incentives and more cohesive congressional delegations. And until very recently, it never even made much headway with the military in making the Cape friendlier to the commercial launch business. The inconvenient truth is that NASA cast such a big shadow in Florida that anything the state did would look puny until that shadow got smaller or changed somehow.

That’s now happening, and a big economic gap is forming between the end of the shuttle program and whatever comes next from NASA. NASA’s new manned spaceflight platform, the Constellation program, which features an Apollo-type capsule called the Orion and a new rocket called the Ares, has suffered from delays and funding levels that have slowed its development. It may not be ready to fly until 2017. Under that scenario, it will have to skip what was to be its first mission — ferrying freight and people to the International Space Station, which is to go out of service in 2016.

The Augustine Commission that the Obama administration created to advise it on NASA’s future has laid out a set of options that doesn’t even assume the Constellation program should be the dominant strategy. At one end of the commission’s option-spectrum is just continuing the shuttle for a few years. In the middle is some version of the Constellation strategy — either beefing up funding and sending Orion straight to Mars, changing its mission to an orbit-rather-than-land strategy, or maintaining existing funding levels and pushing back the existing timetable. At the other end of the spectrum is realigning NASA more drastically in a smaller, more agile form geared toward enhancing the commercial space industry.

Whichever option is chosen, America could go through as much as a decade when it won’t send people into space on its own rockets. The bottom line for Florida’s Space Coast is continued uncertainty and no likelihood that the flow of NASA dollars to the shuttle will simply shift to a new program that will sustain employment in Brevard County.

Meanwhile, as President Obama ponders that stew of options and layoffs continue on the Space Coast, Space Florida has a new leader, Frank DiBello, who took over formally in September after serving for several months as the agency’s interim chief. DiBello, a gracious, well-considered man, has a comprehensive understanding of how the space industry ties into a host of endeavors, from agriculture and environmental monitoring to research in fields ranging from life sciences to communications, robotics and emergency management. In just a few months on the job, he’s produced a master plan for the agency — a legally required task that his predecessor never completed — with the outlines of a long-term strategy.

DiBello understands that ultimately Space Florida must leverage the strength of the Space Coast’s technical and engineering workforce during the post-shuttle economic trough — and find ways to diversify its activities. He’s already pushing some specific, common-sense proposals. One idea: NASA now employs some 300 engineers and technicians at Cape Canaveral at a facility called the Shuttle Logistics Depot. Currently they repair shuttle equipment and also design and manufacture parts no longer produced by private contractors. Those jobs will of course disappear when the shuttle stops flying: DiBello proposes using the workers and the facility to repair military equipment that’s getting plenty of hard use in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Among other things, DiBello could use a unified effort from Florida’s congressional delegation in Washington and a few more dollars from the state to compete for specific opportunities that become available.

The stakes are high beyond the Space Coast. According to AeA, the nation’s largest technology trade association, high-tech jobs in Palm Bay-Melbourne, including space-related jobs, accounted for nearly 12% of the private sector workforce — the ninth-highest concentration in the nation. The average tech worker earns nearly $70,000.

In a state as talent-thin as Florida, that cluster of human capital is significant. Preserving as much of it as possible is a worthy goal, and we should all hope DiBello succeeds. He’s up against some long odds.

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