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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.

Astronauts

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.

Falling Costs

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.”

Moonstruck

Lunar Landing

China could end this year with its Chang’e 5 unmanned vehicle landing on the moon and returning to Earth, the first such journey since Apollo in 1972. The milestone would further establish China as the most likely to land humans on the moon first in the next decade. Promoters of the U.S. space industry hope Chinese success will ignite U.S. government support for a new space race. There are currently as many moon missions planned as during the heyday of the space race. However, as much government support materializes, the new run to the moon will be enabled by private companies. Space Florida recently agreed to loan $1.5 million to an unidentified company vying for a NASA contract to develop a commercial lunar lander, giving Florida a foothold in the lunar industry. SpaceIL, an Israeli non-profit, is to launch its lunar probe from Florida this year aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9.

Floating Habitat

This year, in the building at Kennedy Space Center that once processed space shuttles for launch, a team of Lockheed Martin engineers and technicians completed a 15-month project to refurbish an old space shuttle cargo container to see if it would work as a habitat in lunar orbit. NASA, which wants an outpost in lunar orbit for landing on the moon or fl ying to Mars, hired six companies to develop a design. Lockheed’s answer is to outfi t a surplus 4½-by-6½ meter container as a kind of orbital RV with sleep stations, exercise equipment, lighting and electronics. “We think the design we came up with is, in our minds, the right design,” says project leader Bill Pratt.

NASA ultimately may or may not agree, but the project meant about 20 high-wage, high-skill jobs in Brevard County. The effort also drew at times on some of the 1,000 people Lockheed employs around Brevard on other projects, including its Orion crew transport, NASA’s vehicle for the moon and beyond.

The habitat project illustrates that not all the projects driving the space industry resurgence in Florida involve monster rockets. But cost effi ciency is something all want to share. For its orbiting lunar habitat, Lockheed looked to the surplus cargo container. Its NASA name was Donatello. (All the shuttle containers were named for Italian Renaissance masters/ Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.) “It was really born from this idea that we wanted to focus our efforts on all the stuff inside the habitat,” Pratt says. “That’s what mattered the most.”

A Giant Leap, 50 Years Later

This July will mark the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11’s moon landing. As part of the commemoration, Delaware North, the for-profit company that runs the visitors complex and attractions at Kennedy Space Center, is revamping the Saturn V display, including projecting images of the landing on the rocket itself.

The world tuned into Florida in 1969 to watch Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins venture forth. Some 530 million people globally watched Armstrong become, as last year’s movie put it, “First Man.” Apollo “profoundly affected Brevard County,” says historian Gary Mormino. Brevard went from 16,000 people in 1940 to a quarter of a million by 1970 and 590,000 today.

Some impacts extended beyond Brevard. The University of Central Florida, for instance, was created by the Legislature in 1963 as Florida Technological University to open access to education to serve the space industry at Canaveral 40 miles to the east. A decade after opening in 1968, that focus shifted and it became UCF. Unlike California, which had a string of high-quality universities and the assets to support them at the dawn of the Space Age, Florida had trouble really capitalizing on the space boom beyond publicity. “Florida had the desire but not the resolve and resources,” says Mormino.

 

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