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Space Shuttle's Reputation Counts for Little These Days

SpaceX rocket

Space Exploration Technologies likes Florida’s strong workforce and secure location, but the company was forced to delay the launch of its SpaceX rocket after security negotiations dragged on.
[Illustration: SpaceX]

Virginia-based Orbital Sciences Corp. is the kind of commercial space venture Florida officials hope to lure to fill the void when the space shuttle program ends in 2010. But in February, after winning a coveted NASA contract to deliver cargo to the International Space Station, the company announced plans to bypass Florida’s venerable Kennedy Space Center. Instead, it will launch its unmanned Taurus II rockets from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport at Wallops Island, Va., a venture operated by Maryland and Virginia.

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.

Falcon 9 engine
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.

Those gripes were highlighted earlier this year when California-based Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX, announced a lengthy delay in testing its new Falcon 9 rocket, which will supply the space station under another NASA-funded program. The 6-year-old company, backed by PayPal co-founder Elon Musk, secured permission for test flights from the Air Force’s Cape Canaveral launch complex — but not without prolonged negotiations and political arm-twisting, says Lawrence Williams, the company’s vice president for strategic relations.

Orbital Space Launch Sites
Launch site
French Guiana
Baikonur Cosmodrome
San Marco Platform
Kwajalein Atoll
Marshall Islands
North Korea
Plesetsk Cosmodrome
Kapustin Yar
Svobodney Cosmodrome
Cape Canaveral
U.S.: Florida
Kennedy Space Center
U.S.: Florida
Vandenberg AFB
U.S.: California
Wallops Island
U.S.: Virginia
Kodiak Launch Complex U.S.: Alaska
Source: geocities.com/launchreport/padsites.html

Williams says Florida remains his company’s preferred launch location by virtue of its strong workforce and secure location but acknowledges that other facilities — namely Wallops Island and the Kwajalein launch site in the Central Pacific’s Marshall Islands — remain attractive “fallback options” in light of their lower costs and scheduling flexibility.

Posey is not surprised. “It all comes back to money,” he says. “If they can launch cheaper somewhere else, they will. If it’s cheaper here, they’ll be back.”

Orbital Sciences spokesman Barry Beneski says as much, insisting the company will reconsider its pledge to launch in Virginia if Florida officials can sweeten the pot. “Competition is a good thing,” he says.

The state’s most immediate concern is the 3,600 jobs along Florida’s Space Coast that will be lost when NASA retires the shuttle fleet in a little over two years. NASA estimates its economic impact in Florida topped $3.6 billion in 2006; the average Kennedy Space Center salary is $72,000.

Grabbing a stake in the private launch business is crucial for Florida, officials say, because the industry will rely on small, disposable rockets to carry the bulk of the satellites and other payloads into orbit during the five-year gap between the shuttle’s final flight and the start of the next manned program, Constellation, in 2015. In other words, aerospace growth will be in small startups, many funded by NASA.

Taurus II rocket
Taking a space hit: A rendering of a Taurus II rocket at Wallops Island, Va. Florida suffered a blow in February, when Orbital Sciences Corp. announced that it would launch a Taurus II rocket from Wallops Island, bypassing Kennedy Space Center. [Rendering: Orbital Sciences]

Some see this gap period as an opportunity for Florida as much as a setback. Lynda Weatherman, president and CEO of the Economic Development Commission of Florida’s Space Coast, says the thousands of workers pink-slipped after the shuttle stops flying could attract startups and relocations. “Look at all the highly skilled workers we have here. That’s the message we need to send,” says Weatherman.

But some say that message alone is not enough. Other states are pushing hard to promote their launch sites. Gov. Charlie Crist’s budget proposal included $7 million for Space Florida; he proposed spending up to $40 million for a film and entertainment incentive program. Space boosters from Brevard spent a good part of Space Day, traditionally a festive occasion, lobbying the Legislature for more incentives.

Florida, Posey says, has relied too long on reputation. What works is cash to lure companies here, tax breaks for startups and legislation to provide immunity from accident-related lawsuits, as other states have done. He’d also like to see federal officials lean harder on the Department of

Defense to loosen the red tape, especially as regulators weigh a NASA proposal announced in February to build a commercial launch site on Kennedy Space Center property.

Dominating the launch business, Weatherman adds, may have a ripple effect in Florida, attracting the companies that land the lucrative design and assembly contracts — what she calls “the real prize” — for NASA’s next-generation spacecraft.

Two years ago, the state landed the first such deal in the 50-year history of Florida’s space industry when Lockheed Martin, flush with $35 million in incentives from the state, announced it would build much of NASA’s new Crew Exploration Vehicle here. Other such prizes are on the horizon. SpaceX is vying for a NASA contract for a manned supply capsule, while considerable work awaits on Constellation program vehicles that planners hope will send manned spacecraft to the moon and Mars in the decades ahead.

Will the Gateway to the Stars remain in Florida?

“Florida has a lot going for it — well-developed infrastructure, good experience, a great workforce,” says Orbital Sciences’ Beneski. “On the other hand, there certainly are plenty of other options out there.”