Jeb Bush Wants More Orion Business for Florida

Florida is not content with just winning the assembly and launch work for NASA’s next human spaceship.

Gov. Jeb Bush and the president of the state’s new space agency say they aim to capture more pieces of NASA’s next moon-landing program as well as investment and jobs created by space tourism and other private space businesses.

“We need to attract high-wage jobs,” Bush said. “We need to target our resources for high wage jobs in targeted areas and space is one of them.”

Space Florida, meeting Friday for the first time under new president Steve Kohler, mostly took care of basic transition housekeeping such as approving an initial $8.5 million annual budget and establishing target deadlines for hiring staff, reports and planning documents. Still, the governor and several of his highest-ranking economic development officials traveled to Kennedy Space Center to gather with the Space Florida board to get started on the new agency’s work.

Kohler, who took over the agency less than three weeks ago, gave the board of directors and the governor’s contingent a broad overview of the agency’s strategy going forward. While the strategy and detailed plans are still being defined, the highlights of the work to be done in the months and years ahead are:

  • Making sure the state does what it can to maintain the skilled workers that could otherwise be lost when the shuttle program retires in 2010 and NASA begins transitioning to a new vehicle that is intended to be maintained and flown by far fewer people.
  • Trying to land more of the support businesses, such as suppliers, for the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle. Lockheed Martin Corp. has committed to do final assembly of the new Apollo-like spacecraft at a state-refurbished building at Kennedy Space Center. Now, the state wants to capture as many spinoff businesses as possible.
  • Assessing the projects, commitments and property holdings of several space-related agencies that are being folded into the new Space Florida. For example, Kohler said the new organization wants to make sure that it is enabling new investment in space but not necessarily being the owner and operator of lots of buildings and facilities. Members of the board toured some key state-owned or state-financed facilities at KSC and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station as part of Friday’s daylong activities.

Approximately half of the agency’s $8.5 million goes to operating expenses such as paying salaries and benefits and fixed costs for facilities such as the Space Life Sciences Laboratory constructed near KSC. The other half goes for economic development projects and other incentives aimed at luring new space jobs to Florida, whether from existing aerospace companies or the creation of new companies.

“We need to stay in the specialty spaces, the high end niches,” the governor said. The state will thrive there because those sectors, such as space, will bring in higher-paying specialty jobs that will help grow the state’s economy. That makes the new space agency important to state’s overall economic development strategy, Bush said.

In other business, the board voted to increase the loan the state has helped secure to finance a new shuttle simulator ride at the Visitor Complex from $35 million to $40 million. The complex operator, Delaware North Park Services, is constructing a ride aimed at giving tourists a chance to experience what it feels like to launch in a space shuttle. The Shuttle Launch Experience is set to open later this spring. The additional funds will pay for enhanced services around the ride, such as a pizza restaurant, better landscaping and a Kodak photo stand, officials said. The ride will be paid for over time with a portion of the tourist complex’s ticket sales.