Florida, the nation’s premier launch site since the 1960s thanks to NASA’s largesse, is in danger of being eclipsed in a fast-changing space race.
In less than four years when the space shuttle program ends, one-third of the 15,000 space-related jobs on Florida’s Space Coast will be eliminated.
Meanwhile, a growing number of billionaire businessmen are proving that space is not just NASA anymore. These entrepreneurs, used to thinking big while profiting bigger, are into everything from commercial satellite launches to space tourism. And, instead of heading to Florida, they’re taking their fledgling businesses to places as far-flung as an atoll in the Pacific Ocean and Star City, Russia.
Kennedy Space Center in Titusville, the nation’s first spaceport, has even been upstaged by New Mexico, which ponied up more than $200-million to build a spaceport in the desert and signed Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic as its first tenant. Coming soon: suborbital flights at $200,000 a pop.
Amid this growing competition for space business, Florida has created a new space organization. But it has hired a guy from Pennsylvania with no aerospace background to run the show.
Surprising? Not at all, said Steve Kohler, the man selected by Gov. Jeb Bush to head Space Florida, which replaced a confusing trifecta of state bureaucracies: Florida Space Authority, Florida Space Research Institute and Florida Aerospace Finance Corp.
“What was sought was a completely fresh outlook,” said Kohler, who started work at a temporary office at Kennedy Space Center on Oct. 2. “I’m coming with a wide-open aperture.”
Kohler, 49, has a strong background in economic development, having once headed a task force for then-Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge that brought thousands of jobs to the ailing Rust Belt. That, say Kohler’s supporters, is more important than being well-versed in the aerospace industry.
“We can teach him about space – that the pointy end goes up,” said Jim Banke, vice president of Florida operations for the nonprofit Space Foundation and a member of Space Florida’s spaceport subcommittee. “It’s the guts of economic development we’ve got to be concerned about. This is all about people having good work in the Sunshine State.”
The pressure is on. The shuttle program has required the skills of a standing army of thousands of engineers and systems inspectors. The nation’s next stage of space travel – the Constellation program that will take Americans back to the moon and eventually to Mars – is going to use Apollo-like capsules atop rockets that won’t require the same degree of maintenance. These spacecraft, to be built by Lockheed Martin, won’t begin flying until at least 2012.
Banke, an aerospace journalist for 20 years, said it has taken Florida’s NASA-centric community a couple of years for the reality of the shuttle’s imminent demise to sink in.
“We can no longer just wait for NASA to send its check down from Washington,” he said. “We’ve got to move quickly and do something bold, something visible to show we mean business.”
Space Florida was created after a yearlong review of the state’s aerospace industry led by Lt. Gov. Toni Jennings. Even as Jennings’ commission was meeting, insiders were working feverishly to nail down a major deal: Lockheed’s promise to perform final assembly and integration of the Orion spacecraft at Kennedy Space Center. Cost to Florida: $35-million to refurbish a mothballed Apollo facility. Benefit: 300 to 400 jobs.
Now Space Florida’s leader has to use the Orion assembly deal as leverage to persuade Lockheed’s subcontractors to manufacture in Florida. Kohler compared the challenge to an effort in Pennsylvania, when he tried to bring suppliers for an $80-million General Electric locomotive project into the state.
“It’s all about penetrating more deeply into the supply chain operations,” he said. “The human infrastructure that exists in this region is a distinct advantage. There’s a larger-than-average number of highly trained technical professionals. We just need to identify these people and do the appropriate matchmaking. Or in some cases, just get out of the way and allow the commercial connections to work.”
Kohler’s next priority will be to woo the two commercial launch companies recently awarded NASA contracts to provide service to the International Space Station after the shuttle retires. These companies, SpaceX in El Segundo, Calif., and Rocketplane Kistler in Oklahoma City, are charged with finding the most cost-efficient, reliable way to move cargo and crew to low-Earth orbit. Kistler plans to launch its rocket from southern Australia. SpaceX has built a launch site on Kwajalein in the Marshall Islands, northeast of Australia.
Elon Musk, SpaceX’s chief executive, said the atoll was chosen because it’s close to the equator, has a wider range of launch directions and is cheaper than Cape Canaveral. But Musk, who co-founded PayPal, expects to launch from the Cape in a few years, despite daunting regulatory demands and expense.
“Florida needs to remain focused on ensuring that the bureaucracy is kept to a minimum and that Florida is the most cost-effective place to launch rockets,” said Musk, who has invested $100-million of his fortune into SpaceX. “It’s just like a city trying to attract Southwest Airlines.”
The analogy is telling because many people think aerospace will develop along the same path as general aviation, with government and military spending eventually being dwarfed by expenditures in the commercial and tourist industry.
“In 10, 20 or 30 years, the new business will surpass what we have now,” said Winston Scott, an astronaut who headed Florida Space Authority from 2003 until July and works for a NASA subcontractor in Houston. “Florida needs to lay the infrastructure now. Otherwise, they’ll be second to other states.”
Dr. Peter Diamandis, who co-founded Zero Gravity Corp., Space Adventures and the X Prize competition, has spent the past 20 years trying to make space accessible to the average person. Though Zero-G started flying out of Kennedy Space Center in June, Diamandis said the company made a proposal to the state a year ago to base Zero-G’s growing education and research program in Florida. He is waiting for a response.
“Houston, Las Vegas and San Diego have been extremely interested in courting us,” said Diamandis, who was to meet with Space Florida’s Kohler this weekend.
“It’s really Florida’s option to lose.”