In the war between the states for the emerging commercial-rocket-launch industry, Florida is working to regain momentum after a key rival – Texas – has all but secured victory in a major battle.
At stake are hundreds of jobs – perhaps thousands in the future – and billions of dollars for Florida’s Space Coast, still struggling since the end of the shuttle program, officials with the state’s space-development agency said.
Space Florida is regrouping after apparently failing to lure the future commercial-launch headquarters of billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk’s SpaceX. The company is apparently ready to build a commercial spaceport in south Texas instead, officials in Florida say. So far, SpaceX will only say that Texas is a “finalist” for its new complex.
Though Florida already has most of the government space business – including SpaceX’s launches at Cape Canaveral – the question remains: How can Florida corral more commercial liftoffs, even as Georgia, Puerto Rico and other places also are targeting the space-launch business?
“Texas is motivated to go after the commercial market,” said Laura Seward, a space-industry advocate and adviser to Space Florida. “Whatever it costs, they will do it, and unless Florida becomes more motivated, we’re going to lose this market.”
The Space Coast has slowly crept back into the space race since NASA ended the shuttle program in 2011, causing more than 7,000 job losses. Now, United Launch Alliance – a Boeing-Lockheed Martin venture – and newcomer SpaceX are launching rockets from the Cape. Other new commercial-launch companies are also eyeing the region.
Space Florida says the state needs to capitalize on that interest by building a site where companies can launch as cheaply, quickly and safely as possible. That is what Texas has promised with the proposed site in Brownsville, near the Mexican border – far from NASA and the Air Force’s costly security, regulatory and scheduling rules.
The Texas site also received approval earlier this month from the Federal Aviation Administration’s yearlong environmental review. The FAA review noted that SpaceX has eliminated all other candidates except the Brownsville location for its proposed commercial-launch complex.
“We understand that Elon Musk made a business decision, though we’re disappointed with it,” said Dale Ketcham, Space Florida’s chief of strategic alliances. “We’re afraid we’re moving in a direction where the only flights from Florida will be done by the federal government. And that’s just not a healthy business model to pursue. The commercial market is the only one that has real growth potential.”
Space Florida says its game plan is threefold:
– Push for construction of the proposed Shiloh commercial-launch complex, a controversial project with environmental impact in the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge.
– Work with NASA and the Air Force to set up new launch protocols that would streamline commercial launches at the Cape.
– Lure near-term commercial launches at the Cape by SpaceX, which may not have the Texas site ready until 2016, and future launches by other new players such as Blue Origin Inc., Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’s company.
Ketcham said the agency’s highest priority is to establish the Shiloh complex, named after a town that NASA vacated a half-century ago when it established the Kennedy Space Center.
Like the site in Texas, Shiloh would be regulated as a commercial-spaceport operation by the FAA – not by the additional and potentially redundant oversight of NASA and the Air Force, Ketcham said.
“Basically, we’re doubling down on Shiloh,” he said. “Because if we can’t get a commercial-launch facility up and running under FAA oversight, then other states will be able to provide that. And we can’t effectively compete with that attractive of a business environment.”
Still, the Shiloh proposal has met some strong resistance. Environmental groups oppose its potential disruption of pristine wildlife and fishing habitats.
Even NASA, which owns the 150-acre site 15 miles north of the Kennedy Space Center, has shown ambivalence about it. NASA’s 20-year development plan, released last month, doesn’t even mention the Shiloh project.
Environmentalists say the Shiloh proposal has fallen flat not only because of wildlife concerns, but also because there are so many other potential options – unused NASA launchpads, for example – that are available for commercial launches.
SpaceX may want to expand its launchpad options at the Cape, where it already leases the Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Complex 39A for potential commercial launches. Environmentalists say the southern end of the Kennedy Space Center should be the focus for the commercial-launch industry.
“We don’t believe that SpaceX was ever really interested in Shiloh,” said Charles Lee, spokesman for Audubon of Florida. “Nobody from SpaceX attended any of the public hearings about Shiloh. The only people throwing their name around came from Space Florida.”
Ray Lugo, a University of Central Florida space-policy expert, said Space Florida’s work is important for the state, but it may be time for the agency to redirect its focus away from Shiloh.
“I’m just not convinced there isn’t a less-complicated site to use as Florida’s commercial spaceport,” said Lugo, a former NASA official and director of the University of Central Florida’s Florida Space Institute. “There are just plenty of launch sites on the Cape that could be used to do the kind of missions SpaceX and others want to do.”