Jacksonville Well-Suited for Privatized Space Industry

Even though NASA is winding down the space shuttle program, Florida is still an ideal site for private shuttle launches and as the industry tightens its supply chain, Jacksonville’s manufacturing base and logistical advantage positions it well, said Frank DiBello, director of Space Florida, the state’s aerospace economic development agency.

Aerospace companies with a local presence such as Boeing Co. and Northrop Grumman Corp. could move their space-related operations from the West Coast to Northeast Florida.

“NASA is going to turn over logistics support, transportation of cargo and eventually transportation of the crew to the private sector,” DiBello said.

With its last shuttle launch expected by the end of the year, the cancelled NASA program is expected to deal the state a $1.6 billion blow. President Barack Obama is expected to outline a $6 billion, five-year plan to develop new technologies and increase the pace of manned and unmanned missions with the ultimate goal of reaching Mars when he visits Kennedy Space Center April 15.

The new plan forecasts the creation of 2,500 additional jobs in the Kennedy Space Center area by 2012, as compared with the prior path.

DiBello said the majority of low-orbit flights will be made by private companies to research fields such agriculture and bioscience. The private sector will also continue to launch satellites and pursue space tourism.

Cecil Field came a little closer to tapping the burgeoning industry in January when it received federal approval to make the Westside air field a commercial spaceport, said Steven Grossman, Jacksonville Aviation Authority executive director. The authority is in talks with several aerospace companies that could launch suborbital flights for tourists and satellite deployment from Cecil Field’s 12,500-foot-long runway.

The average cost of a flight is roughly $200,000. Interest in commercial space travel for tourism has increased largely because of Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, but Grossman expects startup companies are going to lead innovation, with aerospace leaders closing the gap through established relationships and possibly partnerships with the newer firms.

He said the authority is working to figure out what type of utilities, infrastructure and amenities Cecil Field needs to attract space travel operators. It also wants to attract research and development companies that build off operators’ flights.

The authority’s pursuit of a spaceport option comes on the heels of the U.S. Air Force announcing in July that it will allow commercial launches at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Base on the east coast of Central Florida.

Cecil Field has more potential for development because it isn’t as limited by government restrictions as Cape Canaveral. Horizontal suborbital space travel — the process of reaching space on an incline — is generally less expensive than vertical launches, which will be the main type of departure at Cape Canaveral, said Todd Lindner, the authority’s administrator of planning, grants and environmental programs.

Reynolds, Smith & Hills Inc., which has a $10 million general service agreement to design launch mounts for NASA, is optimistic about future space-related business even if NASA is privatized, said Darold Cole, the company’s senior vice president of aerospace and defense, in an e-mailed response.

“The space business is alive and well in some form and there are a number of players ready to enter the market to fill the need for space tourism, space exploration and resupply of the international space station,” Cole wrote.

Although Jacksonville has a growing aerospace industry, is isn’t clear which companies are involved in the space industry or want to be. Boeing, Northrop Grumman, Honeywell International Inc. and Unison Industries LLC are involved in the space industry, but their local operations aren’t.

DiBello said Jacksonville’s contribution to the state’s space industry is also a logistical one, with CSX Corp. and other transportation companies moving goods and materials. The 87 companies in Jacksonville that reported to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics in 2008 their involvement in the space industry didn’t list their names, only that their work force totaled 5,850 with a $370 million annual payroll.

Space Florida is rallying legislators to help save the more than 9,000 jobs directly tied to the space shuttle program. Despite this current challenge, the agency wants to triple Florida’s space economy by 2020. Negotiations in Tallahassee to give Space Florida a $32.6 million injection for business recruitment, launch infrastructure and work force training are under way.

Separately, a bill introducing a research and development tax credit to offset the layoffs and create new space-related jobs has also been proposed. Space development’s lower orbit brother — aviation — is also being pushed statewide, especially as an export producer.

“My perception is that as aviation and space technology further intertwine, Jacksonville will play a major role,” DiBello said.

Read more: Jacksonville well-suited for privatized space industry – Jacksonville Business Journal:

Mark Szakonyi

Jacksonville Business Journal