Florida officials hope space will be the next business frontier
By James Call
Tallahassee, FL – While Congress debates the costs to develop a commercial launch industry, Florida is preparing for the next wave of space exploration. James Call reports, a proposal before the Legislature could help re-create the high-paying jobs lost when the shuttle program ended.
The Shuttle Atlantis returned home to the Kennedy Space Center July 21st.
The end of the shuttle's 30-year mission is part of a strategy to have NASA focus more on exploration rather than space transportation. The change in mission cost Florida thousands of jobs. About 8,000 were cut at the space center, and the Titusville Area Chamber of Commerce estimates a ripple effect through the economy will consumed an additional 15, to 20-thousand. People lost jobs in an economy where one-in-ten workers are unemployed. Florida Senate President Mike Haridopolos represents the Space Coast.
"The current president of the United States Barack Obama came to my area before he was President of the United State campaigning, and he said he would reduce the gap between the shuttle and the new rocket system. Well, there's nothing. And uh, so what we had to do was step up."
Key to NASA's plan is development of a private space industry. Haridopolos and others have been working in that direction. In the past two sessions the Legislature made an additional $60 million available to Space Florida to help grow a commercialized space sector.
When lawmakers meet in January they will consider a proposal to expand the definition of spaceport territories. The change would increase the facilities eligibility for grants and funds for roads and other infrastructure improvements.
"In 2010 Cecil Field became the United States eight licensed commercial space port."
Amy Baker, Director of the Office of Economic and Demographic Research, and a team of economists are analyzing the proposal. They're trying to measure its impact on Cecil Airfield in Jacksonville.
"It's significant, yeah."
Florida is home to two FAA licensed Spaceports, Cecil and Cape Canaveral. If NASA's plan makes it through Congress they will compete with six other spaceports for billions of dollars in federal business. NASA has set aside more than $400 million for the Russian Space agency to give astronauts a ride to the space station for the next five years. Commercial launch facilities would keep money and jobs in the U.S.
"There's nothing there now, so that's an important assumption that if this bill passes there is going to be 2500 employees there."
Senator Bill Nelson says the United States will help develop a commercial space launching industry. He supported a bill that included $500 million for the effort in next year's budget.
"We've got the smaller rockets which will be the space taxis to take us to and from the International Space Station and then by the end of the year we'll be launching our first rendezvous and docking with the new rocket to deliver cargo to the space station. So we finally beginning to get it cranked up."
It is clear that more government-related space missions will be handled by the private sector. Earlier this year, NASA signed contracts with private companies totaling $10 million to launch satellites and transport other cargo. It is the type of business Florida is looking to secure. It's the next generation of space work, now that the Shuttle program has ended.
"When you lose that many jobs, high paying jobs we're looking for any way possible I've been grateful the governor has worked with the Speaker and I to offer incentives and you'll remember from last year's budget we had research and development tax credits placed in the budget."
NASA expects a commercial launch system will be operational by 2017. The FAA licenses eight facilities as Spaceports where those systems can be located. Two are in Florida. Two in California and one each in Alaska, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Virginia.