Public and private entities join forces to re-invigorate space travel.
When SpaceX launched its new Falcon Heavy rocket into solar orbit in February carrying a red Tesla Roadster car with a mannequin named Starman behind the wheel, the mission touched off a new era in space exploration. Not because it was taking us where no mannequin has ever gone before. But because it was taking mankind into space again, and this time the ultimate destination is Mars.
The crowds that gathered around Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral clapped, cheered and even wept as they watched the launch and then the unprecedented descent of two of the three booster rockets that had carried Falcon Heavy into the sky. The boosters landed back at the launch site upright, side by side, in perfect timing like synchronized swimmers, leaving everyone saying, “How did they do that?”
This question is precisely why the space program is alive and thriving today, bringing more than 17,000 aerospace-related companies, 130,000 industry jobs, and $19 billion in annual revenues to Florida’s economy, according to Space Florida, which acts as an airport authority for the state’s aerospace industry. The activity is centered in a cluster surrounding KSC and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, which both host launch activities.
The wonder of aeronautics keeps today’s space program soaring at a pace that is expected to reach a launch cadence of as many as 50 missions a year from the Cape by 2020. The difference between today’s program and that of the 1960s — when the Air Force, the Navy and NASA launched the first rockets from the Cape — is that government is playing a supporting role while private industry steers the ship.
“As an agency, NASA has been around since 1958,” says Janet Petro, the deputy center director at KSC. “We’ve always been strong at transferring our capabilities and our knowledge to the private sector. Recently we’ve been taking advantage of partnerships much more so than ever before. … We’re going to continue to do that as we make our way back out to the moon and then out to Mars. The idea of partnering is what it’s going to take for us as a nation to go further to those destinations.” ▸
Ask most people involved, and the goal is to get humans to Mars sometime in the 2030s. Former President Obama predicted a manned mission will orbit the red planet by the mid 2030s and return safely to Earth. President Trump committed to the mission with a directive signed in December to partner with the private sector to get people on the moon for the first time since 1972 to establish a foundation there for eventual missions to Mars and beyond.
Elon Musk, the founder and CEO of SpaceX, has a different plan. In March, he told an audience at the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, that a new SpaceX rocket will be ready for trips to Mars by sometime next year, according to a March 11 article in the New York Post. He had announced last year that SpaceX will send at least two cargo vehicles to Mars by 2022.
Musk’s ultimate goal is to set up a colony of more than 1 million people on Mars to ensure the human race survives a world war or another kind of catastrophe on Earth. A May 22 article on CNBC.com called him “the world’s most disruptive space pioneer” and placed California-based SpaceX as the No. 1 company on the 2018 CNBC Disruptor 50 list.
“The visionary entrepreneur is bent on building giant low-cost reusable rockets and spaceships that can be used to colonize humans on Mars,” the article read. “In the process, he is helping to catalyze a private space exploration industry in the United States while outmaneuvering mammoth aerospace companies like Boeing.”
In September 2017, during the 68th Astronautical Congress in Adelaide, Australia, Musk outlined plans for the largest space vehicle ever launched from Earth, a fully reusable ship that has not been named but is referred to as BFR. His speech is posted in its entirety on a 43-minute video on the SpaceX website, and in it he outlines “how we become a multiplanet species.”
The BFR vehicle, which is under construction today, will have the capability of carrying 150 tons into low earth orbit, compared with 30 tons by Falcon Heavy. It will stand at 32 stories tall, towering over the Falcon Heavy, which is 21 stories.
Musk mentioned in his September speech that he wants takeoffs and landings to be as commonplace as they are today for airplanes. The precision is getting better, he said, and he believes the SpaceX rocket boosters will eventually land without the retractable legs that supported them in the February Falcon Heavy mission. He’d like to see numerous launches and landings a day.
SpaceX, which has signed a 20-year lease with KSC, is planning a reported 30 launches this year. Add to that the launches other companies are planning in the coming years, and the schedule looks pretty ambitious — and completely realistic, industry watchers say.
“When you drive around Kennedy today, it’s a very different spaceport than it was back in the day when I first started,” says Petro, who joined NASA at KSC in 2007. “Today there is a robust commercial market and a partnership that can make that journey to Mars happen.” ▸
“If humanity is to become multi-planetary, the fundamental breakthrough that needs to occur in rocketry is a rapidly and completely reusable rocket … achieving it would be on a par with what the Wright brothers did. It’s the fundamental thing that’s necessary for humanity to become a space-faring civilization. America would never have been colonized if ships weren’t reusable.”
– Elon Musk
When the space shuttle program was coming to an end in 2011, NASA had already started considering how KSC could become a multi-user spaceport, Petro says. In a targeted initiative, the team looked at the space center’s operations and facilities to determine which ones were no longer needed, which ones would have to be refurbished, and which ones could be available for private aerospace companies.
NASA has outlined four milestones that will get the space program to Mars, Petro says:
1) Low earth orbit – Today the agency is transitioning into turning over low earth orbit exploration to private companies. Instead of developing and launching vehicles and payloads itself, NASA is contracting with the private firms to carry cargo and humans.
2) Lunar orbit – Through the 2020s, exploration will extend to spaceflight orbiting the moon with the goal of enabling long-term robotic exploration on the lunar surface.
3) Lunar exploration – Through the 2030s, human exploration on the moon’s surface will serve as preparation for missions to Mars and other parts of the solar system.
4) Gateway to Mars — The timing has not been firmed up for NASA’s planned lunar orbital platform gateway, which will take activities beyond the moon. Partnerships will not only be between government and commercial entities, but also international. Russia, China, France and India are all operating space programs today.
“What NASA, and KSC, do through their leadership role is create the opportunities and competition among entrepreneurs and companies,” Petro said. “We provide them that opportunity, not just in terms of facilities and assets and supportive processes, but they tap into us for our expertise.”
BUILDING AN ECOSYSTEM
There is a flurry of activity in Central Florida in aerospace manufacturing. “We’re seeing tremendous change in that regard,” says Bill Dymond, the CEO and president of Lowndes, Drosdick, Doster, Kantor & Reed law firm in Orlando, who serves as chair of the board of directors of Space Florida. “In a short period of time, we are seeing a great deal of manufacturing occur, and we’re positioned for growth in the future.”
Several private companies, including SpaceX, are leading the way back into space at KSC. They form a nucleus of activity that includes scores of other private companies supporting the space program. Many of them are hiring this year to expand their operations. They include:
• Boeing, based in Chicago, is building the crew capsule CST-100 Starliner in collaboration with Bigelow Aerospace. The vehicle is designed to carry seven passengers into low-Earth orbit, including NASA service missions to the International Space Station, according to Boeing’s website.
• Blue Origin out of the Seattle area is getting a lot of media buzz because its billionaire owner, Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos, is seen as an interesting competitor to SpaceX. The company’s New Shepard capsule provided the first-ever vertical landing in the space industry, before the synchronized SpaceX booster landings.
• OneWeb, headquartered in the UK, has set up a facility just outside KSC for building satellites.
It all adds up to what Dymond calls a tremendous economic engine. “As we begin to build an ecosystem where there are multiple manufacturers, you build a supply chain around that,” he said. This will include smaller manufacturers and service providers, and then ripple out from there into the surrounding community. People need places to live, eat and play, and the ecosystem snowballs to accommodate them.
Space Florida, a special district created by state statute, has been a “dot connector” for the spaceport, pulling together partnerships and funding from multiple parties, including the state of Florida, the state Department of Transportation, the Air Force, the Navy, the Federal Aviation Administration and NASA.
“Space Florida can help foster and fuel that private sector development,” Dymond says. “We’re helping government invest in infrastructure, which makes it possible for private companies to do what they do best. … The private sector moves more quickly, and now there is competition in the mix.”
Central Florida is experiencing a renaissance since the space shuttle program shut down, Dymond says. “People thought the Cape was dead, and we’ve seen this resurgence and more to come. The space program is a $350 billion market globally and growing. We want Florida to continue to be the epicenter.”
He points to the excitement at the Cape and along the Space Coast during the SpaceX Falcon Heavy mission in February. “When the rockets came back down, it was like a science fiction movie,” he says.
Petro was on the roof of the KSC headquarters building for the Falcon Heavy launch and the synchronized booster landing. “It was the coolest thing,” she says. “You can’t imagine the excitement and the clapping.” It took 2½ hours for her team to get home that day because the roads were full of traffic from people watching the launch.
As a federal agency, NASA doesn’t have the leeway to launch a car with a mannequin and a camera into space on public dollars. Private companies can do this, and it’s positive marketing for spaceflight, Petro says. “I think it’s great for the entire space industry and the nation to coalesce around,” she says. “We’re going back to space.” ◆