Why We Continue to be the Space Coast

by George White

In spite of the long-held assumption that the end of the Space Shuttle program would mean mothballs for Kennedy Space Center – and the North Brevard economy – the American space program still lives on the Space Coast.

There are now – and will continue to be fewer – employees at KSC, there is an renewed sense of vigor in several programs, including the development of commercial space, the design of a new crew cabin to transport humans in space, and plans for a new heavy-lift rocket system to boost the program back out into deep space.  “Florida will continue to be a home for the nation’s space exploration program as conducted by NASA, and KSC will be the ground node for the International Space Station.  You’ll see commercial rockets going back and forth for cargo and crew and all kinds of science and research experiments,” commented Space Florida President Frank DiBello.

Added Joyce Riquelme, manager of the Center Planning and Development Office for NASA, “We’re making great progress in transforming KSC into a multi-user launch complex that will accommodate both commercial and government space activities in the post-shuttle era.  Several companies have expressed interest in establishing a presence at KSC and have NASA officials working to establish partnerships with these companies for use of our underutilized facilities.”

Perhaps Stronger than Before

The biggest success so far has been the agreement with Space Florida to use three facilities – OPF3; Space Shuttle Main Engine Processing Facility; and the Processing Control Center – to support, manufacture and test Boeing’s Crew Space Transportation (CST-100) spacecraft.  This agreement has the potential of creating up to 550 jobs along the Space Coast over the next few years.

“The model for the future is one of diversity, whereas in the shuttle era the center was entirely supported by a single, large government program; the new future will see a vibrant mix of government and commercial activities encompassing many aspects of the space industry.  This will ultimately make KSC stronger than ever before,” Riquelme explained.

Lynda Weatherman, president and CEO of the Economic Development Commission of Florida’s Space Coast made the point, “For every success announced so far there are dozens in the works, being developed by several agencies and public officials.”  Weatherman has helped with enhancement and streamlining of building and site permitting throughout Brevard County and facilitation of the first-ever Space Act agreement between Kennedy Space Center and an economic development organization.  “When you look at the way the economy is and just coming out of a knee-deep recession, we’ve had some great announcements.  What we have to do is continue that,’’ she added.

Get Ready and Chances Come

“Many companies are looking favorably at the Space Coast and that comes as a result of years of effort by local officials, so much so that it’s easy now to get impatient that the progress toward adding new space-related jobs is not going fast enough,” Weatherman emphasized.  “It’s like when you’re sitting at home waiting for the hurricane to hit, there’s a feeling of ‘let’s just get it over with.’  That’s probably where we are.  We did as much as we could to mitigate it (the end of the Shuttle program).”

Locals have been working on the solution (to post-Shuttle layoffs) since 2006, making sure no stone has been left unturned toward attracting new aviation and aerospace industries to the area.

“Nothing is easy.  You have to work hard if you want to be successful.  It’s not just luck; it’s a lot of people working on it.  We need to be realistic but there are also opportunities.  This is not our first time at the rodeo as far as layoffs are concerned; we‘ve been through it already and we‘re far more astute as to what needs to be done,” said Weatherman.

Space Florida President Frank DiBello was selected in May 2009 to lead the organization which serves as the single point of contact for aerospace-related economic development in Florida.  “It really does help to have a front door to industry.  It allows us to put together the right resources, to build a network of support, and know what assets we have in the state,” he said.

Rather than the end of the Shuttle program being, in effect, the end of the U.S. manned space program, DiBello sees a robust new beginning on the horizon, especially for commercial space companies who now need to transport crew and cargo to the ISS and beyond.  “In my view, there has never been a better time for the growth of the aerospace industry in Florida than right now,” he declared.  In April, and then again in August, the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket will launch the Dragon spacecraft, called Dragon C2.  The first mission will demonstrate proximity operations during an approach within 6 miles of the International Space Station and the second will deliver cargo.

Leveraging Our Advantages

Florida has a distinct advantage over other states that have higher wage rates and tax structures and aging capital plants and equipment.  “As they look at the next generation programs, they see Florida with a readily available and highly skilled workforce, a very friendly business environment, a generally low tax structure for businesses and individuals, along with a great living environment and way of life, and a willingness of the state to invest in new capital, plant and equipment.  We bring a lot to the table,” explained DiBello.

On the day the Shuttle flew its last flight, there were six other launch vehicles on pads at the Cape, he observed.  “That is hardly the end of a space program.  It is an example of how robust the industry is in Florida.”  In addition there are eight launches scheduled between June and December of 2012.

Space Florida has a deal log now with more than 100 pending agreements listed, DeBello disclosed.  “We’re on a rate where we’re closing roughly one a month.  When you can do that, you’re getting 50 jobs here and 200 there.  If we keep doing that we will have no trouble meeting the growth targets that we set and I think Florida will emerge as a leader in aerospace in the nation.”

Focus On the Future

One of the key players in the program going forward is United Launch Alliance (ULA), a 50-50 joint venture formed in 2006 by Lockheed Martin and The Boeing Company.  ULA brings together two of the launch industry’s most experienced and successful teams – Atlas and Delta – to provide reliable, cost-efficient space launch services for the U.S.

“Things are going great.  We’re ramping up both our production and launch dates.  We think we have the most reliable rockets in the world.  Our experience is one of our most important features,” said George Sowers, ULA Vice President of Business Development and Advance Programs.

“The constant for the overall space program is the fact that, even after the Apollo program ended and resulted in layoffs, the Space Coast community dusted itself off and eventually reached new heights in low Earth orbit with the Space Shuttle and ISS,” Weatherman said.  “Now, other commercial options and deep space is back into play, giving even more reason to keep working toward the future.”

“The first hit got us and the second hit maybe didn’t knock us down so we’re getting tough.  You can rub your hands together and cry or you learn to get up and keep fighting,” she concluded.