One of the more farsighted things the state of Florida did was recognize the strategic importance, in terms of geography and infrastructure, that Cape Canaveral and Kennedy Space Center’s 140,000 acres represented, and the future Florida could play in aerospace development. Space Florida was created as a merger of the Florida Space Authority, the Florida Space Research Institute and the Florida Aerospace Finance Corporation in 2006. Dale Ketcham is currently the vice president of Governmental and External Relations at Space Florida and has spent over 30 years at Kennedy Space Center, working with a variety of public and private organizations.
EW: You are one of those rare individuals who both works in the space industry and grew up around the space industry. How did what shaped this area, shape you as an individual?
DK: Our family moved here right when things were getting started in 1955. Therefore, what was happening around us, all of these historic achievements, were the norm for me. It was not until much later that I came to realize just how unique it was.
EW: It was an era of unique accomplishments, wouldn’t you say?
DK: People today don’t grasp that in the 60s we were in a race; a race in which the Soviets seemed to keep beating us to all the early milestones. They scored first with Sputnik, first with Yuri Gagarin and first with several other major thresholds.
One problem we have, in the current era of space development, is everyone judges what followed by what was accomplished in those early years of the space program. But what happened there will, in all likelihood, never happen again. It is the wrong template. The federal government essentially gave an agency a blank check and said, ‘We don’t care how much it costs, we just care about the outcomes and the schedule.’
EW: I agree, I don’t see that scenario being repeated, but personally, you had to have been caught, to some degree, in that jet stream?
DK: What I recall is playing Little League and the stands were mostly filled with moms, because the dads were working very demanding hours to meet those schedules. I don’t know, but I would guess that divorce rates were higher than in other places and the work force was somewhat transient. Friends were here while their dads worked a particular program, and then they were gone.
Also, for me, the original seven astronauts were very different than all who followed. There was a real sense that these guys were, first and foremost, test pilots, doing really daring stuff. They lived on the edge, not only in the huge risks they took as the original seven, but from the Corvettes they drove, to the lounges they hung out in. With the possible exception of John Glenn; he was equally daring, just not in the afterhours sense. Growing up in Cocoa Beach, they inspired me in a slightly different way than people may be inspired by our astronaut corps today.
EW: They were space cowboys, in the sense of the classical American hero epic. And that will probably be another aspect of space development that we will likely never see repeated. Now, Bezos and Musk seem to be the space cowboys. How has Space Florida developed in that ever-changing continuum?
DK: At the end of the day, Space Florida and NASA are simply a means to an end and that very significant end is man’s ongoing exploration and utilization of space. It is going to happen and if we as a nation chose to not do it, there are other nations that will.
Initially, Space Florida focused on facilitating missile launches. There was some success, but we realized that what we needed to be was a space authority, like an airport or port authority. The airport authority doesn’t own or fly planes, Delta and United have planes, they create the type of environment where air travel is safe and convenient. The same with port authorities, they don’t own ships, Disney and Norwegian have ships, they facilitate travel and commerce by ship.
People today don’t grasp that in the 60s we were in a race; a race in which the Soviets seemed to keep beating us to all the early milestones. – Dale Ketcham
EW: So basically, like any other transportation authority, airports, ports or an expressway authority, you are an independent transportation authority?
DK: The state designated us as a special district, like a municipality, and as a part of the state’s transportation network. I think we are the only state that operates this way. We are a public, for-profit entity, though our profit is not cash, but measured for the public good.
As such, we have a number of tools at our disposal to help facilitate the mission of space development in Florida. In particular, we are positioned within the tax code to have innovative capabilities to finance aerospace projects, both facilities and equipment. This enables Florida to compete with other states that just write big checks.
Space Florida’s toolkit is best appreciated when we move past the people who are mission focused, to the individuals, like the CFO, the comptroller or the tax attorney, to show them the advantages we can supply, which ultimately impacts their bottom line. What we do is finance facilities and equipment and then we lease these back to the company. That is what we did with Embraer, Northrup Grumman (NG), One Web and Blue Origin.
EW: Like Port Canaveral would finance and build a terminal and lease it back to a cruise line?
DK: How each authority operates is different, but essentially yes. There are specific programs that the state wants to encourage, and, for instance, Northrup Grumman’s design center was one of those programs. Because we own the facility and lease it to NG, it is exempt from certain tax rolls, which along with the fact that it is a lease, gave NG a competitive advantage. It was a spectacular win for the state. Same with Blue Origin, they built the building, we financed it and own it, and lease it back to them. The state put in money, but Blue Origin put in a lot more money and then it was given to the state.
Also, it is important to mention that we only do these types of projects on public land, lest we compete unfairly against the interests of private landowners and developers. We can, based on the statue, but we have chosen not to.
EW: In space development there hasn’t been a Sutter’s Mill experience, outside of the benefits of communication and weather satellites, that will bring the ROI that is being talked of. Do you see that coming?
DK: We are seeing the slow development of a new economy. Made in Space is a Jacksonville company that makes fiber optic cable in space, which is much purer than anything we can make in gravity. We hoped the International Space Station would bring many products like this, but offsetting that has been the flood of knowledge we have gained about what it means for humans to live and work in space. This is as essential as inventing the compass and the clock was to navigate the seas.
EW: What do you see as the future of the Cape and KSC?
DK: Years ago, the whole Space Center was master planned by NASA and the Air Force. The plan identified they both would become tenants of a center operated by a space port authority, like all our ports and airports are. That is the best way for everyone to stay focused on what each does best. It isn’t best for the FAA to run airports or NASA space ports. Already with the rise of SpaceX and Blue Origin we are beginning to see the wisdom of their foresight, but it will be an evolutionary process. But it is a process we need to start working on now.