Commentary | A New Federal/State Realignment for Space
A new future is fast becoming our shared American reality — a future where commercial space is the primary engine for investment and exploration, parallel with but not dependent upon federal programs. This development plays directly to America’s strengths. Our economic system is based upon entrepreneurship and history reflects its success. Now that system will prove its worth in space with the benefits flowing back to Earth.
In the most exciting development since the race to the Moon, the table is being set for the United States to once again leapfrog the rest of the world into the final frontier. This emerging industry is beginning to take shape, but too few have reflected upon its true character. Although not exhaustive, consider for a moment a few of these new players. Space Exploration Technologies Corp. () is clearly the industry’s high-profile leader, but two other new comers are Blue Origin and Stratolaunch Systems.
SpaceX was founded by Elon Musk, who made a cool billion with PayPal; Blue Origin is the brainchild of Jeff Bezos, who made many billions more with the creation of Amazon; and finally Stratolaunch is the creation of Paul Allen, who along with Bill Gates started Microsoft. In a development that cannot help but excite all Americans, some of the greatest entrepreneurs this nation has ever created are turning their talents to commercial space. We must foster an environment where their energy and enthusiasm can flourish.
Their success in creating new industries and jobs has come through their ability to respond to their customers. This development highlights our opportunity, and our challenge. Where government space launched yesterday is not where commercial space can best thrive tomorrow.
A generation ago the U.S. launched 100 percent of all commercial satellites. Now it has fallen to near 0 percent. This occurred for many reasons, but primarily the inevitable and inescapable Department of Defense domination of Cape Canaveral’s infrastructure choked off any chance for commercial industry to thrive. The result is we’ve driven commercial launch overseas.
Tremendous progress has been made by the Air Force to improve the responsiveness of the existing launch range to support commercial activity, and there is every expectation of continuing progress. Uniformed leadership from the Cape to Colorado Springs to the Pentagon has driven dramatic improvement through personal commitment and vision. However, the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (CCAFS) is a military installation charged primarily to assure the national security launch capability. The core obligations imposed upon any base commander become fundamentally incompatible with the demands of a globally competitive commercial marketplace. Would anyone ask a commander to disregard who is on his base and when, or what activity is occurring there? And even if those issues were overcome and a robust commercial launch site was thriving on a military installation, another major terrorist event in the country would shut down that activity indefinitely. Even on NASA installations or ranges these challenges exist. The commercial space launch community knows this. And more importantly, so do its customers.
With this new marketplace, the rivalry between space nations (and states) will force the innovation that such a competition demands. Florida, as it has over the last decade with unmatched investments of over $500 million in infrastructure and its truly unique financing tools to lower up-front costs for the commercial sector, is again leading with new innovations for this future.
The effort to recapture that lost commercial market by establishing a separate commercial spaceport has been tried before. But a new effort will succeed through collaboration, innovation and timing.
In a bold but visionary realignment, the state of Florida has requested that the federal government transfer title of two properties at Kennedy Space Center (KSC) back to the state to establish a comprehensive commercial spaceport capability in close proximity to, yet jurisdictionally independent of, the government launch infrastructure at KSC and CCAFS. Oversight would move from the Air Force to the Federal Aviation Administration. The safety requirements wouldn’t change, only the federal agency responsible.
This title transfer can be executed within existing statutory authority (Title 51 of the U.S. Code). More importantly, this represents the unorthodox thinking necessary to liberate NASA of the facilities and costs for which there is no budget allocation for the foreseeable future. Yet it would significantly enhance the development of a new and robust commercial aerospace capability for which NASA and the Pentagon will be a great beneficiary.
This is the right approach at the right time. States are now moving to provide unique and enhanced capability just as the federal government is confronting years of ever-constrained budget authority. This new paradigm will assure continued American leadership in the face of growing international competition.
The Florida concept has two distinct but integrated components. One is the proposed vertical launch site many miles north of any existing launch complex. The other is the Shuttle Landing Facility and the property immediately adjacent to the runway.
For the Shuttle Landing Facility location, NASA is being asked to give up title to a beloved facility. No organization desires that prospect. But where’s the operations and maintenance money to come from? As currently operated, it is not generating revenue and is not inexpensive to operate. KSC is being forced to take steps to shut down infrastructure at the Cape and will soon shut off power to one of the shuttle launch pads.
The capabilities of Space Florida will provide much more at that facility than NASA will for years to come. Should NASA need the capabilities of the Shuttle Landing Facility in the future, they can be provided at substantially less costs. There are countless examples of former military installations that were turned over to local communities and remade to serve both federal and commercial interests.
Each site has its own role in providing the emerging commercial sector with a comprehensive capability where talent, infrastructure and resources create the synergies necessary to assure U.S. success.
A fully responsive commercial spaceport will spring up somewhere; it’s just a question of where. And that “where” matters to all Americans. As Floridians we want that thriving commercial launch hub located here. But there is a less parochial reason for assuring it happens here that appeals to all taxpayers. The majority of all government launches will continue from Florida. Their work forces and procedures will continue to evolve here. If vibrant commercial activity is in close proximity, with its work forces comingling within the same community, the cross-pollination cannot help but constantly reinvigorate the government efforts, to the benefit of all. To have them separate and apart would favor only the Chinese, Russians and other competitors.
Florida, as it has in the past, is leading this effort, but it is not alone. Other states are developing their own creative ideas to further this nation’s shared future in space. This new realignment between states and Washington is occurring at a time of much discussed (whether perceived or real) uncertainty regarding NASA’s direction. If we are to assure future leadership in space then this realignment must become a key issue in any dialogue associated with the appointment and confirmation process for future management at NASA, the Department of Defense, the Federal Aviation Administration and others. We look forward to participating in that dialogue.
Frank DiBello is president and chief executive of Space Florida.