Politically and programmatically, Florida is ground zero in the nation’s debate on the future of space exploration. For the first time in NASA’s history, President Barack Obama’s dramatic 2011 budget proposal moves the agency’s center of gravity in the direction of Kennedy Space Center (KSC). This transition is in the interests of both Florida’s work force and NASA’s future top-line budget prospects.

The stakes are highest in Florida because of a unique blend of orbital mechanics and Electoral College math. Cape Canaveral was chosen decades ago as the nation’s preferred site to reach equatorial orbit. As the largest “purple” state up for grabs to both parties, Florida is the most sought-after prize in any presidential race. The key to winning this state is the Interstate-4 Corridor from Tampa Bay to the Atlantic. This is, quite frankly, the single most important piece of political real estate in the country. The eastern anchor of this I-4 Corridor is KSC and its anxious voters.

As such, it took little enticement to have both candidate Obama and Sen. John McCain come to Florida with lavish promises of commitment to the work force in the waning days of the 2008 presidential campaign. What they both promised was open to interpretation, but only President Obama now has to deal with those perceptions.

So where are we now in Florida?

In 2004, President George W. Bush announced the 2010 retirement of the space shuttle and the resulting termination of almost 9,000 associated jobs in Florida. Additionally, U.S. reliance on the Russians for access to the international space station was to be no less than two years. This painful and deeply troubling transition has been duly funded by Congresses, Republican and Democratic, ever since.

Florida, collectively, responded to this impending calamity in the manner common to humans everywhere — initially with a blind eye evolving into group denial. We knew, as individuals, that the shuttle program was under a death sentence, but collectively we hoped for a commutation, that somehow the cavalry would come to the rescue. On Feb. 1, the president’s budget was released, and the shuttle program was not extended. Exacerbating the bleak outlook was the unanticipated cancellation of the Constellation program. A harsh communal epiphany descended upon Central Florida, and the traditional five stages of grief began playing out at KSC.

Not unexpectedly, Florida’s elected officials have responded as have others whose constituencies found themselves staring into the abyss of unemployment. They are aggressively working to halt or mitigate this impact on their specific voters through extending the shuttle or restoring Constellation. Conversely, the president’s responsibilities are broader and national in scope. This is the nature of a democratic process and a reflection of how our system is designed to work. It will play itself out and we as a community will get through it, as we have before.

Former NASA Administrator Mike Griffin seemed unconcerned about the impact of Constellation on Florida. Even if it had stayed on schedule and on budget, Florida still would be losing thousands of jobs. A stated goal of Constellation was a significant reduction in the work force necessary for launch. That was an unambiguous targeting of the Florida work force. KSC, ever the good soldier, saluted and went about its business, comforted in the understanding there would be future Constellation work for some.

However, Constellation’s anemic development since inception has left KSC with little genuine self-interest in the program. The projected employment from processing Orion, ground support activities, Altair assembly, etc., was based upon activity that was moving ever farther to the right. Apart from a robust and successful effort to modify launch infrastructure, the anticipated operations tempo at KSC for the next four to five years was little more than unfunded promises to an anxious work force.

As Charles Bolden has said, they badly mismanaged the rollout of the Obama administration’s proposals for a future human spaceflight program. It was clear what the president did not want to do, and the adverse impacts on the work force. But it was unclear what he wanted to do and how that might mitigate the thousands of jobs of soon-to-be-displaced shuttle workers. The perception in Florida was of a callous and inexplicable abandonment of U.S. leadership in space. To be laid-off is bad enough, but to believe that your life’s work is being sacrificed is a most bitter pill.

Into this treacherous environment comes the president on April 15. What does it mean for Florida? Is it a vision he can sell here? I believe he can.

The private sector’s providing access to low Earth orbit (LEO) for cargo and crew is a concept whose time has come. To do so in tandem with the government’s developing the same capability is to undermine the very market you’re investing in. The basic technology is 50 years old. Will either system be perfect? No. Will lives be lost in the exploration of space? Yes, just as they were in the exploration of the New World, or the opening of the American West. Negligence and incompetence must be punished whether the operator is government or contractor, but exploration must go forward.

The most compelling analogy offered of the president’s concept is to portray the “traditional” KSC model as not unlike mid-20th-century Detroit: single-program focused, and very labor intensive. The potential “new” KSC in the president’s plan much closer resembles the image of contemporary Silicon Valley: a healthy marketplace where the government is but one of many customers, where capitalism shows itself with winners and losers, with litigation and layoffs, but where America demonstrates its innovation and its entrepreneurial fervor. How can this not be exactly what we want representing our economy in competition with the Russians, Chinese, Indians, Brazilians and all others who will rightfully enter the marketplace of commercial space?

There are also plans for a new NASA under this president’s vision. Inexorably, after 50 years, the agency we all love more resembles an organization led by the Postmaster General than one led by the likes of Wernher von Braun. By focusing its energy on the operations of a space transportation system to LEO, it has lost its hunger. The president’s proposal will return NASA to its roots and restore its vigor by refocusing the agency on that for which it has always been most admired — going out into the solar system. And this time, we’re going to stay. The president did not cancel Constellation because he doesn’t want to go to the Moon, he canceled it to get to the Moon, and Mars, and elsewhere, faster.

What does this mean for Florida?

For the future, it moves the state in the direction it has long sought. For decades, Florida has been an “operations” center only. This narrow business base has left the area subject to economic whipsaws as programs come and go. For those of us who have been here since before there was a NASA, our fathers endured the collapse following the Apollo cancellation, and now we must undergo a wrenching transformation with shuttle retirement. It is comforting to know that the new plan for our children is to broaden our business model to include more assembly, research and development and university involvement. This state will be the better for it.

The most egregious oversight in the president’s budget was the need for heavy-lift development at KSC in the next few years. Only this will maintain the core skill set of contractors and civil servants necessary to reduce risk for follow-on systems. The commercial launch activity will not, and should not be, a robust employer of thousands. One hopes that issue will be addressed in the president’s remarks in Florida.

Additionally, it is imperative that KSC have an institutionalized line item within the proposed technology development program. A persistent drumbeat from the Augustine commission was to ensure the continuous creation of new systems and components that will drive down the life-cycle cost of operating future systems. It makes sense to have a critical role in that program at the center where most of those life-cycle costs are incurred: KSC.

These two issues alone could be dealt with by transforming KSC into the agency’s test bed for new technologies. The design centers can design, but any prototype development, DDT&E (design, development, test and evaluation), etc., should be conducted where the systems will ultimately be deployed and evaluated by those who will ultimately employ them.

What does this mean for NASA?

After the census and reapportionment, Florida’s political clout in the Electoral College will only grow. Each party will have a profound interest in ensuring the other party cannot characterize it as the one threatening the economic health of NASA and KSC. If we, as a community of stakeholders, cannot take advantage of this political reality to leverage the top line of the agency’s budget with administrations and Congresses in the future, then perhaps we’re not the ones to be leading our nation into the final frontier. This isn’t rocket science. It is simple political math.

Dale Ketcham is director of the Spaceport Research & Technology Institute at Kennedy Space Center and a consultant to Florida economic development entities.