At Florida Spaceports, Commercial Operators Prepare To Move In

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WASHINGTON — Privately owned U.S. space companies are preparing to move into high-value launch support facilities in Florida, partially filling a vacuum left by the end of the space shuttle program and the retiring of the Delta 2 expendable rocket.

Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) already has confirmed that it will use money from the state of Florida to expand its presence at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Meanwhile, an announcement is expected in the coming weeks from NASA regarding bids from industry to take over shuttle facilities at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC).

SpaceX got about $7 million from Florida “to basically take over this old Delta 2 processing hangar and upgrade it so that we can process Falcon 9s there,” Bobby Block, a spokesman for Hawthorne, Calif.-based SpaceX, said Aug. 12. The facility, formerly known as Hanger AO, has been rechristened “Hanger X” by SpaceX.

Block said SpaceX also is getting state money to tune up a payload processing and integration facility at the Cape’s Space Launch Complex 40, the long-serving Titan 3 and Titan 4 launch pad SpaceX last used in December to launch its first demonstration mission of cargo-carrying Dragon capsule.

“The original funding was approved for the AO facility in June,” Block said. “The money for the payload processing and integration facility, which would be at the pad, came from Florida Department of Transportation Funds and that was distributed through Space Florida and that was approved in August.”

Space Florida is the state’s economic development agency focused on the aerospace business.

Block said that SpaceX’s goal is to be launching one rocket a month from the Cape by 2015.

Besides its pad at the Cape, SpaceX is also refurbishing an old Titan 4 launch pad at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. The company is seeking a third location, possibly in Texas, or possibly a second pad in either Florida or California.

Space Florida is the entity that would disburse the state money for SpaceX’s Cape expansion. Space Florida spokeswoman Tina Lange declined to comment on SpaceX’s projects at Cape Canaveral.

“We have not closed the deal completely,” Lange said Aug. 12. “Until that happens, we will not make any formal announcements.”

On Nov. 30, SpaceX aims to launch a cargo demonstration mission from the Cape to the international space station. That mission would combine the remaining two technical demonstrations required of SpaceX by NASA under the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program. Both the agency and the company have agreed to a combined mission, although formal approval is still pending.

Whereas SpaceX’s expansion at the Cape was driven by state aid, a federal program will drive changes in tenancy at much of the rest of Florida’s space support infrastructure.

Back in January, NASA put out a request for proposals to put launch support infrastructure at Kennedy to work after the end of the shuttle program.

“We have these facilities, we have a work force here, they all have the infrastructure to support aerospace work … who would be interested in it?” Allard Beutel, a Kennedy Space Center spokesman, said. “Several dozen viable responses” poured in to NASA, and the agency now expects to announce at least one of the proposals it has selected — a proposition from industry to take over Orbiter Processing Facility 3 — “in the next several weeks,” Beutel said Aug. 18.

Once NASA selects its favored proposals, the agency will get to work on the legal specifics, such as the contract vehicles that will be used to allow private companies to move into Kennedy Space Center buildings, Beutel said. He would not comment on the entities that had expressed interest in occupying the old shuttle buildings.

“There are a wide variety of cats and dogs in that list” of interested parties, Dale Ketcham, director of the Spaceport Research & Technology Institute at KSC said. His characterization of the disparate uses to which responders intend to put KSC infrastructure was informed by conversations with NASA, he said.

Some of the entities that want to move into Kennedy “are involved in traditional human spaceflight or launch operations [which is] more traditional KSC work,” Ketcham said. “But a fair number of those credible respondents were new types of work for KSC, more in the technology development and less in the pure launch operations.”

News reports from Florida the week of Aug. 8 said Boeing Space Exploration of Houston was close to a deal to move into Orbiter Processing Facility 3, which was formerly used for postflight shuttle services.

Neither Space Florida, nor Boeing nor NASA would confirm those reports.

“We have had discussions with Space Florida and others about where we might locate our commercial crew program office and where we plan to manufacture, test and operate the Crew Space Transportation (CST)-100 [space capsule],” Boeing spokesman Ed Memi wrote in an Aug. 11 email to Space News. However, “we are not ready to disclose what facilities we might use at this point.”

Boeing is designing its CST-100 capsule under NASA’s commercial crew program, which is aimed at getting private companies to fly astronauts to the international space station by 2017.

Moving private companies into old launch support infrastructure has been touted as a way to stem the hemorrhaging of aerospace jobs from the Florida space coast.

But Ketcham said that even if a robust roster of commercial space companies tenants move into the Cape and KSC, and even if the next U.S.-owned rocket — the planned Space Launch System — is built on time and flies out of KSC as planned, the state will still book a net loss on space industry jobs.

“It’s one thing to be wedded entirely to a single large government program” such as the shuttle program, Ketcham said. “And that’s great when that program’s bumping along fat and happy. Unfortunately, we’re going through a second time what we should have learned after Apollo: When that program comes to a halt and that’s all you do, you pretty much deserve what you get.”