Frank DiBello, President and Chief Executive, Space Florida

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With the retirement of NASA’s space shuttle fleet looming, Florida is facing its greatest space-related job dislocation since the Apollo program was ended in the early 1970s. This follows the departure of most of the state’s commercial space-launch industry within the last decade, as U.S. rocket makers found themselves unable to compete on price or schedule with European and Russian services.

Florida received what most perceived as more bad news last February, when U.S. President Barack Obama announced plans to cancel Constellation, a collection of hardware development programs intended to replace the shuttle and eventually take U.S. astronauts back to the Moon. Constellation had been expected to replace a good portion of the jobs being lost to shuttle’s retirement.

But even as Congress pushed back against Obama’s plan to rely on emerging commercial services for astronaut transport to and from low Earth orbit, drafting legislation that requires NASA to build its own crew launching vehicles, Space Florida, whose mission is to promote aerospace economic development in the state, got behind it. Frank DiBello, a space industry veteran specializing in financing, reasons that any state or region that becomes too dependent on a single program inevitably goes through what Florida is facing, and says the state’s aerospace industry must diversify.

Tapped in May 2009 to lead the organization, DiBello has set an ambitious goal of tripling Florida’s aerospace industry work force over the next 10 years. That is a tall order under the circumstances, especially given the struggles Space Florida’s legacy organizations have had in attracting new space-related commerce to the state.

DiBello is pinning his hopes not only on NASA but on other agencies like the U.S. Department of Defense as well as emerging commercial space services. He also says Florida’s skilled space work force can adapt readily to aviation and related businesses that he hopes will be attracted to all that Florida has to offer.

Space Florida’s budget went from less than $4 million in 2009 to $31 million in 2010, but DiBello says he is not out to expand his organization. Rather, he says, he’s looking to use those resources as well as various financing tools at his disposal — loan guarantees among them — to help close deals that will bring more aerospace business to the state.

DiBello spoke recently with members of the Space News editorial staff.

There are roughly 14,000 shuttle-related jobs in Florida. What percentage of those would get replaced by the president’s plan to rely on the commercial sector to ferry astronauts to and from low Earth orbit?

The future for Florida and for the work force lies in looking beyond NASA. Certainly there’ll be a space program associated with NASA, but for too long in Florida the space program has been identified with what NASA was doing and in fact it’s much larger than that: There’s a very strong Defense Department component. There will continue to be a civil agency component to include NASA and the others, but there’s also a significant commercial component. So the state’s future lies in diversification of its space industry across all of the sectors associated with those three general marketplaces.

Hasn’t the commercial space industry left Florida?

If we only look at it as commercial satellite launch, the nation has lost that business to France and to Russia and others. And I believe that can be brought back, I clearly do. And I think we’re going to have to get very competitive, not only in the satellite construction industry but in the launch industry.

I think you can increase capacity to launch Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicles, but the real future lies in the introduction of a whole new class of launch vehicles that can be introduced at competitive pricing.

You are referring to Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) with the Falcon 9?

SpaceX class, but I expect Taurus 2 to be there and there are a number of others as well. There’s the Athena family, there’s a Minotaur class of rockets, there are a number of systems being proposed that represent international collaborations that use engines from one country with systems from another, and I think you’re going to see a number of those being introduced into the marketplace. But you’re still dealing with a relatively flat market, which is why I think you need to position for the new players that are coming along that are going to want to do suborbital research.

What is the timing of the layoffs associated with the retirement of the space shuttle?

There are actually 9,135 shuttle workers in the contractor work force and of those, we can expect that we’re probably going to lose somewhere between 5,000 and 7,000 in total. There are maybe — and I’m guessing on the number — 1,500 that have gradually been let go through volunteer programs up to this point. There is a schedule for layoffs that will occur, the schedule keeps changing as a function of the shuttle launch slipping to the right, but I can expect to see some go in February and then a number go probably when the last shuttle flight occurs. But then there’s a work force that has to be retained to handle the transition and retirement program, which will go 18 months from wheels down on the last shuttle flight.

Do you have any idea what kind of number we’re talking about there?

It could be 1,500 to 2,000. I don’t have an accurate number. Now if you talk to shuttle operator United Space Alliance (USA), they have business initiatives that they’re working on. There is uncertainty about exactly what the next-generation space program assignments are going to be but it is clear to me that there will be a number of assignments provided to the Kennedy Space Center work force, so I think that just from the civil space program alone there will be some climb out of that valley created by the shuttle layoffs.

There had been some talk about using part of the USA work force for depot maintenance. Is there anything to that idea?

There’s a lot to that. If you look at what the shuttle logistics depot was, it was created because there was such a limited number of shuttle vehicles and it was impossible to keep the supply chain alive over 40 or 30 years. So this logistics depot was set up with all the equipment necessary: They control almost 30,000 parts that are in the shuttle, so they have a tremendous skill in managing the documentation for 30,000 parts; they have a capability to do what I call fault isolation, identification and repair in electronics, some of which are 20 years old, using software code that isn’t even used anymore. They make windshields, they make a lot of the components that are used on the shuttle on a continuous basis. They also have a tremendous capability to manage or to produce items that may be unsupported by the depot system right now, and there are a number of those.

Such as?

Remotely piloted vehicles. There are a lot of the sensor packages and other things that frequently are supported by the provider but in the field, there’s a lot right now that’s not assigned to any particular depot. So we’re looking for opportunities where the state would be willing to step up and re-outfit facilities to keep that work-force capability in place.

Are there any other opportunities related to aviation?

Florida has always been an aviation state. It’s got great weather, an abundance of facilities to train pilots, it is a strong state for maintenance and repair operations of all kinds of aircraft and we’ve been winning work. You take the work force and the business environment and Florida’s got a lot to bring to the table. We just won a company, AAR, which is moving into Melbourne; Embraer is down there and several others are on the horizon who seek to take advantage of the kinds of skills and capabilities in the Florida work force and in the supplier base that’s around them.

Do you have any indication that people who have lost space-related jobs are catching on with aviation companies like Embraer and AAR?

Absolutely. And in fact, we’ve been able to apply on-the-job training dollars and other kinds of work-force retraining and reorientation dollars to taking workers that are available and moving them to the skill levels required for a lot of these companies.

What’s your reaction to the 2010 NASA Authorization Act, which directs the agency to build its own crew transport system while also nurturing the commercial sector?

I think this was a compromise based more on retaining work force and retaining capabilities in certain states than it was on getting NASA on a path that is sustainable. I’m very concerned that NASA is being asked to once again proceed down a path that’s not sustainable over the long term.

How many Florida jobs are associated with the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle?

Right now it’s about 450 but the plan was for a significant build up as they got into production. So we could see 1,000 people working on that project doing final check out and assembly. And they were talking about two a month moving through there.