CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — By May 1, the security fence around Kennedy Space Center (KSC) will be repositioned, opening access to a 9,000-square-meter space research laboratory owned and operated not by NASA, but by the state of Florida.
Florida also owns a 4,500-square-meter hangar at the south end of the Shuttle Landing Facility and has an agreement to take over one of the shuttle’s three processing hangars. The state’s space development agency, Space Florida, is interested in the other two shuttle hangars as well, along with a portion of the Vehicle Assembly Building, a few payload processing plants and a shuttle launch pad, among other facilities.
With the retirement of the space shuttles last year, Kennedy Space Center finds itself awash in excess facilities. The shuttle program’s demise, however, is bolstering state-backed initiatives to expand Florida’s aerospace business. Space Florida’s goal is to triple the size of the industry by 2020.
“We have a lot of excess capacity with the retirement of the space shuttle and we cannot afford to maintain all of those facilities,” Kennedy Space Center Director Bob Cabana said. “We have a very good partnership with the state of Florida through Space Florida and we’re working on growing that to figure out how we can utilize this capacity.”
NASA’s goal is to turn its premier launch site into a multiuse facility where government, commercial and other entities can prepare spacecraft for launch, fly their rockets and in some cases bring them back to Earth.
“We want to see smoke and fire at the Kennedy Space Center, preferably from a rocket going uphill,” Cabana said. “We want to enable that as quickly as we can and part of that is enabling commercial space.”
Not everything at the Florida spaceport is up for grabs. NASA is developing the shuttle-derived heavy-lift Space Launch System, or, rocket and the Orion capsule to carry crews beyond low Earth orbit. Kennedy Space Center needs to be ready to support the first SLS test flight in 2017. It also is supporting industry efforts to design and test space taxis, with the goal of breaking Russia’s monopoly on flying crews to the international space station by 2017.
For now, the federal government is not giving away or selling any of the 56,000 hectares that comprise the Kennedy Space Center and the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge or the spaceport’s 900 facilities. Instead it is looking into a variety of agreements, partnerships, use permits, leases and other mechanisms to transfer what is not needed by present and planned NASA programs to other government agencies, private companies and educational institutes. “We have a lot in the pipeline,” Joyce Riquelme, manager of Kennedy Space Center’s Planning and Development Office, said.
Kennedy Space Center already has several direct agreements with businesses in place. Florida Power & Light, for example, operates a solar energy plant on 24 hectares of NASA land. Privately held Starfighters Inc. has an agreement to fly its high-performance fighter aircraft off the shuttle’s no-longer-used runway. The company also is leasing part of the Space Florida-owned hangar.
There are advantages for NASA to partner with Space Florida, which has an array of financing tools at its disposal, as well as more freedom to construct facilities. “We think in the long haul there will be some partnership where Space Florida becomes a concessionaire, but we haven’t fully developed those concepts,” Riquelme said.
“We’re not taking over Kennedy Space Center,” Space Florida President and Chief Executive Frank DiBello said. “There’s no plans for a Space Florida-run spaceport. But we will manage a lot of space facilities, especially as they become available. The whole idea is to turn that capacity into multiple, alternative users.
“It could at some point be managed by Space Florida or by a federal spaceport authority in the long-range future. But in the near-term, our goal is to make some key investments that can facilitate commercial operators that want to expand use of facilities within the Kennedy Space Center.”
The transformation of the Florida spaceport began well before the shuttles’ retirement last year and will continue many years into the future.
“It’s been a tough mental change, but finally all senior leaders have bought into the vision that we need the commercial guys,” Riquelme said. “Just launching the SLS every two years, that’s not the best future we can have.”
“If I had a real goal for the Kennedy Space Center in the far-out future, we truly would be a spaceport like an international airport, only we’d be an international spaceport,” Cabana said. “We’d have government and commercial operations. We’d be utilizing the Shuttle Landing Facility as a horizontal launch and landing capability for suborbital flights as well as for horizontal launch of orbital missions. We’d be processing payloads and satellites.
“Maybe at some point NASA won’t even own or run the Kennedy Space Center — we’ll just be a tenant here and it’ll be some commercial or state-run or spaceport authority that’s in charge here.”