Q&A with Frank DiBello: Serving Industry and State
Profile | Frank DiBello
President and Chief Executive, Space Florida
Chairman of the Board, Commercial Spaceflight Federation
Frank DiBello works for both a state and an industry.
In one role, he leads Space Florida, the state’s space development agency. That includes attracting more space companies to set up operations in Florida, such as the Sept. 15 announcement that Blue Origin will build and launch orbital vehicles from Cape Canaveral. Space Florida has also taken on its own operations, finalizing an agreement with NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in June to take over the Shuttle Landing Facility (SLF) runway, with plans to turn it into a commercial launch site. Space Florida also announced in July that Orbital ATK will carry out a Minotaur launch from Launch Complex 46, a Cape Canaveral pad it operates.
DiBello also supports the broader commercial space industry as chairman of the board of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation (CSF), a position to which he was re-elected Sept. 23. The CSF, an industry group with more than 60 member organizations, is involved in efforts ranging from developing industry-consensus standards to advocating for funding for NASA’s commercial crew program and the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) Office of Commercial Space Transportation. It was also assigned recommendations by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) dealing with commercial spaceflight safety in the board’s investigation into last October’s SpaceShipTwo accident.
DiBello spoke recently with SpaceNews senior staff writer Jeff Foust about his work with both Space Florida and the CSF.
What role did Space Florida take in luring Blue Origin to Cape Canaveral?
In many respects, we led it. Organizationally within Florida, the governor leads economic development activities, but almost all of the dialogue was driven by making our facilities available to them. We have Launch Complex 36 under license, and we’re negotiating a sublicense with them to build their spaceport capabilities there.
The same thing is true with Exploration Park, where they will build their manufacturing facility. We control Exploration Park through an enhanced use lease with NASA signed five or six years ago. We had been developing that so it was shovel-ready, and we’re working with a number of tenants. We’re the primary interface for the development of that project.
How long did the negotiations with Blue Origin take?
Well over a year. It’s been going on a while. Most of these deals take that long.
Now that Blue Origin is going to use Launch Complex 36, what is the future of Space Florida’s plans for a separate commercial launch site at Shiloh, north of KSC?
Shiloh was a response to a commercial market interest from launch companies who are seeking launch capabilities and a flexible commercial operations environment that is not on federal property. I will continue to pursue Shiloh, because that represents future capabilities, but we are achieving great success with the Air Force and NASA to get a more flexible operations environment at the Cape. We still have a way to go, but from the leadership of Air Force Space Command on down, they’re very much on board.
Another recent milestone for Space Florida was to conclude an agreement with NASA to take over operations of the Shuttle Landing Facility at KSC. What is the next step?
Space Florida is a spaceport development authority in addition to being a spaceport operator. So in the development authority role, we are working with some 12 potential tenants to eventually come to the Shuttle Landing Facility, build the facilities to support their operations, and actually operate there.
Do you expect each company to build its own facilities, or will you develop infrastructure for multiple companies to use?
Perhaps both. The reason I made the distinction between us being a development authority as well as a spaceport operator is that in one, we’re setting the rules of the road and making sure that the utilities and the support are there for anyone who wants to operate there; in the other, we’re assisting tenants with the development of infrastructure. That may be in partnership with them, or it may be on our own, depending on market need. We’re going to have to put fundamental infrastructure in place because right now we’re dealing with just a landing strip.
You were in negotiations with KSC for a long time. What took so long?
I think to take on a storied piece of infrastructure like the Shuttle Landing Facility, and to advance it to become a world-class next-generation spaceport facility, required that we have full commercial development rights and be able to operate it on what I find to be very acceptable commercial operating terms. Creating the mindset for a commercial development agreement is what I think took a lot of the time, but I think we’re pleased with the outcome. Both the Kennedy Space Center and NASA Headquarters cooperated fully to evolve an agreement that we can live with and make viable in the commercial marketplace.
Where are you in terms of getting an FAA spaceport license?
That process has begun. I don’t have an estimate on timing. It’s more important that we have operators who will be flying, and that’s what we’re really driving towards.
What’s the status of efforts to bringing customers in?
I’m envisioning that over the next two-year period we’ll begin to populate the spaceport with tenants and facilities. Some of those agreements are in discussion now, while others are in the early stages. And there are some people operating out there now. We’re going to move everyone along, but we don’t have a definitive schedule for a particular company being in place on a particular date.
Do you have an idea of what sort of level of activity, and revenue, you need to sustain spaceport operations?
That’s a difficult thing to pin down, because the expense side of the equation ramps up with the customer presence side of the equation. So we’ll want to make sure that as we develop capabilities, we’re meeting our sustaining revenue requirements. For a while, I have the backing of the state to cover operations until we get revenues up to an appropriate level.
You’re working to bring small launch vehicles to Space Florida’s Launch Complex 46, but KSC recently opened its own small launch pad, Launch Complex 39C. Are you competing with KSC there, or can you coexist?
I don’t look at them as competitors. I think the marketplace is the one that determines that. In the end, you want to be responsive to the marketplace. We’re going to be actively working with them on Launch Complex 39C to find customers for that activity, because the overall Cape advances when we do that. So I don’t look at NASA as a competitor, but much more as a partner.
How involved is Space Florida with the activities at Cecil Field in Jacksonville, which is also a licensed spaceport?
Part of the role that we have as the state’s spaceport development authority, which is different from operating the spaceport at the Shuttle Landing Facility or the larger Cape Canaveral spaceport, is to make sure that the state has the infrastructure that it needs and to ensure a consistency of policy, safety assurance and operational compatibility among the various spaceport assets of the state. In the end, it’s about Florida meeting marketplace need, and that’s the charge that we have from the legislature.
How would you avoid at least an appearance of a conflict of interest, since you’re promoting space in the whole state but also operating a specific spaceport?
It goes back to the marketplace determining that. Customers should go where they get the best set of operating conditions. That includes the cost, the availability of resources, the talent pool, the supply chain and the operational flexibility that they need to thrive. I’m indifferent as to whether they’re operating at Cape Canaveral or Cecil Field or the Titusville facility [Space Coast Regional Airport, which is also seeking spaceport status]. In fact, I see them as all mutually compatible.
As we increase the number of people flying, especially the horizontal players, having operational flexibility for takeoff and landing is going to be very important for their business models. So I’m actually pleased that we have multiple site offerings for the marketplace. We’re going to do everything we can for Titusville and Cecil Field to find customers and service their needs.
What are you doing in the broader view of supporting the state’s space industry?
When the announcement came that the shuttle was going to be retired, we initially focused on mitigating that impact and bringing in what I call replacement industries. Part of that strategy was to diversify the industry and to build the supply chain. While we continue to be interested in launch, we are increasingly interested in the stuff at the pointy end of the rocket, and all the ground support equipment that makes it work. Florida has always had strong capabilities there but now we are looking at satellite manufacturing and growing the satellite design, development and manufacturing industry.
What specifically is going on in the area of satellite manufacturing?
There are some 12 satellite constellations that are out there, and we’ve certainly had dialogue with some about setting up operations in Florida. We can put together very attractive next-generation operating environments for these companies.
Moving on to your role in the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, the recent SpaceShipTwo accident report by the NTSB included a couple of specific recommendations for the CSF. Were you aware that the NTSB would mention you specifically in their report?
I don’t think we knew exactly what was going to be in the report. We’re thrilled that the NTSB is recognizing the CSF as a powerful and effective voice for the industry. They see the CSF as a mechanism for helping to develop the guidelines that they so consistently referred to in the report. So we take those specific recommendations as a challenge. I think we’re looking forward to working with the FAA, as we have been.
What are the plans to implement the recommendations?
One of the committees we have focuses on the development of industry-generated standards, and our plan over time is to continue to produce guidance for industry and draft standards over time, which will be coordinated with the FAA’s Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee (COMSTAC). I think the COMSTAC, over time, will probably also give us guidance in what areas they might want to see prioritized by industry.
Self-governance by industry, when the industry is in a developmental stage, is the right way to go. They need the flexibility to continue to test and to fly and to learn and to even fail, but to learn from that failure. In any environment where you’re trying to create an environment of innovation, we need to encourage multiple attempts, and we need to console failure, not punish it.
With the recent accidents involving Orbital ATK, Virgin Galactic and SpaceX, are you worried about a negative perception for commercial space that may be developing?
I think it’s unfortunate that the industry has had a spate of accidents, but I don’t see that as a black mark on the industry at all. It’s quite the opposite. In each case, there is a comprehensive effort that goes on to identify the cause and remediate the failure. I think in the long run the industry will be better as it addresses any failures that occur.
What are CSF’s current legislative priorities, such as funding for NASA’s commercial crew program and the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation, as well as a new commercial space launch act?
Those three clearly are all there, and probably up at the top. We believe that the FAA does need an increase in funding. Their workload has not only increased in terms of license applications but also other things that they need to be doing to get ready. I think not funding that is penny-wise and pound-foolish.
And commercial crew?
The commercial crew program does need to have its funding needs met. There’s always been an inverse proportion between schedule and funding that’s recognized on Capitol Hill, and when you look at the SLS (Space Launch System) program or Orion, that argument has always been made. That same thing is true if we want commercial crew to be done on time. But Congress has a difficult job, and the appropriators in particular have some tight budget constraints that they’ve had to work with. So I do recognize that they’re doing the best that they can. I think I would much rather see commercial crew funding closer to the administration’s request of $1.2 billion than where it is now in both the House and the Senate.
Does the CSF prefer the House or Senate version of commercial launch legislation?
Just knowing the way things work, I suspect that the Senate version is likely to have greater sway in the conference. But that’s just a personal view of the way I’ve seen things work in the past. Any extension of the regulatory moratorium is good. We think longer is better than shorter. But the Congress may adopt a wait-and-see attitude, or make a decision to extend it for a while and come back at it.
What’s the long-term future of the CSF?
We want to be a credible voice for the industry. Membership is growing. What we’re realizing is that while we will mainly be a spaceflight organization, there is a larger community of interest from the utilization point of view or operators of spaceports, and even customers who have every reason to follow what’s happening in the industry.
I’m personally thrilled to see the industry growing. It’s been a focus of mine for a lot of years. I’m looking to see the industry grow even more.