CAP CANAVERAL, Florida – In 2004, when outgoing President George W. Bush announced that NASA would end space exploration at the end of the decade, the region that for 50 years was a hub major for space travel has become worried. his future.
The Florida Space Coast, as we have known for a long time, had already been affected by the longest recession in US history. The decision to end government space travel resulted in the loss of 30,000 jobs in Brevard County. The unemployment rate, which was about 3% in 2006, reached 12% in 2010.
But as the community prepared for the end of an era with the final launch of Atlantis on July 8, 2011, a plan was already underway to boost the economic future of the region.
The community began soliciting private companies to take advantage of the dilapidated facilities that were once the launch pads for Apollo missions.
"When we learned that the shuttle was going to retire, we had a few years to seize to seize these new opportunities," said Lynda Weatherman, President and CEO of the Space Coast Economic Development Commission.
Space Florida, a state-funded agency, and its partners, have seen a unique opportunity to preserve the space industry by securing funding and infrastructure upgrades to provide commercial customers with the opportunity to get started. in manned space flight.
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NASA had to face a harsh reality after the withdrawal of the shuttle: if the US wanted to send humans back into space, they would have to pay Russia more than $ 75 million per seat on one of their spaceships. To circumvent this problem, the state has recruited private companies through partnerships to transport NASA astronauts to the International Space Station.
In 2014, Tesla founder Elon Musk SpaceX and Boeing received $ 2.6 billion and $ 4.2 billion in contracts to develop space taxis, respectively.
Suffering from major budget cuts, NASA has repositioned a launch site to a location where satellites and satellites could be assembled and built, thus hosting an entire supply chain. of manufacturers in the economy of the region.
"We took a critical look at our future and determined that our best path to success was to diversify to include commercial spaces and the government space activities we are planning here," said Tom Engler, Planning Manager. and director of development at NASA's John F. Kennedy Space Center. "We went out and started looking for partnerships with commercial space companies … which is a big change from how we do business here."
By 2018, 21 companies had signed agreements to create up to 3,000 high-paying jobs in the area, according to Space Florida. In return, the state offered grants to build infrastructure and make Florida a prime location.
"Before, everything was built and designed elsewhere, and then came here for the launch," said Dale Ketchum, Vice President of Government and External Affairs for Space Florida. "We no longer rely on the federal government as the sole customer."
The space industry has also changed. Space no longer revolves around government programs. It is now a commercial industry and new technologies, such as reusable rockets and small satellites, are causing it.
"The race for space that has driven our previous success is coming back, but in a different format," Ketchum said.
He calls this change a "renaissance" dictated by the business enterprise, reducing costs, generating more launches and jobs, a plan much more sustainable, he said.
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Today, affluent investors have formed dozens of private launch companies along Cape Canaveral, the Florida coastal area east of Orlando, which includes the Kennedy Space Center and Cape Air Base. Canaveral.
Texas-based Firefly Aerospace was the last company to announce its move. One of the nine companies selected by NASA last year to compete for $ 2.6 billion to develop lunar exploration robots with a $ 52 million development project with more than 200 jobs.
Firefly joins a long list of prestigious neighbors such as SpaceX, Blue Origin, OneWeb, a communications company building a satellite manufacturing plant, United Launch Alliance and RUAG Space USA, among others.
"I think people recognize that there really is a business opportunity in space. You can actually make money in space, "said Mark Watt, Founder and Director of Firefly Aerospace. "It's not just a matter of national pride. It's not fair "we're going to go to the moon because it's hard", but we can go to the moon because we can make money. "
Last year, 20 launches took place in the region and companies plan to launch more than two additional dozens by 2020. In comparison, the shuttle program launched 135 missions over the course of the year. of his 30 years of existence.
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"The industry as a whole is going through a very exciting time. We are seeing a much larger industrial base for elevators and greater commercialization of space, "said Tory Bruno, President and CEO of United Launch Alliance, a private company that builds and launches military payloads, commercial and NASA.
Watt said companies chose Florida for many reasons, rather than for other American space sports in California, Alaska and Virginia.
"Florida is geographically blessed with its location and its coastline and it's a perfect path for fly from space, he says.
The Sunshine State is also the only state in the country capable of launching human activities and Watt has stated that its available workforce, pre-existing infrastructure, facilities and competitive financial program on the part State had made this choice a no-brainer.
Colleges and universities in Central Florida are also fueling the Space Coast's appetite for a skilled workforce.
"The University of Central Florida provides more engineering students to the aerospace industry than any other university in the country," Ketchum said.
As the industry undergoes profound changes, experts say Florida is better positioned than ever to become a world leader in space racing.
"NASA is doing very well, but the federal government can do it faster, cheaper and better," said Ketchum. "Florida is pretty well placed to drive this train at least for this country, if not for the world."
In 2018, President Trump proposed that the Space Force become the sixth branch of the military, which the Republican governor of Florida, Ron DeSantis, had asked at his headquarters in the Sunshine State. This could be another potential boost for the space industry.
But it will be up to Congress to approve the initiative.
NASA and its commercial partners plan to launch the first American-made US satellite since 2011 over the next year. It is estimated that the launch will take place around the time the United States celebrates the 50th anniversary of Apollo's lunar landing.