Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Assets and Liabilities

Click the arrow to watch the hearing on YouTube. It runs about two hours. Video source: SpaceKSC.com.

Congress came to the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex on February 10, not as tourists but to assess the future of KSC facilities.

Although the topic was “Assessing NASA's Underutilized Property Assets,” some viewed it as the opening salvo in this week's battle over the proposed Space Florida commercial spaceport at Shiloh. The Federal Aviation Administration will hold public hearings today in New Smyrna Beach, and tomorrow in Titusville.

The hearing organizers may have anticipated a Shiloh dust-up when they sat side-by-side Jim Kuzma from Space Florida, and Charles Lee from the Audubon Society.

The more significant message for the future of the federal space program is that the members of this Congressional panel understand the days of OldSpace are over.

In his concluding remarks, Rep. Bill Posey (R-FL) was quite blunt that the old ways of doing business have to change:

There was a time when America virtually had a monopoly on commercial space. A hundred percent of the satellites fundamentally were launched from right here. Under the old business model with NASA and the Air Force, we basically choked the Golden Goose to death with red tape and over-regulation, launch fees and other disincentives. Many in the commercial space industry found it much more advantageous to operate in other countries, where in fact instead of overregulating and essentially taxing the commercial space industry, they subsidized it. Pretty soon, we became not very competitive and we went from a hundred percent of the world's commercial launch business to probably less than ten percent.

Rep. Posey didn't mention the legal monopoly granted United Launch Alliance in 2006, to assure that Boeing and Lockheed Martin didn't exit the launch business. The result was the commercial satellite industry went overseas to find more affordable alternatives.

In December and January, SpaceX launched the first two commercial satellites from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (CCAFS) since 2009, attracting the industry back to the Cape with lower prices due to a more competitive business model.

Several members acknowledged a general lack of interest within Congress to increase NASA funding, a refreshing honesty from the usual rhetoric heard on the House and Senate space subcommittees. Those panels are loaded with members who represent districts and states that have NASA facilities and/or contractors. Those committees typically order NASA to direct limited resources to their districts, but don't provide adequate funding to execute programs on time or on budget.

A prime example is the Space Launch System, known as the Senate Launch System to its critics. SLS went all but unmentioned by this panel, which consisted mainly of members of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. Rep. Candice Miller (R-MI) represented the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, and Rep. Posey was included because KSC and CCAFS are within his district.

All five attending members are Republicans, but for a change partisanship was left back in the District of Columbia.

This panel's purpose wasn't to protect OldSpace, but to hasten the arrival of NewSpace by removing bureaucratic obstacles to releasing federal properties to the private sector.

Shiloh can be viewed as a surplus federal asset, which is why it was a large part of this event.

A 1963 map showing five projected launch pads at Kennedy Space Center. Image source: NASA.

The proposed site was included within KSC's boundaries when the government acquired the land in the early 1960s. Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge (MINWR) was created about the same time, sharing roughly the same borders as KSC, so that development would not encroach on launch operations.

Projected launch pads north of State Route 402, known locally as the Max Brewer Memorial Highway, never materialized but the land remained within NASA's purview.

Commercial companies launching from pads at KSC or CCAFS would be under bureaucratic restrictions imposed by those agencies, and much of the discussion during the hearing was about how to remove those obstacles. Moving outside their jurisdiction — the Shiloh approach — is one option, although panel members also discussed ways to direct those agencies to streamline their bureaucracy. The latter option would seem less preferable, because KSC/CCAFS tenants would have to wait while government launches took priority.

Charles Lee, the Director of Advocacy for Audubon Florida, said he believes it's time to transfer all land north of SR-402 to the Department of the Interior's Fish and Wildlife Service. For land south of SR-402, “we believe that a maximum effort needs to be made to repurpose those properties for use by the private space industry, and for Space Florida.” Lee said that Congress should assure the government bureaucracy doesn't force private industry into “the pristine areas” of MINWR.

The problem with the latter argument is that Space Florida has repeatedly stated they don't intend to use “pristine areas.” Parts of MINWR were once a citrus plantation, long ago abandoned. The name “Shiloh” comes from the farming community located near the site that was demolished when NASA bought the land in the early 1960s. NASA still maintains some facilities in the area.

Lee also questioned the legitimacy of Space Florida's claims that the bureaucracy is an impediment, citing current negotiations between NASA and SpaceX for Pad 39A. Lee did not reveal how it is that he might have any inside information on the status of these negotations which have been ongoing for months. He also ignores the many public statements by SpaceX founder Elon Musk that his company will take commercial launches to Brownsville, Texas and elsewhere if they cannot escape federally controlled facilities in the Space Coast. SpaceX intends to use Pad 39A for NASA missions, such as commercial cargo and crew runs to the International Space Station, so Mr. Lee's claim is irrelevant for commercial payloads.

Rep. Miller questioned the wisdom of Lee's suggestion that lands north of SR-402 be withdrawn from NASA control.

I think that could be very short-sighted by the nation. I think that, optimally, the space program will begin really ratcheting back up at some point. I mean, there's always an ebb and flow to these kinds of things.

The Environmental Impact Statement scoping hearings in Brevard County this week may not have as much impact on the decision-making process as some may think. An EIS report identifies the potential environmental consequences of an action; it does not prohibit them. Even if the EIS finds that wildlife will be harmed by a commercial spaceport at Shiloh, Space Florida may still proceed; it will be up to the licensing agencies. In this instance, the FAA is the lead federal agency, although other agencies will participate. To quote from the FAA web site:

Space Florida will be required to obtain a Launch Site Operator License from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Office of Commercial Space Transportation for the operation of the proposed Shiloh Launch Complex. The FAA is the lead Federal agency for preparing an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) in accordance with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and National Park Service are cooperating agencies. The EIS will evaluate the potential environmental impacts of the proposal (both operations and construction) and the No Action Alternative.

An artist's concept of the Shiloh commercial spaceport. Image source: Space Florida.

Space Florida Vice President and Chief Operating Officer Jim Kuzma said he believed the EIS report would be available around July 2015, “which actually aligns to one of our commercial customers looking to that as an option for their launch site.” He did not say who the tenant might be; a Space Florida artist's concept of Shiloh shows two pads, one for a horizontal integration operator (such as SpaceX) and the other for vertical integration.

Near the end of the hearing, panel chair Rep. John Mica (F-FL) raised the possibility of a commercial site south of SR-402. KSC Director Bob Cabana said the center's master plan looked at a possible location north of Pad 39B — “you can call it 39C” — that would be south of SR-402. Audubon's Mr. Lee indicated his support for the so-called 39C, and in a post-event media gathering Mica suggested this solution might be an effective compromise.

It's possible that 39C might find its way into the EIS as an alternative, and into anti-Shiloh rhetoric, but I doubt events will wait for government funding to materialize for 39C.

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