Saturday, July 12, 2014

Spaced Florida

Click the arrow to watch on YouTube the February 10, 2014 hearing on KSC facility utilization.

On July 9, the Federal Aviation Administration issued its environmental impact Record of Decision recommending that the FAA “issue launch licenses and/or experimental permits to SpaceX to conduct launches of the Falcon Program vehicles and a variety of reusable suborbital launch vehicles from the proposed launch site” at Boca Chica, Texas, outside Brownsville.

According to the Valley Morning Star article by Emma Perez-Treviño:

This latest clearance allows Elon Musk’s SpaceX to apply for licenses from the FAA to launch, from the Boca Chica site, the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy orbital vertical launch rockets — which also could carry the Dragon capsule — and a variety of smaller, reusable suborbital launch vehicles.

SpaceX spokeswoman Hannah Post said Wednesday that the Boca Chica site “remains a finalist for SpaceX’s development of a commercial orbital launch complex and SpaceX appreciates the FAA’s commitment and work in developing today’s Record of Decision. There remain several criteria that will need to be met before SpaceX makes a decision. We are hopeful that these will be complete in the near future.”

According to the Record of Decision, “SpaceX considered sites in Puerto Rico, Florida, and Texas (City of McGregor, Kenedy County, Willacy County, and other properties in Cameron County). None of the alternative sites sufficiently met SpaceX’s criteria; therefore, they were not evaluated in detail in the EIS.”

The day before, in Cape Canaveral, Space Florida CEO Frank DiBello told a National Space Club audience that if the Space Coast couldn't learn to become more competitive, the emerging “NewSpace” industry would continue to go elsewhere.

Space Florida fosters “the growth and development of a sustainable and world-leading space industry in Florida” by, among other means, arranging to lease unused federal government facilities to the private sector.

According to the Florida Today article by James Dean:

Space Florida CEO Frank DiBello said he expects Texas to announce within a week or two that SpaceX will build a privately operated pad near Brownsville for launches of commercial satellites.

DiBello said he was not angry at SpaceX, which will continue to launch government payloads from here and whose CEO, Elon Musk, was making a business decision about where he could best serve commercial customers.

“I am mad as hell, however, that we could not offer him a comparable alternative business site and environment here in time,” said DiBello. “That is ... something that has to change.”

That change may be coming soon. Involuntarily if need be.

This morning's Florida Today had an article by James Dean reporting that U.S. Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) and other members of the Florida congressional delegation are calling in the big guns to force recalcitrant locals to change the status quo.

Nelson summoned the Secretary of the Air Force, NASA's associate administrator and head of the Federal Aviation Administration to his office in April to study a map of Cape Canaveral and discuss options at Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, and has been receiving status reports since.

The meeting followed a February hearing on underutilized infrastructure at the Cape, during which U.S. Rep. Bill Posey asked local space leaders: If not at Shiloh, where could you accommodate an independent launch range?

And last month, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio urged Kennedy Space Center Director Bob Cabana to ensure the center's plans do not “deter or hamper commercial space entities from making full use of the facility and other potential launch sites in Florida.”

The discussions highlight challenges Space Florida faces as it seeks approval to build one or two pads on former orange groves at the north end of KSC and the refuge, a proposal environmentalists strongly oppose.

An artist's concept of a possible launch complex at Shiloh. Image source: Space Florida.

Local opposition cites the abandoned launch pads at CCAFS, and points to vacant land at KSC, but ignores the main reason why NewSpace looks elsewhere — the entrenched bureaucracies at both government-owned facilities don't want to give up the control they have.

According to today's article:

Responding in writing to Posey's question earlier this year, Brig. Gen. Nina Armagno, commander of the 45th Space Wing, said locating an independent launch range on Air Force property “is not operationally feasible.”

She also said the Air Force is working with future government and commercial customers “who desire the security, infrastructure and existing range capabilities the 45th Space Wing provides.”

Just my opinion, but I think SpaceX would disagree with her.

Which is why they're going to Texas.

The “security” argument, in my opinion, doesn't seem to have much merit any more. Military payloads launch from the Cape on commercial rockets, but what is the security threat? The payloads are encased in fairings, so no one can observe them on the pad. No one can enter the Cape without a badge, and that badge requires a background check. “Security” has nothing to do with a sclerotic bureaucracy that goes out of its way to make things difficult for someone with fresh ideas. It's a lot easier to say “no” and cite fifty-year old regulations than to change the culture.

When I moved to the Space Coast in 2009, I couldn't understand why the local economy hadn't diversified once it was notified in 2004 by the Bush administration that the Space Shuttle program would end once the International Space Station was completed circa 2010.

The commercial space idea began with the Bush administration and, by the time Barack Obama took office in January 2009, the commercial cargo program was well on its way. Under Bush's original Vision for Space Exploration proposal sent to Congress in February 2004, commercial companies would deliver cargo to the International Space Station, while a government vehicle would deliver people to ISS and eventually beyond Earth orbit to the Moon.

That government program, called Constellation, fell years behind schedule and went billions over budget. In August 2009, the Government Accountability Office issued a report concluding Constellation lacked “a sound business case” and had yet to solve several key technical problems.

Rather than continuing to sink money into a failed program, the Obama administration in early 2010 proposed cancelling Constellation, and replacing it by funding a commercial crew program along the lines of commercial cargo.

Some have claimed that Constellation was going to save all the Shuttle jobs, but that's patently false. United Space Alliance, a partnership of Boeing and Lockheed Martin that was the primary Shuttle contractor, laid off about 7,000 jobs at KSC. Constellation jobs would not materialize for many years, as the first operational Ares I flight wasn't planned until 2017.

Rather than adapting to a new era, the local unions desperately tried to save the status quo, even though the Shuttle's supply chain had long since been shut down. At a Feburary 27, 2010 rally, union members demanded their soon-to-be obsolete jobs be protected. According to Nancy Atkinson of Universe Today:

Speakers included union and community leaders, and each began with the words, “I’m one of the faces of the Space Coast, my family is worth fighting for, my community is worth fighting for, my job is worth fighting for.”

Some people at the rally held signs demanding Obama be impeached — even though the Shuttle's demise had been proposed by President Bush in 2004 and affirmed by Congress later that year.

The February 27, 2010 rally in Titusville demanding that Shuttle jobs be protected. Image source: Universe Today.

On March 11, 2010, a bizarre Florida Today editorial demanded that President Obama pass a federal law forcing commercial companies to launch from the Space Coast!

The plans call for spending $2 billion there the next several years to turn it into a 21st-century spaceport, but to what end? There's no guarantee commercial companies would fly from KSC and, with Constellation dead, the historic launch pads could become a ghost town.

The president should make KSC the commercial hub and mandate it in his policy.

With this attitude of entitlement pervasive in local politics, is it any wonder that four years later the Space Coast is losing NewSpace companies to other locations?

The editorial claimed that introducing competition into the launch industry “could drive Brevard County's 12.7 percent unemployment rate to 17 percent or higher.” That turned out to be false; according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the Brevard County unemployment rate topped out at 11.8% in January 2010 (during the Great Recession) and a year later began to decline from 11.3% in January 2011.

Florida Today claimed that competition would lessen Obama's chances of winning Florida in the 2012 election, “because of the catastrophic cuts coming in space jobs.” But far more residents were registered Republican than Democrat, so it was unlikely this would make a difference. In 2008, Obama lost Brevard County 54.5% to 44.2%. In 2012, he lost Brevard County 55.6% to 42.9%. Statewide, in 2008 Obama won Florida 50.9% to 48.1%; in 2012, Obama won Florida 50.0% to 49.1%.

Once again, the message was delivered ... Despite the air of self-importance and entitlement among some in the local political and union communities, the reality is that space jobs don't mean much at the state and federal levels.

A more fundamental concern is the notion that a government space program exists only to protect union and government contractor jobs.

Certainly there's nothing in the 1958 National Aeronautics and Space Act, NASA's charter, that requires it to be a workfare program for obsolete job skills.

Competition is a basic tenet of capitalism, and I find it ironic that a conservative county that claims to embrace free enterprise would prefer to drive away free enterprise rather than change with the times.

An artist's concept of a Stratolaunch at the former Shuttle runway. Image source:

Space Florida has made a lot of progress in the four years since 2010's melodrama. It has arranged to lease many KSC and CCAFS facilities to a number of private companies.

Several horizontal launch companies have expressed interest in KSC's former Shuttle landing runway, but on July 5 Florida Today reported that “after more than a year of discussion, a deal to transfer control of the former shuttle runway — arguably the centerpiece of KSCs transformation into a multi-user spaceport — remains months away.”

James Dean wrote:

NASA says it shares the state’s goal to turn the runway into a hub for horizontal rocket launches and landings.

Scott Colloredo, head of KSC’s Planning and Development office, said ongoing negotiations involved “strategic questions concerning how we’re going to operate in the future.”

“In transforming to a multi-user spaceport, NASA needs to ensure that our partners are given operational flexibility they desire while protecting the future interests of the agency,” he said. “Finding that balance is critical to a successful partnership, and typically takes time to finalize all terms and conditions.”

It's heartening to see a bipartisan effort by Florida's two U.S. senators, as well as Brevard County's congressional representative, to lean on executives further up the bureaucratic chain of command who have the authority to overcome local recalcitrance.

But it's disheartening that, four years later, some folks here would rather watch the local aerospace economy wither and die than yield to a new generation with fresh ideas.

UPDATE July 13, 2014Bright House News 13 reports on SpaceX commercial launches moving to Boca Chica:

“We kind of have known it's coming for a while,” said Dale Ketcham, of Space Florida. “But it's still going to be traumatic and not insignificant disappointment.”

Just last week, SpaceX cleared a Federal Aviation Administration environmental review at the potential launch complex. The Brownsville site means commercial satellites, like the one set to launch Monday from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, will eventually be launched from Texas instead of Florida.

It's a sign that Florida's Space Coast may be losing its grip as America's go-to place for launching missions to space. Virginia is launching NASA missions to the International Space station.

“It is naïve for us to assume the loss of SpaceX commercial activity to Texas is not a significant blow to our plans and our future,” Ketcham said. “It is. And our job is to be aggressive as possible seeing to it that more of that work doesn't leave and next year, somebody is announcing they're going to Georgia.”

UPDATE July 15, 2014Emma Perez-Treviño of the Valley Morning Star reports that Space Florida acknowledges they've lost SpaceX to Boca Chica.

“It’s part of the process,” Space Florida’s Chief of Strategic Alliances Dale Ketcham said Monday in a telephone interview. “Eventually, space will continue to grow to be a very large marketplace and Florida, regardless of what happens, we are going to continue to compete and get our share.”

In summing up the likelihood that the commercial launches won’t be in Florida, Ketcham said, “You win some, you lose some.”

He conceded that Florida lost this round and his organization is not happy about it, but he added, “You’re not supposed to be happy when you lose.”

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