Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The Bloom is Off the Rose

Existing and proposed vertical launch pads at Kennedy Space Center. Image source: NASA.

Florida Today posted an article August 23 about Space Florida's criticism of Kennedy Space Center's proposed master plan.

Unrealistic launch pad locations. Projects so vague no meaningful environmental review is possible. A business model that could discourage, rather than attract, new commercial launch activity at Kennedy Space Center.

Those are among significant concerns state officials identified with KSC's new 20-year master plan in a broad critique submitted as part of the plan's environmental review.

Space Florida said neither option being considered by NASA's environmental review — to adopt the master plan or not — represents "the best interests of either the nation or the State of Florida," and master plan revisions may be necessary.

Criticism of master plans is hardly new — pretty much every government master plan proposal is subject to second-guessing, parochialism and enlightened self-interest — but the Space Florida critique is more evidence of why SpaceX and other commercial enterprises may go elsewhere.

The letter also suggests that the bloom is off the rose in the budding courtship between Space Florida and NASA.

In early August, SpaceX announced its plan to build its own commercial spaceport at Boca Chica, Texas. Contrary to rumors being circulated here in Brevard County, SpaceX is not leaving Cape Canaveral Air Force Station or Kennedy Space Center. Those will still be used for government launches. Boca Chica will be for launching commercial customers, such as the recent AsiaSat missions at the CCAFS Launch Complex 40.

An August 3 Florida Today article reported that AsiaSat executives — some of whom are from China — were restricted in their access to LC-40 because of their nationality. Boca Chica isn't a military base, so security restrictions won't be a concern.

This is the main reason why commercial enterprises such as SpaceX are looking elsewhere. They don't want to have the federal government as a landlord.

So Space Florida was created by the Florida Legislature in 2006 “to foster the growth and development of a sustainable and world-leading aerospace industry in this state.”

(1) There is established, formed, and created Space Florida, which is created as an independent special district, a body politic and corporate, and a subdivision of the state, to foster the growth and development of a sustainable and world-leading aerospace industry in this state. Space Florida shall promote aerospace business development by facilitating business financing, spaceport operations, research and development, workforce development, and innovative education programs. Space Florida has all the powers, rights, privileges, and authority as provided under the laws of this state.

(2) In carrying out its duties and responsibilities, Space Florida shall advise, coordinate, cooperate, and, when necessary, enter into memoranda of agreement with municipalities, counties, regional authorities, state agencies and organizations, appropriate federal agencies and organizations, and other interested persons and groups.

You might be asking, “Why would a commercial enterprise find a state landlord any more attractive than a federal landlord?“ And that's a valid question.

According to the letter, the agency “has facilitated State and private capital market financing of more than $500 million in infrastructure improvements at the Cape Canaveral Spaceport, the majority of which have supplemented federal program funding in order to support major U.S. Government space mission needs.”

In many cases, Space Florida leases the facility from the federal agency, then becomes itself a lessor to a commercial company. One example is the former Orbiter Processing Facility 3 next to KSC's Vehicle Assembly Building.

The Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility (C3PF) near the Vehicle Assembly Building. Image source: Space Florida.

Space Florida has renovated the hangar and turned it into the Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility (C3PF), anticipating Boeing as a tenant with the CST-100 commercial crew vehicle. But Boeing has recently threatened to leave if it doesn't get an award in the next round, leaving Space Florida with no tenant.

In 2011, Space Florida and Bigelow Aerospace signed an agreement that could have led to the Bigelow expandable habitats and their customers launching from the Cape. But in February 2014 Bigelow representative Michael Gold said the company was looking at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport at Wallops, Virginia for launches.

Why not the Space Coast?

... Bigelow would like to use Virginia’s spaceport for future missions, Gold said, noting Wallops has advantages over other options available to private companies.

Kennedy Space Center in Florida has “so much activity that commercial activity will be bumped,” while developing a new launch facility takes years, he said.

“Wallops is just right; you’ve got everything you need in terms of legal and regulatory readiness, but it’s not so developed” that the company would encounter a lot of delays, Gold said.

In February 2014, a joint Congressional panel held a hearing at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex to discuss utilization of KSC and CCAFS assets.

Click the arrow to watch the Congressional hearing.

A major theme of the hearing was that potential commercial tenants chafe when restrained by a government landlord. Space Florida has tried to solve that problem by proposing a commercial spaceport on NASA property at the north end of KSC near Shiloh, an abandoned farm town near the Volusia County border. To escape the NASA bureaucracy, the land would be transferred to Space Florida — but it would still be a government landlord. Just a different government.

Where private companies see a government landlord, they also see the potential for subsidies, such as tax breaks or other incentives. Bigelow courting MARS could be the aerospace company playing two government agencies against one another to see who offers the sweetest deal.

The federal government can't do that, but Space Florida can.

There's also a cultural perception at the Cape that, whether it's KSC or CCAFS, commercial companies face intransigence from federal government bureaucrats who don't really like NewSpace because they perceive it as a threat to their long-ruled fiefdoms.

Space Florida is well aware of that, and that cultural conflict might be seen in how the KSC Master Plan ignores the Shiloh proposal.

NASA proposes instead its own new commercial pads north of the existing pads. These new pads are calling 39C and 39D.

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

NASA offers no clue as to how these pads will be funded. Several members at the February congressional hearing acknowledged a general lack of interest within Congress to increase NASA funding, so these new pads as well as other facilities may be no more than wishful thinking. The NASA pads also create the perception in the private sector that the Space Coast bureaucracy can't get its act together, that NASA and Space Florida aren't on the same page. In fact, the letter complains that “Space Florida was not consulted or engaged as a planning partner” in preparing the environmental study.

A July 5 Florida Today article reported that NASA and Space Florida have been unable to reach a lease agreement for the former Shuttle runway, after a year of negotiations. Space Florida has a number of potential customers in line for the runway, but NASA still wants to protect “the future interests of the agency.”

The bottom line is that NASA just can't let go — and the letter makes that quite clear.

A [Center Master Plan] that remains NASA-centric and fails to recognize the needs of its Florida stakeholders puts KSC's host state at high risk of becoming irrelevant in the changing commercial space industry, which will not wait until 2018, let alone 2032, before determining where it can best meet its business model for operational autonomy and commercial mission schedule priority.

If you're a NewSpace company looking to locate at the Cape, where do you begin? Space Florida? NASA? The Air Force?

The old guard clings to the Space Launch System as its raison d'être. This December, NASA will finally launch an Orion crew capsule, but it won't have anyone on board and it won't launch on the SLS. It's simply a demonstration flight to let the capsule test its steering systems and heat shield. The capsule can't be used again. It may be another four years before the first SLS test, with a different capsule, and that will also be uncrewed.

By 2018, commercial crew vehicles will be delivering astronauts to the International Space Station on reusable vehicles, the SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket will be launching from Pad 39A, and the first Bigelow habitats will be on orbit.

An example of a Golden Spike lunar expedition using a SpaceX Falcon Heavy as the launch booster. Image source: The Golden Spike Company.

The Golden Spike Company, founded by former NASA executives, foresees using a combination of SpaceX or other NewSpace technologies to send public and private sector crew to the Moon by the end of the decade.

SLS, meanwhile, has no missions or destinations. It exists essentially to protect Shuttle-era jobs, which is why critics have dubbed it the Senate Launch System.

The OldSpace folks need to face reality. Apollo isn't coming back. The days are long gone when you were showered with tens of billions of dollars to perpetuate a big bloated inefficient government bureaucracy. The government doesn't owe you a job, and you're standing in the way of real progress that will open space to the masses.

An August 13 article in the Houston Press highlighted the clash between the two cultures, OldSpace and New. The next generation is headed for the private sector, while NASA protects its own into retirement. Progress is a secondary priority.

There are many different ways to privatize KSC and CCAFS. Space Florida isn't necessarily the answer, but they do understand that a cultural shift is at hand. The old guard needs to let go. It's time.


  1. Once again you hit the nail on the head. What's needed is a space port authority to operate all launch complexes on the cape. NASA and USAF should have there facilities but launch operations should no more be in government hands than at any commercial airport in the country.

    1. Just posted the Gabriel Rothblatt campaign video in which he calls for just that -- a spaceport authority.

      I think it would take an act of Congress. Posey/Nelson/Rubio would all have to get behind it for it to have a chance, but I could see members from other states/districts with competing spaceports trying to block it. Truly a sad state of affairs.

  2. I was about to post the link to the Rothblatt video. Just found it. That's the idea alright but Mr. Rothblatt is a Democrat and doesn't have a snowballs chance. The existing politicos are to beholden to big space to buck the system. It's likely that the next president whoever that is will be forced to cut the NASA budget yet again and this kind of change will be seen as better than nothing by the space incumbents.