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LC-46 photo
In the late 1990s Florida hopes to cash in on the LEO communications satellite boom with Launch Complex 46, sized for small launch vehicles. However, the site hosted only two Athena launches. (credit: Space Florida)

Florida’s mess: how did we get here?

Thanks to an extraordinary round of investigative reporting and public rebuttals over the past few weeks, Florida’s space initiatives are looking more and more like reality television. As a Floridian proud of the state’s long-standing image as a space policy innovator, I thought it might be appropriate to shed some light how we got to this point.

According to Edward Ellegood, one of the instigators of Florida’s early space efforts, the story begins in the late 1980s when state policymakers were asked to create the nation’s first space transportation authority. With the 1989 passage of Chapter 331, Part Two, Florida Statutes, the Spaceport Florida Authority was empowered like an airport or seaport authority, with all the capabilities necessary to develop and operate commercial launch sites in the state. Although multiple sites were considered for the spaceport, the state decided to use the existing inactive launch pads on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. The Spaceport Authority’s enabling statute was later amended to identify CCAFS and Kennedy Space Center to be collectively referred to as the “Cape Canaveral Spaceport”.

Unlike other spaceport states, Florida has always had to deal with real and perceived problems with the Eastern Range.

During the 1990s, the Spaceport Authority financed and developed several infrastructure projects worth hundreds of millions of dollars, including facilities for the Titan 4, Delta 4, and Atlas 5. It also dabbled in “space tourism” with the financing of the Apollo/Saturn 5 Center that is now part of the visitor experience at KSC. A state-funded hangar was developed near the Shuttle Landing Facility for reusable launch vehicles (remember X-33 and X-34?) The Authority also brokered an agreement with KSC to develop a Space Life Sciences Lab to support the International Space Station.

The Spaceport Authority’s highest-profile project was the conversion of Launch Complex 46 into a multi-user launch pad for a new class of small commercial launch vehicles (Lockheed’s Athena, Orbital’s Taurus, and a conceptual ATK rocket). This was done amid big startup plans by Iridium and Globalstar to deploy and replenish their constellations of small satellites, requiring dozens of launches per year. Small satellites were the wave of the future, and Florida was ready to lead the way. Unfortunately, LC-46 accommodated just two Athena launches before the small satellite market dried up.

Another promising launch pad project involved the conversion of Launch Complex 20 into a dual-use multi-vehicle facility for “operationally responsive” and missile-defense programs. This one stalled for multiple reasons, including a reluctance by military program managers to work with the Air Force’s Eastern Range. Under a concept similar to “commercial launch zone” initiative now proposed by Space Florida, the Spaceport Authority was hoping to bypass the Eastern Range by using an alternative system at LC-20—possibly the Ballistic Missile Range Safety Technology (BMRST) system operated by the Florida Air National Guard.

Unlike other spaceport states, Florida has always had to deal with real and perceived problems with the Eastern Range. Although big Air Force-backed launch companies like Martin Marietta, General Dynamics, and McDonnell Douglas were said to have had problems with the Range, they were compensated in their Air Force contracts to cover the extra costs. Together with the contractors who operated the Range, these launch companies benefited from the status quo, which did much to keep out new competitors like Beal Aerospace and, now, SpaceX. Back then, the Range compliance requirements for new rockets were legendary, and despite recent improvements it is still difficult and expensive to introduce new launch programs at the Cape.

When Governor Jeb Bush was in office, hopes were high at the Spaceport Authority that he would appeal to his brother, President George W. Bush, to apply top-down leadership to “fix” the Cape’s problems. Perhaps naively, it was anticipated that the transportation authority model would be held up as a logical next step in the evolution of the Cape Canaveral Spaceport. McCoy Air Force Base (now Orlando International Airport) and Northwest Florida’s Eglin Air Force Base (which hosts a municipal airport authority as a dual-use partner) were seen as examples for how commercial space transportation could evolve and coexist with government programs at the Cape Canaveral Spaceport.

During his eight years in office, Governor Bush did not ask the White House to “fix” the Cape, and the transportation authority model was never fully embraced by the Air Force as an approach for fostering commercial launch growth. Instead, the Spaceport Authority was broken into three entities in 2000. The core agency was renamed the “Florida Space Authority” with the same transportation-oriented empowerment but less focus on being an agent for change at the Cape. The Florida Space Research Institute was established as a non-profit focused on R&D diversification, and the Florida Aerospace Finance Corp. was spun off to support aerospace funding deals.

Toward the end of his term, as the state’s commercial launch industry evaporated and the Space Shuttle’s retirement date was announced, Governor Bush convened a commission to figure out what to do about space activity in Florida. Hoping to avoid a negative legacy on space issues, he even reached out to the Pentagon to start a dialog on improving the Cape’s commercial competitiveness. The dialog fizzled soon after Governor Bush left office. His commission decided to reboot the state’s space efforts with “Space Florida”, a new agency that would assume the responsibilities of the three previously separate entities. These entities were dissolved and their staffs disbanded long before Space Florida was completely operational.

Space Florida now faces an uphill battle for public support, as key legislators call for management changes, budget cuts, and a spending freeze at LC-36.

As a symbol of the fresh start, Steve Kohler was handpicked by Governor Bush to lead Space Florida. Although Mr. Kohler had no experience in the space industry, it was hoped he would bring a new perspective to the challenges that had vexed other space pros for the previous two decades. Industry and community leaders were encouraged when Mr. Kohler announced he would hit the ground running and hoped everyone would be able to keep up. It would take about a year for Mr. Kohler to fully stand-up his organization and fill key positions. In the process, some successful initiatives and many lessons-learned from the predecessor entities were discarded in favor of bringing new thinking to the state’s space issues. Over this start-up phase, Mr. Kohler and Space Florida gained a reputation for being opaque and even unresponsive among some constituents, leaving many to hope that much work was being done behind the scenes.

After some criticism that little progress was visible after its first year, Space Florida began rolling out some projects. Unfortunately, several of these projects have attracted controversy. Their plan to convert Launch Complex 36 (LC-36) into a multi-user facility has been criticized as a build-it-and-they-will-come investment. Their intended high-profile microgravity education/research center with Zero Gravity Corp. has not materialized as planned. Support for a space tourism training venture with the Andrews Institute sports medicine clinic has raised objections and accusations of impropriety. And influential companies like SpaceX have criticized their approach to supporting new users at the spaceport. Perhaps most damaging are complaints of Space Florida’s lack of progress with job creation and business recruitment. The agency’s public rebuttals of critical news articles seem to suggest they are struggling to find something to show for all their efforts.

With a state budget deficit of about $9 billion, the knives are being sharpened for the upcoming Florida legislative session, which runs from March 3 until May 1. Space Florida now faces an uphill battle for public support, as key legislators call for management changes, budget cuts, and a spending freeze at LC-36. When the dust settles, we could see significant changes in Florida’s approach to expanding and diversifying its space enterprise.