Conference Report: 43rd Space Congress, Part 1

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

Part 5

I’m spending some quality time at the 43rd Space Congress on the Space Coast learning what sorts of space activities are going on in the neighborhood of Kennedy Space Center. Short version: a lot!

Background

The Congress has apparently been a longstanding institution on the Space Coast (run since 1969), but it went off the radar after 2010, the year the Shuttle Program and Constellation were shut down. The event has been resurrected by the Canaveral Council of Technical Services and other local organizations. They’ve managed to bring in a lot of smart, informative speakers. A shame it isn’t being better attended.

In parallel with the Congress, some folks associated with the local chapter of the Project Management Institute are hosting some classes about topics like managing in an Agile software development environment. Since I arrived ridiculously early, I sat in on the Agile Development session, learning quickly that I’m not wired for that stuff, but the speaker had a solid command of his subject. He’d better: he was promoting his business, which provided test preparation for the PMI-Risk Management Professional exam.

NASA & Air Force Innovation at Cape Canaveral Spaceport

Cape Canaveral Spaceport” is a relatively new name for the Kennedy Space Center (KSC)/Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (CCAFS) complex, which is presented to potential launch customers as a single entity. This panel discussed the efforts being made by the two “sides of the house,” NASA and the Air Force, as well as Space Florida, to promote the Spaceport. The participants included Mark Bontrager, a Space Florida Vice President; Tom Eye, Director of Plans & Programs from the 45th Space Wing; and Scott Colloredo, who’s Director of KSC’s Center Planning & Development Group.

Bontrager kicked things off by assessing the economic environment the Spaceport faces now compared to the environment 35 years ago. In 1980, the U.S. controlled 100% of the world commercial space launch market. By 2010/2011, that domination had been completely lost, with zero U.S. commercial launches in those years. Things have changed in the last five years, with SpaceX, Orbital ATK, and other commercial providers springing up or actually providing launch services.

In response to this uptick in commercial launch providers, Space Florida–an entity created by the State of Florida to facilitate commercial space activity here–has been helping fund infrastructure that allows space-tech firms to get established on the Space Coast. Much of this infrastructure has come in the form of converting unneeded Space Shuttle buildings like the Orbiter Processing Facilities (OPFs) into places where the X-37B and CST-100 can be processed for flight.

Tom Eye, in discussing the Air Force side of things, was quite proud of the fact that over 800,000 square feet of office space has been leased or given to space-related businesses at CCAFS. In addition, Launch Complexes 37 and 41 are being run by United Launch Alliance, LC 40 is being used by SpaceX to launch Falcon 9 while LC 13 is being set up for SpaceX to land first stage boosters. LC 36 and 46 are being administered by Space Florida. The Shuttle Landing Facility (SLF) is being looked at by multiple customers. And while all this activity–real and potential–is happening, NASA needs to upgrade its launch infrastructure. There were 18 launches at CCAFS in 2014; there are 26 on the manifest for this year; and 2016 could see 30+ launches. That’s a lot of work ahead, but it’s exciting. Eye explained that 57% of launches at CCAFS are now commercial.

Meanwhile, on the NASA side of the house, there isn’t so much fire and smoke–yet–but a lot of construction is underway. Scott Colloredo laid out KSC’s vision to become a “multi-user spaceport,” supporting NASA’s future missions like SLS/Orion, transferring ownership of unneeded facilities to commercial users, and operating “leaner and greener.” KSC has been busy converting OPF-1 and -3 for Boeing as well as the Vehicle Assembly Building’s High Bay 2 for other potential commercial users. Launch Complex (LC) 39A is being leased to SpaceX for Falcon 9 and Falcon 9 Heavy launches.

Meanwhile, to keep its commercial customers happy, Space Florida has been helping commercial launch providers by working with NASA to streamline safety and other requirements. The point is not to provide someone like SpaceX or Boeing with a 500-page prescriptive document for how they must run their operations, but instead give them a shorter list of requirements, which say things like “Must be compliant with OSHA and FAA regulations.” Another strategy Space Florida is pursuing is long-term agreements with commercial launch providers to give them time to build a sustainable business. SpaceX, for example, has a 20-year agreement with NASA to get things rolling at LC 39A. In addition to the more well-known entities, KSC is building two new launch sites near LC 39 to support small satellite launchers. Not much of this makes fire and smoke–but it will in the next few years. SpaceX is hoping to launch Falcon 9 from LC 39A by 2017.

All of this speaks well of the Spaceport’s future prospects, but the panel still cautioned the audience not to expect a 16,000-person civil service workforce like the Space Coast had during the Shuttle era. Still, it’s a far cry from the dark days of 2010, when KSC faced the end of the Shuttle program, the cancellation of its follow-on Constellation, and a drastic downsizing of the civil service and contractor workforce. In short, the Space Coast is not “closed.”

Emerging State/Local Government Roles in Space

Jim Ball, a consultant with Spaceport Strategies, LLC, started off his talk by explaining the obvious: “This is not your father’s space industry.” Indeed, in addition to the resurgence of American commercial launch providers, other states are starting to building spaceports of their own to lure some of that business to their region. At present, New Mexico, Alaska, and Virginia have built spaceports. Texas is “in the game, but not operating yet,” and other states believe they can host spaceports of their own once reusable vehicles make it safe to do so. In short, KSC’s natural advantages–relative proximity to the Equator, open ocean, useful launch azimuth directions, and suitable port facilities–are not necessarily enough to guarantee that launch providers will automatically look to Florida as a place to do business.

Ball explained that launch service providers have a long laundry list of things they want from a state before they set up shop. On the technical side of things, they want a safe, license-able site that is operationally suitable for their needs and with access to infrastructure (highways, seaports, airports, etc.). On the business side of things, they want assurance that they will be able to launch on time, that they have launch decision authority, and that they have a reasonable amount of autonomy in how they conduct their operations. Their top three priorities, according to Ball, are unencumbered access to their facilities and equipment, commercial standards for launch operations, and operational flexibility. Like any other businesses, they want some consistency in regulations, rules, and taxes.

The State of Florida, recognizing the need to bring in more customers once it was confirmed that Shuttle was retiring, established Space Florida out of three separate state entities to smooth the way for commercial entities to do business in the state. To that end, this quasi-state organization (“a county without geography” was one colorful description I heard today) has a charter to promote and grow Florida’s space industry and capabilities; identify, plan, and fund space infrastructure; own, manage, and operate Spaceport Florida; and of course ensure public safety. Other states will establish similar entities eventually, but for now Florida is unique in creating this organization.

Keevin Williams, a VP of Special Projects at Space Florida, focused on the financing and regulatory efforts Space Florida has promulgated in support of the space industry. To that end, the Florida legislature has put spaceflight informed consent laws into effect; as well as a research and development tax credit for space-tech companies. In 2008, the Florida Growth Fund was empowered to invest up to 1.5% of the Florida pension fund in high-tech companies, including space entities. Meanwhile, the Florida Opportunity Fund makes $500K-$2M investments in small companies. In addition to these financial votes of confidence, Space Florida has facilitated the hand-over of Shuttle Program facilities to commercial industry, leaving them to pay only operations and maintenance fees so they can concentrate on developing their technologies. Williams describes much of what Space Florida does for the space industry as “blocking and tackling” regulatory and financial problems.

Leigh Holt, who has advocated for the space industry at the county level, explained that all these policies have become institutionalized into the Florida law books and budget by convincing the legislature that space infrastructure is, in fact, a transportation service, akin railroads or highways. Money for space is always scarce, but the highway budget in Florida is well funded, which might explain why we have construction year-around. A $1.5M line item for “space” gradually morphed into a $22M transportation infrastructure item. These sorts of changes occurred at the local level because Space Florida and NASA couldn’t and wouldn’t “lobby” for them.

And while this forward-thinking legislation and funding puts Florida out ahead of the other 49 states, a lot of the space-friendly lawmaking was born out of the panic that ensued once the locals in Brevard County realized that Shuttle was going away. The area had suffered massive layoffs and a long recovery period after the end of the Apollo program, and the locals were determined to prevent a repeat of that downsizing as much as possible. They haven’t been completely successful, but the current state of business on the Space Coast owes a lot to the efforts Space Florida has made and to the successes of SpaceX.

These two panel sessions provided great background for understanding the state of the space business here in Central Florida. I will share other insights in the near future. But for now, I must crash. Back at it again tomorrow. Part 2 can be found here.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s