Conference Report: 43rd Space Congress, Part 3

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

Part 5

Apologies for the delay…

Panel: New Space in Florida – Small Companies and Innovators

I found myself calling this the 30-Something Panel in my head because the group comprised folks at least 10 years younger than me–the only panel to do so, which probably says a lot about the “New Space” industry.

First up to speak was Ruben Nunez, who works as a space consultant for a variety of organizations. He spoke of the general state of New Space, where it’s going, and what its needs are. Among its needs, paradoxically, are the young and the seasoned–engineers fresh-out of college and experienced engineers who can serve as mentors for those young folks entering the workforce.

Among the markets New Space is starting to tap are suborbital space payloads via Virgin Galactic, XCOR Aerospace, and Swiss Space Systems; space debris and satellite tracking; and high-altitude skydiving.

The next speaker was my friend (and, like me, former HAL5 member) Laura Seward Forczyk. Laura is currently running Swiss Space Systems’ (S3) business development office in Cape Canaveral. S3 is looking to launch humans on suborbital tourism flights, small payloads to low-Earth orbit (LEO), and eventually provide high-speed, point-to-point suborbital transportation here on Earth. Their primary vehicle is based on HERMES, an abandoned European Space Agency spaceplane project. It would be flown on the back of an Airbus A340, much like the Space Shuttle, and would either provide a pressurized cabin for tourists to float around or a cargo bay that would open to release a small payload at high altitude, serving effectively as a second stage.

As a way of building money for the venture, S3 is in the process of certifying their A340 carrier aircraft to be used as a zero-g “vomit comet” for zero-gravity experiences closer to Earth. In addition to zero-g tourism, the aircraft has space for suborbital, low-gravity payloads. Prices for the A340 flights range from $2,700 for the “Party Zone” to $6,700 for the “Premium Zone” of the aircraft.

John Stryjewski of Vision Engineering talked about a private venture he’s working on to observe and track satellites and space debris, first from Earth, and then from space. Space debris is becoming an increasing problem, as “space junk” can collide with useful hardware with a velocity of several kilometers per second, thereby creating even more debris.

Stryjewski’s hardware includes a gimbal for mounting a tracking telescope and the telescope itself, which has an aperture diameter of about half a meter (~1.6 feet). A privately run system would be of great interest to private industry and foreign nationals seeking information on orbital debris, as the U.S. Air Force is sensitive about releasing their best data (if you know what they can see, you can guess their targeting abilities in military situations). In addition to the tracking hardware, Vision Engineering is working on the data collection systems attached to them.

Along with the debris problem, Vision hopes to be able to visually inspect the physical state of satellites in LEO. Close-up views of these satellites could determine if they’ve been damaged or if they are in danger of colliding with another satellite.

Last up for the panel was Gabriel Rothblatt, whom I met and chatted with at Cape Canaveral’s Yuri’s Night last month. As President of the Florida Space Development Council and an enterprising individual, he is involved with multiple projects, including:

  • Florida Agriculture Conversion Task Force (FACT), which identifies suitable idle NASA facilities at Kennedy Space Center (KSC) to be used as sites for analogue farming systems for Mars.
  • Society of Pastors for Advocating Celestial Exploration (SPACE), a group designed to bring together people of faith to support space exploration.
  • FLorida Oceanic Analogue Training (FLOAT–don’t you love acronyms?), which is a project that uses the Aquarius underwater habitat as an analogue for off-world exploration.
  • The Pioneering Space Declaration, which is an online petition to get the U.S. Congress to state directly that the purpose of the nation’s space activities–particularly the human space ventures–should be for human settlement of the solar system.

The Space Declaration project was interesting to me because of Rothblatt’s reasoning for it: “There is not a business case for putting humans in space…we are losing that race [to robotics].” When you take away most of the technical activities, the only things remaining are human activities, such as making homes, starting businesses, and raising families–things that robots do not do.

The Q&A session for this panel was quite animated, covering everything from satellite insurance to S3’s payload capacity to whether Florida has what it takes to compete among the states for New Space business. The general consensus was yes, with a few suggested caveats. For example, Texas and California have more access to venture capital. Florida needs to build resources and infrastructure that allow entrepreneurial space ventures to thrive. I’ll probably have more to say on this topic in the future.

Panel: Economic Indicators, Economic Development Tools, and Recent Successes

I showed up a tad late to this panel, but when I arrived, Lynda Weatherman from the Florida Space was well into her talk about the state of business on the Space Coast. (One of the notes in my journal suggested that she try decaf, but she was firing off good information at a brisk pace.) She explained the need for economic diversity so that a community is not wiped out when one major employer goes away or loses funding, as happened in Brevard County, FL, after the end of the Apollo and Shuttle/Constellation Programs. However, Weatherman counseled against “diversity for diversity’s sake,” advocating instead for communities to play to their existing advantages and strengths.

Weatherman also described some of the specific tactics or tools local or state governments can use to support or grow economic growth, including (in Florida) Ad Valorem tax abatement or beneficial tax treatment for specific types of businesses.

Tony Burkart, Director of Business Development at Enterprise Florida, the official state agency responsible for bringing businesses to Florida, shared a lot of statistics regarding the State’s aerospace industry, specifically Brevard County, and gave a basic pitch explaining why FL was a good place for aerospace companies to do business. Since I’m a resident and fan of the State of Florida, I don’t mind passing along those stats as well:

Florida is now the 4th largest economy among the 50 states, making it also the 21st largest economy in the world. Fast Company rated us the #1 state for innovation and #2 state for aerospace. While hurt badly by the Shuttle/Constellation shutdown in 2010, Florida still has a strong aerospace industry, with 2,000 aero-related companies here and over 87,000 industry employees. Since 2010, Lockheed Martin has added 200 jobs in the state, Pratt & Whitney 230, Embraer 1,000, Northrop Grumman over 2,800 jobs, and Harris Corp. over 6,000 jobs.

Burkart explained that Florida’s advantages as a business site are similar to the U.S. as a whole: our workforce costs (compared to other nations building aerospace products), our university system, and our protections for intellectual property. Florida, because of its long history with KSC, also has a cultural appreciation for the aerospace industry along with a workforce acquainted with working in it. We also have a lot of “transplants,” not just from northern states, but internationally, making it feasible for overseas firms like Embraer to build a plant here and find people who speak their language. Florida also prides itself on a good port system, no personal income tax, a corporate income tax rate of 5.5%, and a business climate rank of #5 nationwide.

The top business opportunities for Florida (or maybe just Brevard County), according to Burkart, included commercial space, defense, and aviation. The skill sets for all three have some overlap, while the economic drivers are different, avoiding a situation where an economic slowdown in one sector affects the whole state.

I asked about the disconnect regarding finding venture capital in Florida, since most of our biggest buildings are banks. I was told that most of the VC money here goes into real estate, vs. places like Texas, where there’s been a long habit of money going into oil, “but the money’s out there.” Aerospace is tricky, however, because it’s capital-intensive and takes a long time to show a return on investment.

Other questions included local concerns about Harris potentially moving its corporate HQ to the Beltway or Northrop Grumman’s commitment to keep work here. Burkart seemed confident that both companies were here to stay.

While Florida’s weather and quality of life might seem like a slam-dunk for some, generally the cost of doing business and the ability to recruit good people locally were the prime considerations. Anyone wanting to sell a business on coming to Brevard County, however, needs to sell them on Florida first.

More to come on this topic in the next entry!

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