Conference Report: 43rd Space Congress, Part 4

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

Part 5

The Space Congress details continue to unfold…I take notes so you don’t have to!

Efforts to Stimulate and Grow Space Efforts in Florida

Rather than a panel session, this segment comprised two individuals presenting papers on their topic followed by a little Q&A.

Jerad Merbitz from Kennedy Space Center presented “21st Century Launch Complex Small Class Vehicle Test & Launch Capabilities.” As part of the Ground Systems Development and Operations (GSDO) Program, the 21st Century Launch Complex project is tasked with developing ground infrastructure and equipment to test, integrate, launch, and recover rocket vehicles at KSC.

The goal, as noted in an earlier entry, is to make KSC a multi-use facility. He then went on to describe the various efforts 21CLC is doing to make the Center accessible to small-payload launch vehicles, focusing especially on the new launch pad being built within the perimeter of Launch Complex 39B. The new launch pad NASA is building for the small pad will–if it is built–support vehicles massing up to 132,500 pounds and producing up to 200,000 pounds of thrust. Launch companies, however, are free to develop and bring their own equipment, which many of the potential customers plan to do. The idea for the LC39B small pad is to have “clean pad,” SpaceX-type operations, where rockets are prepped elsewhere, rolled up to the pad, fueled, and launched.

Duane Ratliff’s paper was more theoretical: “Create Biomedical/Biotech Commercial Marketplace in LEO.” Starting from the premise that biomedical science and technology are already an integral part of NASA’s human spaceflight program, he sees the intersection of medical and space technology as a great business opportunity.

His reasoning is this: global healthcare is a multi-trillion-dollar industry thanks to an aging population and increased demand for prolonged quality of life. It’s difficult to keep up with demand for new medical products (drugs), for example, because many of them have a 10-15 year research and development cycle and costs can run north of a billion dollars.

Meanwhile, in-space diagnostics for astronauts face problems similar to those facing senior citizens, including osteoporosis, loss of muscle tone, degenerative diseases, neuro-vestibular issues, and others.

Zero gravity replicates the operating environment of the body more realistically than a “two-dimensional” petri dish. It seems logical, therefore, to conduct more commercial biomedical research (to solve problems related to aging and zero-g) at the International Space Station, which is now a national laboratory that can support commercial customers.

So why do this sort of research in Florida?

Florida has had a biomed/biotech industry since 2000. As noted previously, Florida is a state that is a business-friendly state, both domestically and internationally. It has nine medical teaching hospitals attached to its university system (including the nearby Lake Nona “Medical City” complex south of Orlando, University of Central Florida’s College of Medicine, and the Space Life Sciences Laboratory at KSC); has access to KSC; and is ranked #3 in pharmaceutical production nationwide and #2 in producing medical devices. Florida is also a very affordable state to do business, especially when compared to other “biotech states,” such as California, Massachusetts, and New York.

How would this investment regime work? Rather than focus venture capitalists’ attention on space exploration, attention should instead be directed to microgravity in low-Earth orbit (LEO) and its connection to Earth-based medical problems. In fact…talk about the medical aspect first, then worry about where the work is done. Universities would work with for-profit businesses to create intellectual property, which could accumulate to build further medical advances. Similar models have been used at the MIT/Harvard Broad Institute. Another thing that could be done to facilitate this biomedical/space partnership would be to establish a facility with common high-priced assets, such as electron microscopes and mass spectrometers, as was done at Cambridge University’s LabCentral facility, thus saving costs for startups.


Following the two papers, a panel of officials from Florida talked about the challenges involved in getting commercial spaceports started in the state: Russ Chandler and Todd Lindner from Cecil Air & Spaceport near Jacksonville and Michael Powell from the Titusville-Cocoa (“Tico”) Airport Authority.

Powell indicated that there was no single regulatory issue, but rather several, as multiple government agencies have a say in how spaceport operations might be run, including the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Airports division, FAA Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST), Air Traffic Control, and the U.S. Air Force. All of these agencies, Powell stated, were not heading in the same direction at the same speed.

Lindner focused on the efforts to make a potential spaceport (and its surrounding county) marketable and affordable. Tico is looking for international customers with horizontal takeoff and landing facilities, as foreign nationals are not allowed onto the Shuttle Landing Facility (SLF). Tico is looking to obtain a spaceport license by 2016.

Chandler talked about Cecil having an identity crisis, as it is a joint civilian/military site, with over $1.5 billion in assets being handed over to the civilian side by the Navy recently. The site was licensed to be a spaceport for handling horizontal liftoff/landing space vehicles in 2010. They’re putting together a business plan, but so far, no horizontal takeoff/landing vehicles are in production or flying yet, making budget expenditures difficult to justify.

One of the biggest challenges in overcoming the regulatory hurdles is that AST and the other parts of FAA don’t get along with each other. There isn’t enough data to know what to ask for or how to operate an integrated air/space port. Air Traffic Control, for example, is concerned primarily with all traffic flying below 60,000 feet and doesn’t really care about anything above that. Also, current ATC methods are concerned with “spacing” between aircraft. Unusual traffic, such as space vehicles, would tend to be segregated out of the normal traffic pattern as much as possible, effectively curtailing regular commercial space operations. Yet another concern is that horizontal rocket takeoffs would occur and leave the airspace very rapidly while landings would most likely be unpowered, requiring a new set of priorities.

And this is all before drones are added to the picture. As it stands right now, the ATC as built (and even the NextGen system, which is behind schedule and over budget) is not equipped to handle this diverse mix of small-and-slow and large-and-fast airspace traffic.

One of the panelists compared this shift from traditional airspace management to mixed air-and-space management to the transition that occurred in the late 1950s between propeller and jet aircraft. The group seemed in agreement that the U.S., with the most dynamic market and technologies, should get out ahead of this issue and settle how to handle the aerospace ports of the future before someone else does it.

Panel: Revitalization of the Private Sector

Phil Bryden, a Craig Technologies Program Manager with an Australian accent, promised to get this panel–the last of the day on April 29–finished on time or early for beer call. He kept his word. The other members of the panel included Julie Song, owner of FL Business & Manufacturing Solutions; Troy Post, Executive Director of the North Brevard Economic Development Zone; and Gretchen Sauerman from Florida Institute of Technology.

Bryden spoke first, explaining Craig Technologies’ role in maintaining the (former) NASA logistics center on A1A in Cape Canaveral. Craig is now wrestling with the transition from one large government customer to multiple small commercial customers. Small, entrepreneurial firms want a supply chain that is fast-paced to meet their needs. Craig is looking at “disruptive” technologies such as additive manufacturing (a.k.a. 3D printing) to meet those needs. He opened up the panel by firing off the following questions:

  • How does the supply chain respond to commercial space?
  • How do you apply government lessons to a commercial environment without slowing things down?
  • How can government support the private sector?

Julie Song added a question, asking how should small businesses that were used to supporting NASA should adjust to support commercial vendors. She emphasized leveraging their existing expertise in AS9100 and ITAR–making sure to be responsive to commercial vendors without violating export control laws.

Troy Post is concentrating on providing incentives for private investment in his area (Brevard County north of the Bee Line/Beach Line expressway). The goal being to bring in new businesses without neglecting the businesses that are still there. He also recommended identifying what assets the private sector can use; finding ways to maximize jobs and capital investments; and keeping the aerospace intellectual knowledge base intact. That last item is tricky, as a lot of folks from the Shuttle era moved out or retired after the end of the program.

Gretchen Sauerman noted that Brevard County suffered a hit very like the slump that happened after Apollo following the shutdown of Shuttle. However, the area’s aerospace industry got votes of confidence in the form of Northrop, Embraer, and Harris businesses. Florida Tech has also been striving to help individuals dealing with underemployment acquire new job skills.

The discussion again turned to responding to the new, smaller business ecosystem in which Brevard finds itself. Additive manufacturing was seen as a way to reverse off-shoring of manufacturing jobs, as it allows prototypes to be made quickly and products to be built more consistently. The need for internships to attract innovative young minds was also mentioned. One local company focusing on space tech shifted over to private power boats and now makes most of its money in that industry–and that shift came as a result of a recommendation of an intern.

Another arrangement that might become common is a shared workspace where a group of small businesses might share large machine tools or 3D printers. This could be the manufacturing equivalent of coworking. The new environment will call for shorter lead times, less inventory, and “outside the box” thinking. Another challenging task for commercial space companies entering the area will be identifying space-certified local suppliers of third-tier parts, like fasteners.

One process NASA has begun is called “technology docking,” where private businesses are able to access NASA’s internal expertise to help them solve technology problems.

While these types of arrangements might help small businesses interact with the existing NASA infrastructure, private space firms such as SpaceX and Blue Origin do a lot of their work–even down to fasteners and other small-lot parts–in house because NASA-based processes and production lines have been too slow or too expensive in the past. If small businesses want to break into those markets, they will need to demonstrate high quality at lower cost as well as provide product transparency so SpaceX and others will understand how their hardware is being made. Still another challenge facing many small aerospace businesses in Brevard County is that many of NASA’s new commercial launch providers are using Space Act Agreements rather than contracts that are subject to Federal Acquisition Regulations (FAR), which usually require small-business set-asides.

The Q&A session for this discussion was quite vivid, as some locals expressed dismay with the processes businesses have to go through to get started in the region. For example, bringing in businesses to Brevard County is the overlapping responsibility of Enterprise Florida, Space Florida, Brevard County, and local cities, such as Cocoa, Titusville, and Melbourne. Given all those overlapping authorities, where does one begin? “You’re a hot mess,” was one complaint thrown at the panel, along with “The other states are kicking your butts” due to past jurisdictional squabbles.

Generally, the process should be for businesses to start at the State level first and then work their way down. Needs are identified, as well as gaps, and then finally the local and state government agencies are supposed to work together to identify the right package of assistance or incentives to settle the business down somewhere in Brevard County. Obviously the system is not perfect, but Florida is still out ahead of most states by providing a business development agency specifically geared toward helping the space business (Space Florida).

I pointed out to the group that Huntsville experienced a similar downturn after the shutdown of Shuttle/Constellation, but Marshall Space Flight Center made an effort to open up its testing facilities to commercial space providers. Meanwhile, the Huntsville government and Chamber of Commerce worked on quality-of-life items outside the gate–making conscious efforts to improve shopping, housing, and meeting space options. They also worked in conjunction with elected officials at the state and local levels to ensure that programs came to Marshall Space Flight Center. Many stretches of Cocoa and Titusville are suffering from blight. That’s a problem. In the end, a whole package has to come together for any space businesses interested in working in Brevard County, including schools, highways, community development, STEM pipeline, and other opportunities. The better the various agencies work together–and they are–the better the future for the area.

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