Conference Report: 43rd Space Congress, Part 5

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

Last posting on the Space Congress…

Panel: Return of Human Spaceflight to Florida

You can talk about rockets all day long, but what the space business comes down to for a lot of people is launching astronauts into space. The good news is that KSC will be launching people on a variety of vehicles in the near future. The bad news is that the “near future” in the space business is still two years away. That being said, activity is coming, and KSC is busy. For this panel, representatives from NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, Ground Systems Development and Operations (GSDO) Program, SpaceX, and Boeing were on hand to tell everyone what’s next.

Kathy Lueders, Project Manager for the Commercial Crew Program, started out by sharing the current NASA plans, which include commercial access to the International Space Station as well as the agency’s progression of “Earth-reliant,” “Proving Ground,” and “Earth-independent” exploration missions. As part of this work, Boeing is developing an international docking adapter and SpaceX will deliver it to ISS in June, where NASA astronauts will be responsible for installing it on the station.

Chris Ferguson, commander of the last Shuttle mission and now Boeing’s Director of Crew & Mission  Systems, talked about his new employer’s CST-100 crew vehicle. He joked that he’s learned a lot about social media in the last year, especially after he posted a picture of the empty Launch Complex 39A on Twitter with the comment, “One year later, the silence is deafening.” Fortunately, progress is being made, but a lot of it is behind closed doors, specifically in OPF-3, where their vehicle is being assembled and the Boeing Mission Control Center is being set up. While OPF-3 is situated next to the Vehicle Assembly Building on the NASA side of the Cape, CST-100 will actually launch aboard an Atlas rocket from LC 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

Boeing is in the process of adding a rotating service arm to LC 41. During regular operations, the rocket will be rolled out to the pad, and then the crew will take the elevator up to the service arm to enter the capsule. The pad also will include a crew escape system similar to the wire baskets used for Shuttle, with an armored vehicle on standby to carry them away from the rocket after that.

The work in OPF-3 has included removing all of the Shuttle servicing platforms, making for a much cleaner look to the interior. In addition to vehicle assembly, OPF-3 will also support loading of hypergolic propellants, which will present some additional hazards, but none the VAB hasn’t seen before.

The vehicle itself has undergone water drop tests, but the primary landing method for CST-100 will be onto land, using parachutes and airbags. (I asked, and no, the plan is not to have the vehicle bounce around after landing, like some of the Mars rovers that used airbags after landing. The plan is to stick the landing in one place.) Boeing is negotiating with five different sites to be possible landing locations.

The spacesuits astronauts will wear on CST-100 will be made by the David Clark Company, which supported military pressure suits as well as Felix Baumgartner’s high-altitude jump for Red Bull.

Boeing sees NASA as its primary customer, but is also talking with Bigelow Aerospace about launching astronauts to one of their commercial space stations in the future. Boeing hopes to have a CST-100 launch by late 2017.

Garrett Reisman, another former astronaut, is Director of Crew Operations for SpaceX. His opening line was pretty funny: “Did you see us almost land on a boat? That was awesome!” That said, SpaceX has made remarkable progress on their launch operations, having now successfully launched 18 of 18 payloads, with 7 of those being to ISS.

SpaceX was planning a pad abort test for the following week, one of two they need to complete–the other one being an abort at the “max Q” or maximum dynamic pressure level.

At LC 39A, SpaceX will be leaving the Fixed Service Structure and Rotating Service Structure from the Shuttle era in place. The launch pad is being modified to support the Falcon 9 Heavy, which will generate 4.5 million pounds of thrust at liftoff.

Shawn Quinn, Exploration Systems Manager for GSDO, also had a great way to open his talk: “The Mars rovers are designed to find life on other planets. Our job is to put life on other planets.” Quinn provided more detail on the “proving ground” and “Earth-independent” missions NASA plans to do.

All of the hardware for those missions comes together at KSC. In 2018, NASA plans to launch Exploration Mission One (EM1-), which will use the Space Launch System to send the Orion Multipurpose Crew Vehicle on a ten-day, uncrewed mission around the Moon. SRBs will arrive from Utah, and the core stage will travel by barge from the Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans to Stennis Space Center in Mississippi for engine testing before arriving at the KSC Turn Basin. Orion is being built at KSC, the first time a human-rated spacecraft has been built there.

Quinn also mentioned other work that’s going on, including preparations on the flame trench at LC 39B, the NASA Industrial Area, the Multipurpose Processing Facility, the Crawler-Transporter, the Firing Room 1 in the Launch Control Center. Perhaps because he (and a lot of other NASA people) are tired of hearing that “NASA isn’t doing anything,” he made the point of adding, “It’s real, it’s happening.” Quinn stated that they were about “halfway to EM-1” and that “eventually these facilities are going to support missions to Mars.”

All in all, KSC looks to be very busy in the 2017/2018 time frame…everyone just needs to be patient.

Panel: Space Coast Logistics Challenges & Solutions – A Real Estate and Logistics Approach

Perhaps due to a quirk in scheduling, the last session of the Congress was on logistics. Logistics? Really? That stuff UPS likes to talk about on their commercials? Yep, logistics. That stuff one speaker called the “movement of goods from one location to another via various modes of transportation including the planning, pricing, tracking, and execution of timely and effective methods.” Okay, yeah, that’s one definition. Another–my own–would be “The process of getting all the stuff you need from one place to another so it’s there when you need it.”

And yes, it’s important: “Amateurs talk about tactics, but professionals study logistics.” – Gen. Robert H. Barrow, USMC (Commandant of the Marine Corps) noted in 1980.

However you define logistics, while it might not be a sexy topic in the space world, it is very much a real one. And it’s not just a matter of getting rocket parts and astronauts to Cape Canaveral to make a launch happen–space missions themselves are now part of our planet’s logistical tail (military parlance there: the “teeth” of the armed forces are the folks on the front line; the “tail” is what follows behind). In the case of SpaceX, their launches provide food, water, clothing, equipment, and other items that make their mission (human beings living and working in space) possible.

This session, however, focused primarily on the efforts required to get people, materials, and hardware into Brevard County. The first person to speak was John Walsh, Director of Cape Canaveral Port Authority, which handles the cruise terminals, bulk cargo terminals, oil terminals, warehouses, recreational areas (including beaches, campgrounds, and the Exploration Tower, which can be seen off 528). The shipping part of Port Canaveral has been working to upgrade its services to support increasing traffic from overseas, both in terms of volume and sizes of ships. They’re looking to dredge the channel to the port from 48 to 55 feet deep, to support some of the larger container ships coming to Florida. The container port is scheduled to open in May or June.

In addition to these Port improvements, the Port Authority is working to get a ten-mile railroad extension approved, which would connect Canaveral to the Florida East Coast Railway and thus the rest of the nation’s transportation infrastructure. The railway is producing a bit of controversy, however, as it passes through some wetlands and has some other issues that concern local residents. “We can get to space, but we can’t build a ten-mile railroad.” Walsh saw the blocking of the railroad as a serious problem, as most of the other Florida ports–including Miami and Tampa–are about maxed out and cannot support deeper channels.

Walsh also discussed other projects the Port Authority is taking on to improve Brevard County’s access to the rest of the national economy, including building larger warehouses (30-40 foot tall ceilings instead of 10-12 feet); building a business and logistics center at the intersection of Interstate 95 and Florida Route 524; building a logistics center in Titusville, which includes a liquid natural gas plant; acquiring two cranes to handle loading/offloading container ships; and other efforts to diversify the economy in the region. The other two statistics he pointed to were that 85% of all consumer products come in by sea, and many containers coming into Florida ports can face a 60-day delay–all good reasons, according to Walsh, to improve the state of Port Canaveral’s facilities.

Brevard County Commissioner Robin Fisher represents Northern Brevard County, which was designed as the North Brevard Economic Development Zone in 2011, essentially making it an economically depressed area. Under this arrangement, money spent on improvements to commercial properties can be reinvested. The NBEDZ also supports diversification initiatives for the area, including building (or subsidizing) cargo, commercial space, liquified natural gas production and distribution, advanced manufacturing, and logistics centers. They are also moving up the widening of I-95 from four to six lanes from Titusville to New Smyrna Beach, to support anticipated future traffic. Progress is being made, but I sense that the outrage over the rail line is holding up some of this effort.

I won’t share all of the efforts NBEDZ is making (one can find a pretty decent summary of their work on their website). I suppose it surprised me how much the area has suffered since the ending of Shuttle–they’re struggling with issues ranging from workforce depletion to urban blight, which makes (in my mind) the railroad a necessary tool for economic development. “Some people don’t like change,” as Mr. Fisher pointed out. On the other hand, Brevard County’s situation reflects one small piece of a much larger national discussion we’re having about balancing the need for economic development and environmental protection.

Robert Richter represented Flagler Global Logistics, a corporate descendent of the railroads, hotels, and land acquired by Henry Flagler in the 19th and 20th centuries. FGL has been building infrastructure projects on the land Flagler acquired, including logistics ports, warehouses, LNG plants, and the Titusville Logistics Center.

Focusing on warehouses, Richter pointed out that most logistics companies (such as Amazon.com) want to lease, not own, their warehouse space, and they want to be able to move their products as efficiently as possible. That means more “Class A” warehouse space (higher ceilings, climate controlled, easy access to roads/rails).

During the Q&A session, a couple of panel members responded to one resident’s environmental concerns, explaining that many of the building projects have environmental scientists on site to handle issues like relocating gopher tortoises or monitoring how many trees are cut down so that the organization knows how many trees to plant on protected areas later. Environmental concerns also include marine life near ports, such as manatees, dolphins, and sea turtles. Another argument the panelists put forward in support of the rail line was that one rail car equals four tractor-trailers on the road. As John Walsh put it, “I don’t want to turn us into L.A.”

Returning to the economic development theme, someone made the comparison between the Port of Savannah, GA, and Jacksonville, FL. In 2005, both ports had ~800,000 twenty-foot-equivalent units (TEU) of container space. Savannah spent money on building more warehouse space, to the point where their Port warehouse space is now ~3 million TEU, and 67,000 new jobs were created. By contrast, Jacksonville increased its capacity to only 1M TEU and has not seen the same job growth.

In addition to freight railroads and shipping, Brevard County also hopes to eventually be connected to a high-speed passenger rail line, which is supposed to connect Orlando and Miami, but which could include a spur from Orlando International Airport out to Port Canaveral. That sort of link would facilitate faster movement of people from the rest of the country into Brevard County without adding more rental cars to the roads.

Again, logistics is not exactly an exciting topic for a space conference, but it’s a necessary one. More to the point, as human activity spreads beyond Earth orbit, the “logistics tail” is only going to get longer and more complicated. The better a spaceport on Earth can facilitate traffic from Earth to space, the better and less expensive it will be to execute logistics for people living out in space. The discussions (and arguments) that one sees in Brevard County, Florida, will occur no matter where we decide to launch.

I’m looking forward to next year’s Space Congress, now that I understand how all the various parts fit together. There’s a lot going on in Brevard County and in the space business in general–it’ll be great to help it get off the ground.

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!