Why Florida is still dominating the space launch game
There are about two dozen launch sites along Florida’s coast that have been abandoned for years. And the future of this area looked bleak when NASA’s Space Shuttle program ended in 2011.
But times are changing. Sleek, modern buildings are going up all over the Cape, the area on Florida’s coastline east of Orlando that includes Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. The Cape has long been NASA’s launch destination of choice, and it’s hosted some of the most famous missions in US history dating back to the Apollo moon landings.
The new structures brandish the names of new-age rocket companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin. Soon, even younger startups like Relativity Space and Firefly Aerospace will move in.
It’s a sign that even as the spaceflight industry undergoes drastic changes, Florida is still a top launch destination.
“Everybody thought the Cape had just been padlocked with the retirement of the Shuttle,” Dale Ketcham, vice president of government affairs for state-funded development group Space Florida, told CNN Business. “Now we’re storming back and clearly leading the nation, if not the world, as the most active and successful spaceport.”
Firefly, a Texas-based rocket startup that also has a deal to launch from California, announced last week that it will spend $52 million on a new manufacturing plant and upgrades to Cape Canaveral’s Launch Complex 20. That launch site was used for missile tests dating back to the 1950s, but its buildings are now dilapidated and overrun with plants and wildlife.
Relativity also said last month that it landed a deal to refurbish the nearby Launch Complex 16, which was decommissioned in 1988 and left to a similar state of ruin.
Space Florida has worked to court commercial companies for the past decade. The group says, as of 2018, 21 firms had signed deals to bring up to 3,000 high-paying jobs to the area. In exchange, the state has offered subsidies to build up infrastructure.
The Cape’s commercial activity was initially buoyed by the 2010 arrival of Elon Musk’s SpaceX, which has NASA contracts and a booming business launching satellites.
Boeing and SpaceX are also building capsules that can launch astronauts, which could return human spaceflight to the Cape for the first time since 2011.
But the commitments from Firefly and Relativity are different. They’re part of a swarm of rocket startups that want to build small rockets than can haul lightweight satellites into orbit.
Demand for such launch vehicles is expected to be massive, and Space Florida has been after their business for years.
The area suffered a blow when New Zealand’s Rocket Lab, which is the first operational smallsat launch provider, chose Virginia for its second launch location.
“They wanted some place quiet,” Ketcham said. “That’s fine. It’s not quiet at the cape. And it’s going to get noisier.”
Relativity and Firefly both said the Space Coast was a no-brainer.
Mark Watt, a partner at VC firm Noosphere and the acting CFO of Firefly, said Florida was able to offer room to build a manufacturing plant, a place to launch rockets and a healthy pool of talent to hire from.
“Plenty of other states were offering us incentives, but they couldn’t offer it all,” Watt said.
The Space Coast is also known as the go-to destination for launch viewing, and the tourism can pump hundreds of thousands of dollars back into the local economy. Twenty launches took off from the Cape last year, and officials want to support up to 48 annual launches by next year.
Of course, there are no guarantees that young firms like Firefly and Relativity will survive. And Ketcham said one of Space Florida’s goals is to help ease locals into the idea that space is no longer all about government programs. It’s now a commercial industry.
“Bankruptcies, lawsuits, startups … some companies are going to succeed, some are going to fail,” he said.