Orlando Sentinel: Florida must stay in commercial space game

December 13, 2013 

Private Space

A Falcon 9 SpaceX rocket lifts off from Launch Complex 40 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Cape Canaveral, Fla., Tuesday, Dec. 3, 2013. The rocket is carrying its first commercial payload, a communications satellite. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

JOHN RAOUX — AP

You might have overlooked it amid the holiday distractions and other news events, but a twilight rocket launch from Cape Canaveral last week was a beacon of hope for a U.S. industry and Florida's economy.

California-based SpaceX, in what CEO Elon Musk called its "toughest mission to date," successfully blasted a commercial communications satellite into orbit more than 22,000 miles above the equator. It was the first launch of its kind for SpaceX, and the first from the Cape in four years.

The United States used to own the multibillion-dollar global market for commercial space launches. It has lost the business to Europe, Russia and China. Brazil and India are now emerging as new competitors.

But an executive with SES S.A., the Luxembourg-based operator of the satellite launched last week, called SpaceX's entry into the sector "a game changer." Musk's company reportedly did the job for millions less than the competition overseas would have charged.

SpaceX has signed a contract with NASA for a dozen missions to deliver supplies to the International Space Station, and launched two so far from the Cape.

The company hopes to transport astronauts to the station on its rockets in a few years.

But amid an increasingly tight federal budget and an unsteady commitment to space in Washington, D.C., SpaceX is smart to court other customers besides Uncle Sam. Florida would be, too.

Florida's economy would get a much-needed boost from securing a share of the lucrative private market for space launches. That would be especially welcome on the Space Coast, still recovering from the end of the shuttle program in 2011. But Florida faces new competition from other states, and from Puerto Rico.

The Sunshine State has served as America's spaceport for decades; it has the infrastructure, work force and supply chain to support it. But companies that launch from Kennedy Space Center or Cape Canaveral Air Force Station must contend with government restrictions on security and scheduling. That diminished flexibility can cost time and money, and make the state less competitive.

Florida's chances of prevailing on private launches could depend on whether it builds a new, commercial pad that won't be under the thumb of NASA or the Air Force. State officials have set their sights on a 150-acre parcel north of Kennedy Space Center in the 140,000-acre Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge. SpaceX and at least two other companies have expressed interest.

The Federal Aviation Administration has begun an environmental impact study on the site, a process that will take months to complete. Both federal and state officials will need to work hand-in-hand with citizens' groups to make sure that any environmental damage can be eliminated or at least mitigated.

The stakes for Florida's economy are sky high.

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