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Powering Up for the Future

Gulf Coast is poised for new space era
By David Tortorano

On May 22, a Falcon 9 rocket carrying a Dragon space capsule lifted off the pad at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. The mission itself was unremarkable: carry cargo to the International Space Station. But it was historic. On that day, SpaceX became the first private company to take on a mission to supply the ISS, ushering in a new era of space flight. More flights are planned by SpaceX and a host of other companies that hope to tap into what may be a lucrative new growth industry.

The space race is on again, but this time involves private companies and regions that hope to get a piece of the action. The field is packed. AP science writer Seth Borenstein pointed out that there are more companies looking to make bucks in orbit than there are major U.S. airlines still flying.

The Federal Aviation Administration has licensed eight spaceports, and Alabama in early 2012 said it might try to establish one, perhaps on the Gulf Coast. That Alabama is interested is no surprise. The state for years has been a player in the space industry, thanks to Huntsville, home of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center and the Army’s missile programs.

Once the purview of nation states, space is a bold new playing field for private companies. The Aerospace Industries Association estimates space to be a $45.14 billion piece of the $217.65 billion aerospace industry in 2012.

Fortunately for the Gulf Coast, it’s already a player in the wide-open field and part of the exclusive club of areas with technology-focused NASA centers. It has two NASA operations, Mississippi’s Stennis Space Center and New Orleans’ Michoud Assembly Facility. In addition, the Gulf Coast is home to an Air Force center at Eglin Air Force Base that for 40 years has operated a powerful space surveillance system which tracks more than 16,000 near and deep space objects.

But the big question is, how much of the commercial sector can the region attract? Both Stennis and Michoud are offering thousands of acres to private companies. And with space flight costs so high, that could provide a savings hard to pass up. SSC is the most capable of the NASA sites where rocket engines are tested, the last place in the country where NASA can test full-scale engines or whole rocket stages 24/7. It will test engines for NASA’s Space Launch System. Forty miles away, Michoud has 43 acres under one roof that includes world-class advanced manufacturing equipment. It’s building some of the SLS, including the Orion crew vehicle. But both locations have room to do even more.

NASA and Dixie
It was the underdeveloped South that was the big winner in the space race. Spurred on by President Kennedy’s challenge to get a man on the moon before the end of the decade, NASA launched an ambitious program to establish the manufacturing, test and launch facilities needed to beat the Soviets.

The South became the home to key NASA facilities in part because of the availability of large tracts of land and interconnected waterways needed to transport large space vehicles. Longer periods of fair weather flying, the same things that attracted the military, also played a role. In addition, powerful, senior Southern politicians embraced the space program and recognized the economic benefit it would bring.

The Huntsville operation was joined by Houston, Cape Canaveral, Bay St. Louis, Miss., and New Orleans, and the term “Space Crescent” was used to describe the arc of centers in the South.

“Way Station to Space” by Mack R. Herring pointed out a cover story in the July 20, 1964 issue of U.S. News & World Report that described the space program as a new industry in the South worth “billions.” The article said money for facilities was being spent at the rate of “one million dollars every two hours.”

That the South benefited when NASA dominated the space program is clear. What is less clear is how well it will do in an age when private players may eventually dominate space. Some areas are already taking steps to ensure they get a piece of the growing field.

Space-industrial complex
It was big news in Florida late last year when a NASA facility at Kennedy Space Center, that faced an uncertain future with the end of the Space Shuttle program, got a new lease on life when Boeing decided to use it to build the company’s CST-100 spacecraft. Space Florida, an aerospace economic development agency, took over the Space Shuttle Main Engine Processing Facility and Processing Control Center and is leasing it to Boeing for 15 years to build its Crew Space Transportation spacecraft there, and move the program’s headquarters there as well.

A November story in Time magazine likened the lease to an aristocrat selling off parts of the family estate. But with aerospace workers idled, Florida officials saw the buildings as a chance to attract the commercial space flight industry.

The commercial industry’s growth appears inevitable, and it’s not just the number of spaceports that tell the tale. The Federal Aviation Administration said 21 percent of orbital launch attempts in 2011 were commercial, earning revenue of $1.9 billion. In addition, more than two dozen teams are competing for Google’s $30 million prize to be the first privately funded team to land a robot on the moon.

The list of companies now pushing into space is impressive. It includes SpaceX, Bigelow Aerospace, Virgin Galactic, Orbital Sciences Corp., Alliant Techsystems, Boeing Co., Sierra Nevada Corp., and Blue Origin.

The commercial interest is understandable. Companies have been part of the space program from the start. One reason having a NASA center was seen as an economic boon was the space program’s ties to the aerospace industry. NASA needed companies to develop systems, whether it was a Grumman-built lunar module or Saturn V rocket with stages built by Boeing, North American Aviation and Douglas Aircraft. In many cases they established operations close to NASA centers to be near the customer and facilities it had established.

But in the new age, NASA might wind up being simply one customer, and perhaps not even the largest. Space flight companies are cropping up in multiple places nationwide, including Washington and Colorado. Still, the South continues to have some of the most unique capabilities available in the world, and it’s those capabilities that can be a lure for the new breed.

The industry, whether a huge aerospace company that’s worked in the field for years or one of the startups backed by the deep pockets of billionaires, still needs the same things NASA has built up over 60 years. For some companies it makes sense to tap into what’s already there.

Patrick Scheuermann, director of Stennis Space Center, said there are a lot of companies with great ideas that are in the laboratory or subscale version. Success with those smaller versions will force them to make an investment in their own back yard or search for a location to test the larger scale.

“Rather than them duplicating infrastructure somewhere or putting their capital dollars somewhere, they’re basically using resources that the taxpayers already paid for once,” Scheuermann said.

David Tortorano heads The Gulf Coast Reporters’ League, an independent team of journalists that produces annual report on the Gulf Coast Aerospace Corridor. To download a copy, visit gulfcoastaerospacecorridor.com/gulfcoastaerospacecorridorbook2012.html