Space Companies Restore Florida’s Status As Nation’s Launch Pad

February 5, 2016, 5:30 PM UTC
SpaceX successfully lands its first reusable rocket
FLORIDA, USA - DECEMBER 21: (SpaceX HANDOUT - EDITORIAL USE ONLY/NO SALES ) A handout picture made available by SpaceX on 22 December 2015 shows a nine-minute exposure picture of the launch, re-entry, and landing burns of SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida, on 21 December 2015. Private space flight company SpaceX successfully returned a rocket to Earth following a satellite launch on 21 December after two earlier attempts failed. (Photo by SpaceX Handout/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Photograph by Anadolu Agency — Getty Images

Commercial spaceflight companies like SpaceX and United Launch Alliance (ULA) plan to launch more than 30 rockets from Florida this year, nearly doubling last year’s rocket traffic along Florida’s famed space coast. Driven by both government-backed science and military missions and climbing demand for commercial satellites, the area’s launch schedule is on pace to rival the headiest days of the space race.

“The last time we saw 30-plus launches would have been back in the 1960s,” Dale Ketcham, a business strategist with state-chartered development company Space Florida, told Reuters. That Apollo-era launch tempo is expected to continue rising as companies like Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin bring new commercial rockets to market over the next few years.

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Alongside NASA’s presence at Cape Canaveral, Elon Musk’s SpaceX, United Launch Alliance—a joint venture between Boeing (BA) and Lockheed Martin (LMT)—and Blue Origin all either have or are developing launch facilities and rocket assembly infrastructure in Florida.

SpaceX leases launch complex 39—once the site of Apollo and later Space Shuttle launches—at Cape Canaveral. ULA operates from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station just to the south. Blue Origin announced in September that it would also launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station while locating a new state-of-the art rocket assembly facility at nearby Exploration Park.

Globally the commercial launch industry generates more than $250 billion in revenue annually, and Florida has in recent years worked aggressively to parlay its favorable geography and storied aerospace legacy into a modern commercial space industry hub. Its state-backed development company has helped facilitate the leasing of Cape Canaveral’s sprawling launch complex to commercial companies. The state is also working to develop a swath of unused NASA acreage north of Kennedy Space Center into a dedicated commercial spaceport.

Drawing the biggest names in the commercial space industry to those sites could go a long way toward restoring the space coast’s economic vitality, which has suffered in recent years following the winding down of NASA’s Space Shuttle program and the highly-skilled workforce it anchored there. Speaking at a Washington D.C. space conference Wednesday, SpaceX CEO Gwynn Shotwell reiterated SpaceX’s goal of eventually launching rockets every week, if not multiple times per week. The massive skilled workforce required to do so could push the space coast’s economy to new highs.

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Other states will share in the new space race as well. Both ULA and SpaceX also launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. SpaceX is also building its own launch site in Texas’s Rio Grande Valley, though the first launch from that facility was recently pushed back a year to 2018 after engineers discovered the soil at the site isn’t stable enough to support the launch infrastructure, requiring crews to truck in new soil.

Florida’s busy 2016 kicked off this morning when a ULA Atlas V rocket successfully launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station at 8:38 a.m. carrying a Boeing-built GPS satellite for the U.S. Air Force.

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