Bigelow to Space Coast: Infrastructure Expansion and Upgrades Essential

Space Florida's Launch Complex 36

Aviation Week has a bit more on Bigelow Aerospace’s pitch to Florida to become the main launch complex for the company’s commercial space stations:

One of the keys to Bigelow’s success is an exemption from International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) restrictions. “Our aerospace company is the only aerospace company in the United States that is ITAR-exempt. That was not easy. We achieved that a while back,” [Robert] Bigelow told about 150 community leaders and journalists gathered to hear his pitch for the Space Coast. The event was organized by Space Florida, a state-backed agency.

Bigelow’s plans for Florida begin with a $1 million customer showroom/exhibit hall filled with one-third scale models of the inflatable habitats. “Space Florida would be able to use these exhibits to explain to local, state and federal politicians what the new era of space activity would look like,” Bigelow says.

The pitch is crucial to winning state support for a commercially operated spaceport, most likely carved out of some of the excess capacity at Kennedy Space Center. NASA is currently soliciting ideas and gauging interest among non-federal agencies, research institutes and businesses to take over shuttle launch pads, payload processing plants and other facilities that are part of the shuttle program, which ends in about six months.

“The absolute, ultimate, most important action, I think, that the state of Florida can take, beginning now, is to secure launch facilities to be used exclusively by the new commercial space industry and to provide all possible political support,” Bigelow says.

“As the launch facility landlord,” he adds, “Florida and Space Florida will need lots of money. You can’t expect to lease launch facilities that are in poor condition, dangerous, not up to code or worse, insufficient for customers’ needs. You also can’t expect space launch companies to invest in facilities as owners because that would cause them to divert substantial capital away from their core business.”

In essence, Florida needs to expand and upgrade its infrastructure if it wants the company to locate there. Just how much more cash-strapped Florida would need to spend on infrastructure improvements to attract Bigelow and additional launch providers to the Cape is uncertain. A key question is how much funding will be required to convert shuttle and payload processing facilities for use by commercial tenants. Another key issue is what types of financial terms and incentives federal and state government will provide for commercial entities to lease those facilities.

Space Florida is already developing a new commercial launch complex, SLC-36, at Cape Canaveral. The state Legislature boosted the agency’s budget significantly last year, from $4 million to $31 million. President and CEO Frank DiBello is looking to leverage those funds and financial incentives such as loan guarantees to attract businesses to the Space Coast. Still, Florida’s efforts to date have been modest compared to the $209 million that New Mexico is spending on Spaceport America. The state will need to step up with more funding if it wants Bigelow’s business.

The new launches would supplement existing commercial operations from the Cape. SpaceX is launching the commercial Falcon 9 from the Cape on missions for NASA and private clients. United Launch Alliance uses facilities there to send commercial, government and military payloads into space. Space Florida also recently receiving funding from the Defense Department to bring Minotaur rockets launched by Orbital Sciences Corporation to the Space Coast.

Last year, the Obama Administration  proposed a $1.9 billion modernization of the Cape named the 21st Century Launch Complex initiative. However, Congress has significantly reduced the program sharply in order to fund other priorities such as the heavy-lift vehicle and Orion spacecraft. There might be sufficient money left in the budget to do high-priority upgrades that would help lure new businesses there.

Another player in the U.S. Air Force, which uses the Cape for military launches and controls Eastern Test Range operations. The Air Force has been criticized for being an obstacle to attracting the commercial launch industry because of range restrictions, outmoded technology, and operating procedures that are not business friendly. Military officials have acknowledge the criticism and promised to improve their performance. The Air Force’s efforts to upgrade its operations at the Cape have often fallen victim to other DoD spending priorities.

We’ll see what happens. It’s possible that a mix of state, federal and private money will be able to fund the infrastructure improvements at Cape Canaveral.