Alex Hannaford finds out more about Melbourne International Airport’s aerospace ambitions as Florida’s self-proclaimed ‘Space Coast’ bids to reinvent itself after the end of NASA’s space shuttle programme.
NASA staff in Florida will never forget the date July 21, 2011, as it officially marked the end of its 30-year Space Shuttle programme.
Indeed, when the Space Shuttle ‘Atlantis’ emerged in the night sky above Cape Canaveral, there was the inevitable sadness at witnessing the historic end to the programme, but also unease about what next for the 8,000 employees about to be made redundant.
Almost two years on, while Florida’s Space Coast — a palm-fringed region that encompasses Kennedy Space Center and Cocoa Beach, and which was for so long synonymous with the space programme — has been affected by the biting global recession, nobody could have predicted its tenacious ability to fight to rebuild its aerospace and aviation sector.
According to Lynda Weatherman, president and CEO of the Space Coast Economic Development Commission (EDC), it had had some time to prepare for its reinvention, as former US president, George W Bush, warned that the Space Shuttle programme would be coming to an end as long ago as 2004.
In short, NASA would pull out of sending astronauts into low-earth orbit, leaving that to the private sector, and instead focus on future manned missions to Mars and an asteroid, via the Orion project.
“To me, it said there was going to be a gap – we just didn’t know how deep or how long. But we had seven years to prepare,” admits Weatherman, who reveals that the Space Coast EDC almost immediately set about telling its story and attempting to raise funds in order to mitigate the inevitable.
“Did I know back then that we’d be quite so successful as we have been?” muses Weatherman. “Well, I can’t tell you I was confident in 2004, but we had a plan at least, and we couldn’t afford to worry about what happened next.”
The first ray of light shone through the clouds the same year, when Lockheed Martin Space Systems, based on the Space Coast, won a contract then valued at $8.15 billion to build Orion.
The first tests of that vehicle are on course to take place next year when it will orbit Earth without a crew. But as Weatherman says, 400 jobs weren’t going to make up for the 8,000 lost.
The Shuttle launch site was reconfigured for commercial use and SpaceX, PayPal-founder Elon Musk’s aerospace company, hushed sceptics when in the summer of 2012, its rocket-powered launch system Falcon 9 shot heavenwards from Cape Canaveral, becoming the first privately held company to send a payload to the International Space Station.
“The market is now commercial,” enthuses Weatherman, noting that in addition to SpaceX, aerospace start-ups like XCOR and Rocket Crafters have also moved in.
Weatherman says both near-term and long-term opportunities appeared in the void that NASA’s Space Shuttle programme left, but part of the frustration for organisations like the EDC wanting to see economic prosperity return quickly to the Space Coast, is that there hasn’t been any aggressive movement by the federal government in its space policy.
“It hasn’t decided what it wants to do,” claims Weatherman. “While we see heavy lifting in the long-term and private opportunities in the short-term, we want as many opportunities as possible. And it’s up to us to go after them.”
Even with the private sector investing in the Space Coast, it wasn’t going to match NASA for job-creation — at least not in the short-term. And so the area had to expand its aerospace sector too.
“We were under the radar. We had Harris Corporation, so we knew we could put together a good package. We had history,” she says.
It also had the legacy of a workforce that had proved itself more than capable in 30-plus years of space engineering for NASA and Melbourne International Airport, which located just 28 miles from Cape Canaveral, was ideally placed to develop as an aviation gateway and centre for aerospace development.
Eight commercial flights a day already operated out of the airport, which also handled charter flights to the Bahamas, international corporate flights, a big flight training facility, and three or four specialty cargo flights a month.
Its other tenants included Plus Liberty Aerospace, Evektor Aircraft Inc and Embraer, one of the world’s largest manufacturers of commercial jets.
And LiveTV, the world’s leading provider of inflight entertainment for commercial airlines, had its world headquarters in a 40,000-square-foot facility there.