Keeping the Space Industry in Central Florida
If you are obliged, either by passion or fiduciary responsibility, to pursue an objective with others who have competing interests and no less passion, can that be resolved well beyond even win-win? It can if the stars align and you have enough sense to recognize that opportunity.
It is common today to have competing interests slugging it out in a high stakes fight to the finish, with lawyers being the only real winners. This arrangement is far from perfect, but it’s the best we’ve come up with so far.
However, sometimes fate provides an opportunity to overcome, break that mold and use that struggle to achieve so much more. A conflict over a spot of land at Kennedy Space Center may be just such a catalyst.
To avoid new launch business going to Texas, or elsewhere, Space Florida is seeking to convert land now owned by NASA into a purely commercial launch site, but environmental groups are opposed to the project as a threat to the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge (MINWR). Battle lines are drawn, and the environmental review process has begun its 12 to 18 month gestation.
Within that time, there is a chance to use this battle to address a more serious threat to the region than the loss of high tech jobs or the development of a few score acres of fallow orange grove at the MINWR – the demise of the Indian River Lagoon.
How to Create Harmony
All the free world’s commercial satellites used to launch from Florida, but NASA and the Air Force were not very receptive to the private sector, so they left. Our share of that business went from 100 percent to zero in 25 years. Now, led by SpaceX and others, that market is returning to American shores. However, Texas and others offer a more attractive launch site under FAA oversight than anything available here. The industry is again prepared to vote with its feet and leave, but Space Florida’s responsibility is to keep that business and its jobs here.
Shiloh, once a citrus community before the space program, can offer what our local federal partners cannot: a purely commercial-friendly launch site in Florida. Without it, business is business and we know how that movie ends.
Would Shiloh impact the environment at Kennedy Space Center? While the developed land at KSC would only be increased by about one quarter of one percent, it’s still an impact. Those charged with defending the environment are responding with pushback on behalf of the natural beauty of this area. That is healthy and appropriate and is part of the process.
So what makes this contest unique? Perhaps it will provide the impetus to address the larger ecological concern, the Indian River Lagoon.
How would this work? The estimated cost to fix the river is rising north of $1 billion over the next 20 years. Where would those resources come from in times of ever-constrained budgets?
It would take the resources of the federal, state and local governments, not-for-profits and the private sector, most of whom have an interest in the outcome of Shiloh.
Leaders and Interests Coming Together
The Administration does not wish to exacerbate the loss of space jobs as we approach the 2016 election, particularly given its best legacy regarding KSC is the success of the commercial space market. Senators Nelson and Rubio, and Congressman Posey have all done much more than just articulate a concern for the Lagoon; they have no desire to preside over the transfer of space jobs elsewhere, especially Texas.
In Tallahassee, the Legislature will be led by Speaker Steve Crisafulli in the House and President Andy Gardiner in the Senate. Both men have done more than just talk about the need to fix the Lagoon, and they will wield gavels in both chambers for the next two years. Also, both see the significance of a commercial launch site like Shiloh. Additionally, those companies that are interested in Shiloh are run by billionaires Elon Musk (SpaceX) and Jeff Bezos (Blue Origin) who have track records of supporting the environment.
The political landscape on the Space Coast is evolving into one, uniquely rich with possibility. Surely these competing interests can coalesce into both a scientific and economic solution for commercial space flights in Florida, while providing the synergy and commitment to restore the Lagoon.
Dale Ketcham is chief of strategic alliances at Space Florida.