Space Florida prepares as SpaceX plans partial move to Texas
Now that they have permission from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX ) will likely announce a new launch complex in Brownsville, Texas, in the next week. The plan is to move their commercial missions, like the recent Falcon 9 launch for Orbcomm, to the new facility, leaving Florida officials concerned about the economic impact to the state.
SpaceX owns about 100 acres of land at Boca Chica Beach and, in May of this year, received approval from the FAA for a vertical launch site that would support as many as 12 launches a year. The FAA’s report states that “after extensive evaluation, which included consideration of economic and technological constraints, the proposed location in southern Texas was identified by SpaceX as the only viable location for SpaceX to construct and operate its commercial Falcon vehicles.” For its part, SpaceX highlighted that a final determination has yet to be made.
“Brownsville remains a finalist for SpaceX’s development of a commercial orbital launch complex, and SpaceX appreciates the FAA’s commitment and work in developing today’s Record of Decision (ROD). There remain several criteria that will need to be met before SpaceX makes a decision. We are hopeful that these will be complete in the near future.”
Geographically speaking, Brownsville is so far south in Texas, and is so close to the Gulf of Mexico, that the benefits of Florida are matched by the new site. Proximity to the equator is important, because the Earth’s spin is fastest at the equator and slowest at the poles. Therefore, a launch closer to the equator gives the rocket a boost in speed without requiring additional propellant, and Brownsville is one of the southernmost cities in the continental United States. Proximity to the coast is the other major issue. Rockets are launched eastward to take advantage of the Earth’s linear velocity, and it is ideal to have an ocean beneath it where debris can safely fall if necessary.
Economically, there is some concern in the commercial space market that federally-funded launches will always have priority over commercial launches at facilities like Kennedy Space Center.
Space Florida, the branch of the Florida State government tasked with managing and promoting aerospace efforts, is aware of the impact this move might cause. With the decline of the state’s aerospace infrastructure in the post-shuttle era, Space Florida has expressed concern Florida might lose its footing within the industry, and has declared intentions to prevent more commercial space work from leaving the state. The current plan is centered on building a commercial-only launch complex instead of expecting companies to continue sharing with NASA and the U.S. Air Force.
“We were aware that SpaceX was in serious consideration of Texas for their commercial launch operations for some time now. We have been working diligently on creating a dedicated commercial launch site in Florida, but the environmental impact study is still underway here,” said Space Florida’s chief of strategic alliances, Dale Ketcham. “We know competing in a global marketplace demands the best business environment to meet commercial payload customers, and right now, Texas has a better commercial launch environment than what Florida can offer, but it is our job to not allow that disadvantage to continue.”
Space Florida is working to get approval for a launch complex in the Shiloh area, which is in the northern section of the NASA-owned Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge. Environmentalists and residents have voiced opposition to the plan, but NASA has agreed to let the FAA run the environmental impact study that is currently in progress. Florida state officials are also seeking viable alternatives to the Shiloh plan, according to a report appearing on Florida Today.
“While we would have preferred stronger consideration from SpaceX on utilizing a Florida-based commercial launch site, we understand the company’s need for a near-term solution,” Ketcham said. “This decision will not negatively impact any of Space Florida’s operations. That said, we will continue to aggressively work on offering the capability which Texas and other states can provide. We will continue to compete.”
SpaceX is not simply abandoning the Space Coast, however. They will still launch NASA and defense missions from Florida. Moreover, the U.S. Air Force recently certified the Falcon 9 booster as having completed three successful flights — a first step toward the Hawthorne, California-based firm competing on the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle program.
In April of this year, less than two weeks before SpaceX’s founder and CEO Elon Musk announced a desire for a Brownsville spaceport, SpaceX signed an agreement for a 20-year lease of Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
SpaceX’s stated aim, at the time, was to use the historically significant location for commercial launches of the company’s Falcon Heavy rocket. It’s a point that has been reiterated by SpaceX’s communication director, John Taylor.
“SpaceX…signed a long term lease for 39A, so that will actually increase our activity in Florida significantly. We indicated then that we would conduct our first Falcon Heavy launch at 39A. As for future Falcon Heavy launches, we will be conducting them from all of our locations. As for NASA missions, the requirements for those missions largely dictate the location of the launches,” Taylor said.
Florida is well known for its place and prominence in space history, having hosted every manned NASA spaceflight as well as numerous government and commercial launches. According to Space Florida’s website, the state “used to own 100 percent of the global commercial launch market” before other countries built up their own space programs.
The Sunshine State has never been the only player in the launch site field. The Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport located in Wallops, Virginia was built in 1945 and saw the launch of Orbital Sciences Corporation’s Antares rocket just this past Sunday. Vandenberg Air Force Base in California has been in use since 1957, and it recently hosted the launch of NASA’s OCO-2 satellite. The much newer Kodiak Launch Complex in Alaska, despite its exceptionally high latitude, has had 16 unmanned launches since 1998 and claims to be particularly advantageous for launching satellites into “polar, sun synchronous and highly elliptical orbits.”
If all goes as Musk intends, Brownsville will join the list of U.S. cities with launch complexes, a mere 430 miles away from the company’s rocket development facility in McGregor, Texas and in a geographically useful position for possibly less expensive launches.
Rae Botsford End is a freelance writer and editor whose primary work currently is writing technical white papers, contributing to SFI, and working on a speculative fiction novel that she hopes to have published soon. Rae wanted an opportunity to report on the various space-related events in and around Florida's Space Coast and approached SFI's founder about the possibility. Rae now covers an array of subjects for our growing website.