February 21, 2014
Managing Editor-Jacksonville Business Journal
It’s a dream almost a decade in the making.
In 2005, City of Jacksonville officials embarked on plans to make Cecil Field — the former Navy base turned airport/commerce center — into a locus of aerospace activity, a launching pad for wannabe space tourists like Backstreet Boy Lance Bass.
For years, the idea seemed to go about as well as, say, Bass’ career. Now, that all seems to be changing.
Late last year, a first tenant signed up to launch operations at Cecil Spaceport.
Later this year, that firm — Generation Orbit Launch Services Inc., an Atlanta-based commercial space launch provider — plans to send aloft from Cecil a horizontally launched vehicle as part of a plan to convey a miniature satellite into space.
Advocates hope the company’s announcement will be the first of many for the Westside site, one that boasts a runway long enough to handle the (late, lamented) space shuttle.
If more announcements follow, it could signify the beginnings of a new industry sector in Jacksonville: More launches at Cecil could attract a plethora of related companies, from fabricators to technologists — and if space tourism becomes a reality, the spinoff effects could reach as far as the hospitality industry.
“We need something like that, something that will mark the start of a new era,” said Juan Merkt, director of Jacksonville University’s Davis Aviation Center. “As Cecil starts to play a role in horizontal space launches and attracts more business to the area, this is definitely going to benefit the city, its educational institutions, you name it.”
Space is a growing market. Over the next 10 years, the Federal Aviation Administration projects, there will be demand for some 4,500 flights ... and if interest grows, that number could top 13,000.
“We have evolved to the point that commercial space is a reality,” said Todd Lindner, administrator of planning and development for the Jacksonville Aviation Authority, which owns the spaceport.
Commencing launch sequence
That evolution took years.
The idea of Cecil as a spaceport first came to the fore in 2005, when a consultant working for the state’s Commission on the Future of Space and Aeronautics in Florida called Cecil the “the best airport for aircraft-like launch vehicles” — that is, horizontal launches — because of its 12,500-foot runway and relative lack of encroaching development.
During a breakfast meeting during the Super Bowl in Jacksonville, local economic development officials pitched representatives of Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic on the idea of establishing a spaceport at Cecil (a project that was later done in New Mexico).
At the time, the state was considering picking a site to serve as Florida’s first commercial spaceport, particularly in light of the winding down of operations at Cape Canaveral, where various restrictions made the site less appealing to private businesses.
But shifting political winds and restructuring of the state’s space agency caused those plans to die on the vine. Instead, JAA embarked on its open application to be licensed as a launch site.
In 2007, the FAA signed off on an environmental assessment of the airport, and three years later, the aviation authority had its operator’s license in hand. (Operators are also required to obtain their own licenses.)
That didn’t mean it was ready to start sending stuff into space yet.
“The parallel is often drawn between the state of commercial space travel now and the aviation industry shortly after the Wright brothers inaugurated powered flight,” says the Cecil Spaceport Master Plan drawn up in 2012. “Just as they could not have foreseen the pace and direction of aviation development, so is it difficult now to see the path of space development. What is clear, however, is that commercial space vehicles are coming, and they will need facilities from which they can operate.”
Looking for space
That’s where Generation Orbit comes in.
With $1.8 million from the state, JAA is in the process of building a hangar that will be used by the Atlanta-based company as well — the authority’s Lindner said — as other companies.
“We’ve had conversations with most of the horizontal launch operators out there,” he said. “They’re very open to Jacksonville.”
Generation Orbit noticed Cecil because of the infrastructure already in place there, said A.J. Piplica, an aerospace engineer and the company’s chief operating officer.
“They have a spaceport license with the FAA already in place,” he said. “A lot of people are talking about building spaceports; they have everything in place that we need from a regulatory standpoint as well as a facility standpoint.”
That includes a path that its launch vehicle can go through between leaving the spaceport and heading for the stars. “What has been developed is a corridor that goes from Cecil out to the Atlantic Ocean,” said Ken Ibold, an aviation consultant with Reynolds, Smith and Hills Inc. — a pathway some other airports have struggled to create.
Cecil also has enough clear space around the runway to meet safety requirements.
Generation Orbit’s vehicles are a far cry from the gigantic rockets that filled the skies of Cape Canaveral with flames: From the outside, the launch vehicles look — and take off — like business jets.
In Piplica’s words: “We’re not making any smoke or noise until we’re a couple hundred miles offshore.”
Still, keeping them away from people is the better part of valor, Ibold said: “You wouldn’t do this at JIA. You certainly wouldn’t do this at Craig.”
What that smoke and noise will do is send into space very small satellites.
Basically, just as the technology in cellphones has gotten both smaller and more powerful, Piplica said, so has satellite tech. That means that units can be launched with the expectation that they won’t last as long, but that they can be replaced just about as often as you sign a new iPhone contract.
“We’re starting to get into people who didn’t think they could use data from space because it was too expensive,” he said.
2014 should see the company conduct two test launches from Cecil in preparation for the 2016 launch of three, 10-pound satellites that will go 265 miles up.
As the company is getting ready for those launches, the aviation authority is getting ready for more tenants. The spaceport hangar, now in the design phase, will be around 45,000 to 55,000 square feet, including an ultra-clean area for securing payloads.
The final frontier?
Despite all of that in the works, JAA holds out a note of caution: The countdown might have started, but that doesn’t mean ignition is about to occur.
It will take on the order of two to three years for Cecil to become a facility that sees regular launch operations, Lindner said, and years beyond that for an industrial base to build up.
It can be a challenge, Ibold said. “There’s lots of pieces of the puzzle to put together. There’s the issue of trying to develop something for an industry in its infancy, for vehicles that don’t really exist.”
But Cecil has a lot going for it, Piplica said.
“Once you see someone doing something in space from there, you’ll see other people attracted to the area,” he said. “If it shows it’s a successful place to access space, it has a chance to develop into a commercial version of what the Cape was back in the ’60s.”