Reporter - Jacksonville Business Journal
Friday, March 30, 2012
Region well suited to pursue space tourism
Participants at the Cecil Spaceport Development summit this week said Jacksonville needs to start positioning itself now as a destination spot for space travel.
The Jacksonville Aviation Authority showcased Cecil Airport’s capabilities and assets for key stakeholders and to attract public and private investment. Panel discussions touched on educating skilled workers, attracting aerospace companies through government incentives and creating industry partnerships.
There are 193 aviation and aerospace companies in Duval County, employing more than 5,000 workers with an economic impact of more than $440 million in wages, Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll said. The NASA Kennedy Space Center and the new Cecil Spaceport give Florida a true network of space launch activities, commercial launches for unmanned space vehicles and space tourism applications that no other state has.
About 140 people attended the March 26 summit from government, aerospace companies and educational institutions.
Rocketplane Global Inc. is considering Jacksonville and other locations, including an area in Oklahoma, for its space flight headquarters and engineering facilities. The company, based in Green Bay, Wis., expects to make a decision in the next few months, said Chuck Lauer, vice president of business development for Rocketplane.
The company is developing aircraft intended to provide flights into suborbital space. Other major companies pursuing such flights include SpaceX, XCOR Aerospace Inc. and Virgin Galactic.
Tourism infrastructure in place
Cecil has infrastructure including physical facilities, a 12,500-foot runway and a corridor to use rocket power over water, limiting noise issues. Jacksonville’s many amenities for tourists are an important factor, Lauer said.
The area’s existing tourism infrastructure, including the Ritz-Carlton, Amelia Island and the Sawgrass Marriott Golf Resort and Spa in Ponte Vedra Beach, makes it a destination site.
“You’ve got two of the best places on the planet for people to come and stay and that’s a major part of it,” Lauer said, “particularly for the tourism driver. When you look at the expectations of the person who can afford to spend $200,000 [on a space flight], these are not the kind of people expecting anything less than the best of the best.”
An expensive venture
Cecil Airport, operated by the authority, received a “space territory” designation from the Florida Legislature in March. JAA is hoping to attract a commercial spaceport operator, which is a company that has one or more space vehicles that are developed and ready to go into commercial flight service.
Cecil is targeting three categories of reusable launch vehicles. All take off like an airplane, but two use turbo engines and switch to rocket power at a certain location or altitude. The “Y” concept uses a rocket engine from takeoff.
Several companies are offering reservations for the first commercial space tourism suborbital flights. Virgin Galactic has a late 2013 timetable for a passenger flight from Spaceport America, headquartered in Truth or Consequences, N.M.
Suborbital flights go up about 62 miles to the edge of the atmosphere and passengers will experience about three to five minutes of weightlessness or microgravity.
JAA CEO Steve Grossman said the authority has teamed up with state and local agencies such as Space Florida and JaxUSA Partnership to support aerospace companies looking to relocate to Jacksonville. Aerospace industry executives said factors such as government incentives, utility costs and state regulations play a factor in deciding where to locate.
“We know how to make those deals happen,” Grossman said.
A 2011 U.S. Commercial Space Transportation report said Jacksonville joins seven other Federal Aviation Administration-licensed commercial spaceports in Florida, California, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Alaska and Virginia. Once an operator signs on to Cecil Spaceport, it would cost at least $100 million to provide the infrastructure needed to get the ball rolling, including a 20,000- to 30,000-square-foot airport hangar, mission control and training facilities, at least one space vehicle and a visitor center, Lauer said.
The JAA would try to fund this construction through a combination of partnerships, government funding and private investment, said Todd Lindner, JAA senior manager of aviation planning and spaceport development.
Rocketplane plans to fund its model XP vehicle, including design, system testing, engineering and assembly, through international investment, Lauer said.