Jacksonville’s Cecil Spaceport is counting down to ‘liftoff’

The former Navy jet base is ahead of the game with continued progress into commercial space development and expects to begin launching into orbit within the year.

The plans for Cecil Spaceport have long been in the making, but there’s been little visible progress of space operations at the former U.S. naval air station on Jacksonville’s Westside. But 2020 promises to be a threshold year, according to officials overseeing the development.

“2020 is a big year,” said Todd Lindner, director of Cecil Spaceport since March 2017 for the Jacksonville Aviation Authority. Lindner, who is also a pilot, has been connected to Spaceport plans since 2006 and understands some of the skepticism.

But 2019 saw the addition of aerospace contractor Aevum Inc. for space vehicle development. The company, based in Huntsville, Ala., was awarded a $4.9 million contract from the Air Force Space and Missile Systems center to launch small satellites to low earth orbit from Cecil Spaceport, which is a “horizontal” launch point.

That’s the kind of launches similar to airplanes that take off from runways as opposed to “vertical” launch vehicles that take off from launch pads at Cape Canaveral.

Aevum’s project will eventually launch Department of Defense Space Test Program missions. Aevum joins Generation Orbit, a contractor that’s already been working on projects at the Cecil Spaceport since 2014.

Engine testing for spacecraft has already taken place at Cecil, with this year expected to see more and possibly some launches. In January, the U.S. Air Force Research laboratory completed an engine firing test at the facility. The testing of the X-60A engine was on-ground, meaning it did not take flight. But the firing of the single-stage rocket engine is hypersonic and is designed to reach Mach 5 speeds. It was tested under the oversight of Generation Orbit, JAA officials said.

Lindner said much of the activity will ultimately be determined by the Federal Aviation Administration. But the next year will bring action.

“You’re going to see some actualization,” Lindner said. “It’s still in its infancy. FAA is not going to let anything to occur that could potentially harm the non-participating public.”

In 2020 the federal government is working toward more contracts beyond what have been awarded. But the initial space flights will be substantial from existing contractors, Lindner said.

“They will be taking an aircraft with a rocket attached to it and flying it through our flight corridor and operating range over the Atlantic Ocean and releasing that rocket. It will ignite and it will go,” Lindner said.

Cecil Spaceport is not on its own in terms of oversight from the JAA, and the physical facilities are changing rapidly. There are multiple governmental entities seeking to see the spaceport succeed, Lindner said. Beyond the contractors, the “partners” include Space Florida, the Florida Department of Transportation and FAA among others.

The operations control center is a $1.8 million facility along with another $7 million for the air traffic control tower — both are being finalized. FDOT, FAA and Space Florida are combining forces to cover those costs, Lindner said.

“We have the infrastructure in place right now to accommodate operations,” Lindner said, noting the Spaceport will also be adding facilities as contractors need them for specific purposes and that process is will likely undergo multiple modifications.

Aaron Bowman, senior vice president of business development for JAX Chamber, said the First Coast has always had a solid association with the aerospace industry due to the presence of multiple military installations. But the Spaceport will be key to taking it further.

“I think it’s going to be very important,” said Bowman, former commander of Naval Station Mayport and a current Jacksonville city councilman. He said much of the space development will involve “nano satellite launching” which takes payloads into low orbit and they disintegrate upon re-entry.

“That means once companies and governments sending satellites into low orbit, if they want to maintain that capability, they will have to replace them,” Bowman said. “As far as Cecil, we’ll be one of the few on the eastern seaboard.”

Commercial spaceports are in the very infancy of development. But it’s clear that Cape Canaveral will no longer have a monopoly on space transportation development. There is already competition for developments of spaceports elsewhere.

Beyond Cecil, Camden County, Ga., is already vying for its own space transportation facility. The county announced in December it is completing its FAA application to build a commercial space launch site. The Camden County Commission said plans are being modified for smaller space vehicles.

Camden County Administrator Steve Howard said while the county has been angling for commercial space development for a couple of years, it’s best to remain versatile in the commercial space race.

“The space industry has progressed dramatically since we started this process,” Howard said. “Smaller launch vehicles and small internet and defense satellites have become far and away the biggest market segment for Spaceport Camden.”

It’s not clear how long Camden County’s FAA application and modified plans will take to process before the aviation agency makes a decision.

Fortunately for Cecil Spaceport, Jacksonville’s interests have been long running and they have a jump on the game, said JAA CEO Mark VanLoh.

“When I first came to Jacksonville [in 2018], I thought ‘Well that’s a nice gimmick,’” VanLoh said. “And all of the sudden I see and have met some of the CEOs of some of these companies and they’re serious. ... This is happening.”

Ultimately, it’s taken about 20 years to get commerce running on levels on the 17,000 acres of Cecil where the U.S. Navy turned the property over to the city. The Spaceport will help keep that at a high level, Bowman said.

“Building buildings out there is certainly exciting to me and we’ll be giving them leases. These are all going to be high-wage jobs,” Bowman said.

Spaceport could help raise the profile of Cecil, and Bowman said it’s a profile that’s been sorely overlooked.

“Many don’t give us enough credit for the aerospace that we’ve got... Now you’ve got some great options,” Bowman said. “It gives us another leg of the stool because now we’ve got this whole other industry out there. It’s a big deal.”

VanLoh acknowledged it’s hard to put a price tag on Spaceport development.

“It’s important to JAA because we were one of the first to be designated a Spaceport,” VanLoh said. “The technology has caught up. The commercial part of this has started to realize how important this is. We can’t just rely on NASA and the military to put commercial objects in orbit.”

Private industry can do it faster, efficiently and more affordably, VanLoh said.

“It’s another one of those feathers in the cap,” VanLoh said. “We want companies to relocate here for the business. Cecil is one of those assets.”

The Cecil Spaceport itself only employs about a dozen people on staff, Lindner said. Then more specialists will be hired, but it will remain a limited staff. The contractors themselves will be the big boost in employment, potentially bringing in as many as 300 workers for each company.

That’s going to be on top of about 3,400 people a day working at the Cecil industrial area for various commercial entities not associated with Spaceport.

“The bulk of economic impact is going to come from the support industries,” Lindner said ”... Payload preparation, people who are building the payloads, materials people, liquid oxygen, propellant and oxidizer industry, manufacturing, that’s going to be a huge part of the industry as well. I don’t see ours or any spaceport for that matter making a majority of their revenue from the launches themselves.”


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