Space-industry officials say this year could be one of the more important in recent memory because of the need to execute on planned major projects.
The year will be marked by the Florida coming-out party of Jeff Bezos’ rocket company Blue Origin, which recently completed a massive 750,000-square-foot manufacturing plant near Kennedy Space Center. That facility is expected to employ 300 workers during its first few years of operation.
OneWeb, meanwhile, plans to launch at least five of its Florida-built satellites on Blue Origin’s New Glenn rocket in the near future. The company could open its satellite manufacturing plant by the end of the year.
United Launch Alliance and SpaceX, meanwhile, expect to continue a feverish launch pace on the coast, which saw multiple launches within a month several times last year. Four launches were planned for January from Florida, including the long-anticipated maiden test flight of SpaceX’s behemoth Falcon Heavy rocket.
Space Florida has been trying to lure more companies to the region, though President and CEO Frank DiBello wouldn’t specify which ones.
“You’ll see a couple of announcements of new companies [moving] here that add depth to the already growing aerospace and space economic base we have growing in Florida as a whole,” he said.
DiBello described the potential arrivals as small-satellite manufacturers, rocket companies and “unconventional transportation technology” firms.
“Florida will play a pivotal role in enabling control of the Internet of Things,” he said, referring to satellites that enable location- and automation-based services on everyday objects. “It’s IOT of things that are flying in space, in the air or on the ground.”
The efforts come as the U.S. government plans to revitalize efforts to reach the Moon, which President Donald Trump named as a target in a Dec. 11 space policy directive.
The private industry would still be able to pursue a moon landing or other initiatives this year, DiBello said.
“In spite of what mission NASA might have been given, there isn’t enough money to accomplish the broad goals that the space council wants without access to private capital,” he said. “We need to quickly embrace what the commercial marketplace can provide.”
One area that appears set to grow is small satellites.
OneWeb will build them in Central Florida in a 120,000-square-foot facility that’s expected to employ up to 250. Melbourne-based Harris Corporation, meanwhile, has plans to build smaller satellites that can hitch rides on rockets into space.
The goal is to carve a niche in an emerging industry, said Bill Gattle, president of Harris’ Space and Intelligence Systems division.
“We are not going to compete with a Boeing, a Lockheed Martin, a Northrop Grumman,” he said. “But on smaller missions, that’s a strong play for us.”
The fact that more launches are expected to take off this year have helped make that sector more appealing, Gattle said.
“A decade ago, a satellite would cost me $140 million just to get it into space,” he said. “Now I can have a hosted satellite on a rocket for less than $1 million. It opens up a tremendous opportunity.”
Elon Musk’s SpaceX has plans to debut its Falcon Heavy rocket in a test flight this month.
The heavy-thrust reusable vehicle, which uses the power of three Falcon 9 rockets, would mark an advance in Musk’s effort to get humans to Mars.
Musk has identified that task as one of the driving missions behind his company.
Ray Lugo, director of the University of Central Florida’s Florida Space Institute, said SpaceX and United Launch Alliance’s efforts to out-maneuver and out-innovate one another bodes well for the region this year.
Add in another year of development of NASA’s Space Launch System and the Orion vehicle, he said, it establishes a competitive environment with no clear expected outcome just yet.
“Is this a turning point where instead of being predominately led by the government, do we rely more on commercial companies?” said Lugo, who previously served as director of NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland.
Blue Origin’s rocket plant throws in another wild card that should be factored into where the industry goes in 2018, he said.
“I have a feeling that once he gets to flying, that will be the vehicle everyone wants to fly on,” he said.
New arrivals will open up opportunities for contractors.
Space Coast is home to hundreds of companies that partner up with larger businesses to create components of their launch vehicles or provide other services.
Last year, Craig Technologies landed a deal to manufacture an adapter for NASA that helps anchor the Orion spacecraft to the Space Launch System.
These deals have led to President and CEO Carol Craig predicting a hiring surge for the company in 2018.
The increase in activity has the company considering an acquisition for the first time since its 1999 opening.
“You need to take advantage of the opportunity,” said Craig, whose company employs about 160 people on the Space Coast. “Over the last year or two, activity has been ramping up.”