December 20, 2021

How Florida is harnessing the next phase of commercial space investment

A large crane on the back of a boat

The world of space exploration has changed markedly since the heyday of the Space Shuttle, but one element remains unchanged: Florida’s commitment to remaining at the cutting edge of space innovation and investment.

Florida has driven the US’s extraterrestrial adventures for decades. In July 1969, it was the launch site of Apollo 11, the first mission to land on the moon. By 1973, the state’s Kennedy Space Center was the home base of Skylab, Nasa’s first space station. Between 1981 and 2011, there were more than 130 space shuttle launches from the Sunshine State.

In other words, the history of space exploration would be inconceivable without Floridian participation. However, the 2011 closure of the space shuttle programme prompted questions about the future of Florida as a space hub.

Those questions are now being well and truly answered. With the spectacular growth of commercial space flight, Florida is once again firmly establishing itself as the location of choice for those aiming for the stars. More than that, the sector has diversified. From manufacturing to R&D, this is no longer simply a place to launch rockets – a fact that promises to keep Florida relevant even as rival hubs try and muscle in on its position.

Flying high

Dale Ketcham has been around the Space Coast for so long that he remembers when Nasa treated rockets like rough-and-tumble toys. “In the very early days, it was very much an exercise in improvisation,” he recounts. “We had rockets launched out here that had duct tape on them.”

As the vice-president of government and external relations at Space Florida unsurprisingly adds: “Duct tape is not something you find on a launch thing nowadays.” All the same, his recollections speak vividly to the sheer longevity of the Space Coast, a narrow strip of Florida lowlands and home to Cape Canaveral.

The easiest way to understand this endurance is geography. Flanked by the Atlantic, and miles from major metropolises, this is an ideal spot to launch rockets packed with more than a million gallons of fuel.

Florida’s location is useful in other ways too. By launching from the Eastern Seaboard, rockets leaving the Earth’s surface and travelling eastward get a boost – thanks to the planet’s west-to-east spin. That is shadowed by the region’s excellent transport infrastructure, boasting 130 public-use airports, railway links across the US and a major harbour at Port Canaveral.

At the same time, suggests Ketcham, Florida’s long association with space travel has created a robust entrepreneurial atmosphere. “The culture of the space programme certainly permeates east-central Florida,” he says. “It always has in terms of enthusiasm, excitement and a cultural recognition that this is very much part of our self-identity.”

This is reflected in more practical ways too. Florida now employs approximately 130,000 people in aerospace, while military units like the 45th Space Wing are also based locally. Even the local dial code – 321 – was picked to evoke the countdown to a rocket launch.