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Guest column: Cecil Airport is poised to become a player in space industry
Thursday, September 11, 2014
The recent decision by Space Exploration Technologies Inc., better known as SpaceX, to build the nation’s first private launch facility in Texas was clearly disappointing news for Space Florida officials, who had aggressively pursued the project.
This will serve only to galvanize and solidify Space Florida’s pursuit of commercial space opportunities.
But all is not lost for Florida’s commercial space industry here in Northeast Florida, considering the status of the Cecil Airport and Spaceport facility.
Cecil Airport, the former Naval base now owned and managed by the Jacksonville Aviation Authority, is well on its way to becoming a player in the exciting space industry. Cecil is one of the few airports in the U.S. — and the only one in Florida — licensed by the Federal Aviation Administration to operate a horizontal launch spaceport.
Last year, JAA signed an agreement with its first commercial space operator, Atlanta-based Generation Orbit.
What’s driving the industry now is the development of small satellites using nanotechnology. The industry has even created a standard format known as CubeSat, a 4-inch cube weighing just shy of 3 pounds. These tiny satellites are engineered and built by companies such as Planet Labs, Spire and Skybox in Silicon Valley.
Launching nanosats into suborbit is where Jacksonville enters the picture. Cecil Airport is ideally located for commercial space operations conducted by horizontal launch vehicles.
Cecil is close to the intersection of Interstate 10 and Interstate 95.
Add the necessary infrastructure and a well-trained, available workforce and the result is Generation Orbit, which successfully conducted its first test flight in July.
It will use a modified Gulfstream executive jet to carry a rocket, which it then fires (in-flight launch) to put the nanosats into low-Earth orbit.
Generation Orbit has a contract with NASA to launch its first payload in 2016.
Over the next five years, the industry expects that 1,000 nanosats will be launched either by vertical or horizontal liftoffs. Generation Orbit CEO John Olds says he expects his company will eventually operate two flights per month by 2019.
While Silicon Valley is expected to continue to be the epicenter of satellite development, Cecil is poised to be among the top horizontal launch spaceports. The rapid development of nano-satellites has occurred in just a few years, and there’s no telling where the industry will be in the future. But we can expect continued advances in commercial space.
STATE SUPPORT IN PLACE
Earlier this year, Gov. Rick Scott and the Legislature approved $2 million for Cecil Spaceport infrastructure improvements. And this week, the Commercial Spaceflight Federation held their biannual board and member’s meeting in Jacksonville. The Commercial Spaceflight Federation based in Washington, serves as the industry’s trade association and advocate regarding safety, operational and economic topics.
In conjunction with the Commercial Spaceflight board and member’s meeting, trade-industry experts gathered in Jacksonville for a Commercial Space Summit to discuss issues facing operators and spaceports involved in suborbital and low-space missions.
Both government and private industry recognize the potential for economic growth at Cecil Spaceport.
JAA had the foresight and desire to pursue the lengthy process of applying for a commercial spaceport license more than seven years ago. As a result, Jacksonville and Northeast Florida have gained a national reputation as a leader in this emerging industry.
Terri Davlantes is the chairwoman of the Jacksonville Aviation Authority.