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Showtime for Falcon Heavy rocket, but Florida already reaps its benefits

Posted February 6, 2018 11:56 a.m. EST

Even if his biggest rocket blows up today -- something Elon Musk has joked about in tweets -- the founder of SpaceX already has helped revitalize a Florida aerospace industry nearly wiped out by the shutdown of the space shuttle program.

It will help if SpaceX's Falcon Heavy rocket launches successfully from the Kennedy Space Center and pushes its cargo -- a red Tesla Roadster made by the other company Musk is known for -- toward a destination in orbit around Mars.

But there appears to be no stopping the resurgent aerospace industry as it climbs past $20 billion a year in state impact with more than 150,000 high-paying jobs, according to Space Florida, an industry organization.

Many of the jobs are in the Tampa Bay area, home to more than 2,400 aerospace-related companies with about 16,000 employees and sales of more than $2 billion per year in Hillsborough, Pasco, Pinellas and Polk counties, Space Florida says.

What's more, U.S. Special Operations Command at MacDill Air Force Base is looking to the commercial space industry to help launch small satellites for better commando communications.

"I think the monumental movement toward developing a space economy will drive innovation and industry growth nationally and here in Tampa Bay," said Lisa Monnet, president of the nonprofit Tampa Bay Defense Alliance. "SpaceX is disrupting the market, which will drive down cost and open the door for commercial companies to compete in the launch space."

Projections of job growth plus the awarding of Defense Department contracts during the next two years signal a major turnaround for an economic sector that plunged in 2011 with the end of the space shuttle program. About 9,000 contracting jobs paying an average $80,000 per year went away at the Kennedy Space Center, along with nearly 30,000 jobs indirectly.

Now space is big money worldwide.

Global spending on space activity topped more than $320 billion in 2015, according to a 2016 Congressional Research Service report. More than three-quarters of that money was generated by commercial space products and services and infrastructure support industries.

NASA, the pioneering agency that once helped drive the aerospace industry, generated only 14 percent of those revenues.

SpaceX, created in 2002, is helping fuel the resurgence in Florida, said Robert Bishop, dean of engineering at the University of South Florida and principal investigator for SOCom's satellite program. SpaceX already has paying customers lined up in the belief that the Falcon Heavy can deliver them success.

SpaceX's appeal lies in its ability to launch and retrieve payloads at a fraction of NASA's costs, Bishop said.

"Prior to SpaceX, there was some uncertainty as to whether commercial companies could resupply the International Space Station, send a rocket into space, deliver a payload then land on a barge in the ocean," he said. "SpaceX proved it can happen beyond a shadow of a doubt."

The Falcon Heavy is the company's third rocket. The Falcon 1 and Falcon 9 have already have performed more than 100 missions, delivering on about $12 billion in contracts, SpaceX said. The first launch from Florida took place in 2010.

Falcon Heavy "further consolidates the success SpaceX has had in providing disruptive technology for getting into space," said Dale Ketcham, Space Florida vice president for government and external relations.

"The commercial space sector as a whole has been a huge and essential part of not only recovering after the shuttle retirement, but more importantly of growing a much more resilient future."

Ketcham has a front-row seat to the industry's growth from his office on Merritt Island along Florida's Space Coast.

Blue Origin has set up a rocket manufacturing plant there, and across the street is satellite-maker OneWeb. The two companies are working together to launch communications satellites into orbit.

Officials from Blue Origin and OneWeb declined to comment for this report.

Blue Origin, owned by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, is expected to create more than 500 jobs and $200 million in capital investment while OneWeb is expected to bring 300 jobs and about $80 million in capital investment, Ketcham said.

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The bulk of the resurgent industry's impact will go to Space Coast, said Bishop, the USF engineering dean. But he sees great potential for the Tampa Bay area to capitalize on it.

Tampa already has a strong foundation with high-tech incubators like SOCom's SofWerx, Tampa Bay Wave and the Tampa Bay Innovation Center.

"Whenever you are talking about high tech, it is all enhanced by having high tech workforce," Bishop said. "A commercial space program in particular is something young people find fascinating."

So does SOCom, he said.

Navy Lt. Phillip Chitty, a SOCom spokesman, said the command will consider all options for satellite launches, including commercial companies.

The Air Force has already chosen the Falcon Heavy for its Space Test Program 2 missions once the rocket gets national security clearance, as the Falcon 9 has.

• • •

The launch of the 22-story Falcon Heavy is the most anticipated space event in Florida since the end of the space shuttle program.

But Florida faces some competition for the attention of SpaceX: The company also launches rockets at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California and may soon launch from a center in Texas, as well.

Still, the Sunshine State is up to the challenge, Ketcham said. And Musk is focused for now on Florida and his launch today.

Test flights like this always are risky, he said during a conference call on Monday. An explosion would damage the launch center's pad, delaying another flight for at least eight months.

"It will be a downer if it blows up," Musk said. "But hopefully, if something goes wrong, it will go wrong far into the mission so we can learn as much as possible."

Contact Howard Altman at haltman@tampabay.com or (813) 225-3112. Follow @haltman.

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