Space Florida on the right trajectory, but quickly approaching “max q”

by | Aug 6, 2022



In aerospace terminology, one of the most dangerous parts of a space launch is when a rocket approaches maximum dynamic pressure, or “max q,” that singular moment in time when the rocket’s speed and the density of the lower atmosphere combine to exert maximum aerodynamic stress on the airframe of the rocket. Passing that milestone as a rocket ascends into space doesn’t mean the rocket is home free, but it does mean it survived one of the more grueling tests on its journey.

While Space Florida, the state’s leading aerospace development authority, isn’t technically a rocket ship, it is most definitely in the rocket ship business, and it also finds itself on a rocket-like parabolic arc in terms of deal making. With an operations budget of over $14.5 million and an organizational chart that looks almost as complex as a circuit diagram for a component aboard Apollo 11, Space Florida is rapidly approaching a point of maximum dynamic pressure on the organization.

That’s because the speed at which Florida’s commercial aerospace industry is growing, along with the blockbuster size of some of the financial deals that Space Florida has helped broker, are combining to put Space Florida front and center in terms of Florida’s economy, while at the same time subjecting it to increased scrutiny as Florida government officials begin to expect some of those deals to pay off for Florida taxpayers.

Space Florida’s mission is unique. It is charged with maximizing the economic benefits of Florida’s broad range of space facilities and workforce expertise (i.e. rocket scientists) and helping the state remain the unquestioned leader in the aerospace industry. One of the agency’s most important jobs is to “attract and expand” the next generation of businesses in the space industry.

Inside that industry, Space Florida is viewed as the “heavyweight” that other states looking to compete with Florida have to contend with when a technology company is looking for facilities to expand operations. Recently, Space Florida played a key role in cutting a deal with Terran Orbital that, at least on paper, is slated to bring in thousands of high paying jobs by 2025. The eye-popping deal was good enough for Gov. Ron DeSantis to show up and make the announcement himself. If successful, Terran Orbital will operate the largest satellite manufacturing facility in the world, right in the beating heart of Florida’s Space Coast.

That’s just the sort of blockbuster deal that Space Florida was created for in the first place. But it’s also the same kind of deal that could blow up in Space Florida’s face if a partner companies fails deliver on their end of the bargain.

The stakes, and competition, are getting higher. Several other states are now operating their own launch and landing facilities, including Texas, Virginia, Alaska and California, and sometimes the economic incentive packages being offered by competitors have enticed big projects away from the Sunshine State.

Still, Florida remains the leader, and in 2022 is on pace to set a record for the number of launches and tonnage of space cargo out of Florida. Last year, Space Florida claimed credit for its facilities “accounting for” 370 tons of space cargo going into orbit or beyond, and Space Florida CEO Frank DiBello predicted in May of this year that his agency may be able to account for as much as 600 tons of space cargo flowing through Space Florida facilities this year.

Already, the state has hosted more rocket launches this year than in the past two decades.

While there have been a handful of delays and setbacks – which are common in the risky business of space launches – the number of Florida-based launches is expected to only increase in the coming years as Space Florida puts the finishing touches on a refurbished Launch Complex 46 – with millions of dollars invested in maintenance and upgrades. The launch pad already sees some use by NASA and the United States Air Force and its contractors, but Space Florida’s vision for the complex is to cater to the rapidly growing commercial space flight industry that includes the likes of Blue Origin, United Launch Alliance, and Astra Space, to name a few.

It’s a deal with the latter company, Astra, that could start to form a pressure crack in Space Florida’s hull.  Astra’s value proposition as a commercial launch operator was that it planned to use smaller rockets that cost significantly less for satellite customers to put their hardware into orbit. If only they could get those rockets to orbit in the first place. The company has since suffered a string of failed launches, including a pair of them trying to take off from Space Florida’s own LC-46. The first, launched February 10th, tumbled out of control more than 85 miles over the Atlantic when a second stage fairing failed to separate. In June, a second Astra rocket suffered a similar fate late in its ascent, destroying a pair of satellites.

In addition to those Florida based failures, Astra has suffered a string of other failed launches, a total of five in seven tries, which  led to an announcement on Friday that the company is abandoning its smaller rocket program in favor of a significantly larger launch vehicle. The immediate fallout is that Astra will not fly again in 2022. But worse, some industry watchers have wondered allowed if Astra’s new plans aren’t also doomed to fail, suggesting that their so-called larger rocket still isn’t big enough, suggesting a similar plan has already been tried and determined to be non-viable in the commercial space industry. The tech website Ars Technica explains:

Even if Astra can meet these price and payload capacity targets, there are questions about the long-term viability of Rocket 4. A rocket priced and sized like this is roughly equivalent to the Falcon 1 rocket developed by SpaceX in the 2000s. However, in 2009, the company pivoted to the much larger Falcon 9 vehicle after determining the commercial market could not support such a vehicle.

The takeaway is that the space business is a notoriously difficult industry in which to make a profit. Astra has already lost hundreds of millions of dollars, and may not survive long enough to complete the development work necessary to launch its new, larger vehicle. And if companies can’t make a profit, then the promise of a thriving commercial space industry in Florida could be in jeopardy.

A failure by Astra would be at least a small setback for Space Florida, which has poured millions in taxpayer dollars into its rarely-used launch facility. At the speed at which Space Florida is moving in order to attract other major industry players, it needs to choose wisely and invest in winners. Florida can’t afford to partner with too many companies whose rockets go tumbling into the ocean.

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