From a seaside perch overlooking the hustle and bustle of ships coming and going at Port Canaveral on Florida’s east coast, Dale Ketcham reflects on decades of history with nostalgia.
“I moved here and learned how to walk on Cocoa Beach three years before NASA was created” in 1958, he said.
Not only can Ketcham trace his life alongside the U.S. space program, he’s had a firsthand view of the transformation of the economies of communities surrounding NASA’s Kennedy Space Center several times since the 1950s.
“The space program continued to progress, but it was always government-focused,” said Ketcham, adding that the configuration did not bring long-term stability to the local workforce.
“For 50 years roughly, Florida’s Space Coast was the place for launch” but not production of spacecraft, said Brian Baluta of the Economic Development Commission (EDC) of Florida’s Space Coast.
Most of the equipment used in the Apollo and space shuttle programs in the last half of the 20th century was shipped to Florida for assembly.When Atlantis touched down in 2011 on the final shuttle mission, it marked the end of an era in human spaceflight, with painful economic consequences for the Space Coast.
“The job losses started to pile up, and that happened to coincide with the Great Recession,” Baluta said.“And that was really a one-two punch for this area. In 2011, unemployment was 12% at that point. The economy and its outlook (were) not that strong.”
Baluta’s organization responded by forging a plan to boost the fortunes of the area’s workforce — permanently.
“It started with taking the unusual step of reaching out to the companies who were likely to produce the successor to the space shuttle," he said.“At the time, it was called the Crew Exploration Vehicle, and there wasn’t a contract for it yet,” he said. “But we reached out to Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, Boeing — the companies that would likely compete and win for that contract. And we made the unusual pitch of, ‘If you win the contract, not only should you consider launching from Cape Canaveral, but you should consider assembling your spacecraft here.’”
The concept took off.
“Just like diversifying a portfolio, if you diversify the area and your products, you can ride through those lows,” said Lockheed Martin’s Kelly DeFazio. Her company won the contract to create NASA’s next-generation spacecraft transporting humans back to the moon.
The Crew Exploration Vehicle, now called Orion, is the crew capsule of the upcoming Artemis missions. Instead of making them elsewhere, some of Orion’s key components are pieced together at Lockheed Martin’s new STAR (Spacecraft, Test, Assembly and Resource) Center near Titusville, Florida, which is the former home of Space Camp and the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame.
“This particular center here was an 18-month, $20 million investment by Lockheed Martin, and that is helping to expand the manufacturing footprint for the Space Coast and allowing us to increase throughput (output) over time to support the lunar mission,” said DeFazio, who is also a longtime resident of Florida’s Space Coast. She now oversees the work at STAR Center, which includes creating wiring harnesses and the application of thermal tiles that will protect the Orion capsule.
Amid all the activity at STAR Center, DeFazio said local excitement is building.
“I think that it will start to become very clear with the launch of Artemis 1 that there is a difference," said DeFazio. “And you know what? We’re going to take humans farther than they have ever gone before.”
“When I was growing up with the original seven astronauts, it was really a frontier town,” Ketcham said. That Wild West frontier town description is also how he characterizes the present-day Space Coast, with government contractors and private companies jockeying for real estate and launch access.
“In many ways, we’re going back. … The workforce is younger, particularly with Space X. They aren’t afraid to fail,” Ketcham said.
‘The more the merrier’
Space X, Blue Origin, and the Airbus and One Web partnership are just a few of the growing number of companies now with facilities near the rocket launch pads at Kennedy Space Center, thanks in part to the efforts of the EDC and organizations like Space Florida, where Ketcham now serves as vice president.
“We just had an announcement this week that there will be a small launch company called Astra coming here to build small rockets for small satellites, which is a big new component of the space industry,” said Ketcham. “But we’ve also got Firefly, Relativity coming — and others will be coming after that.”
The more the merrier said Ketcham, who believes the flurry of activity not only helps the local economy but also keeps the United States competitive globally in what he sees as a new international space race.
China leading the race
“The Chinese will put more rockets into orbit than we will because the Chinese are competitive, very smart, very capable, very well-resourced and very committed. And they are the major competitors in space,” Ketcham said.
NASA Administrator Bill Nelson agrees.
During a U.S. House of Representatives appropriations hearing conducted remotely last year, he signaled alarm over the recent successes in the Chinese space program, including landing a rover on the surface of Mars, and is concerned that their ambitions are not limited to the red planet.
“They want to send three big landers to the south pole of the moon,” Nelson told members of Congress. “And that’s where the water is. And we are still a year or two away from a much smaller lander going there.”
Nelson wants U.S. lawmakers to increase NASA’s funding so the agency can complete the Artemis program, which plans to return humans — including the first woman — to the moon, with Mars as an eventual destination.
“I think that’s adding a new element as to whether or not we want to get serious and get a lot of activity going on landing humans back on the surface of the moon,” he said.