Cape Canaveral, Reinvigorated

Four years ago, we asked if commercial spaceflight industry “could make Cape Canaveral rise again.” The answer can be found in a spate of big construction plans on Florida’s Space Coast.

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SpaceX

The plans have the look of 1960s sci-fi, but are ambitious even by 21st century standards: What resembles a giant water tower with the curves of a Martian vehicle from War of the Worlds, standing as high as 300 feet over a newly developed plant at Kennedy Space Center.

This is no discount-bin paperback. This is SpaceX’s vision for a new launch control center. SpaceX calls it “a very uniquely shaped building with limited windows” and adds that, “mitigation to reduce bird collisions will be addressed in the final design.”

"Mitigation to reduce bird collisions will be addressed in the final design."

Why does it have to be so big? “The launch and landing control center would be of sufficient size to host a data center; firing room; engineering room; control center for Falcon 9, Falcon Heavy, and Dragon; customer control center; temporary customer offices; and indoor and outdoor meeting space,” the report says.

The tower can be seen in the 2018 SpaceX environmental impact report, recently published by NASA, which offers a glimpse into the company’s plans to expand in and around Kennedy Space Center in Florida. And Elon Musk’s company isn’t the only one breathing new life into old launchpads.

Savior of the Space Coast

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Conceptual SpaceX hangar for Falcon maintenance and storage.
SpaceX

When the Space Shuttle retired in 2011, Kennedy Space Center, along with the rest of the Florida “Space Coast,” found itself in a tricky situation. KSC wanted to recapture astronaut launches once the likes of SpaceX and other private companies started flying NASA crews. But they also pursed a more intelligent, more humble aspiration: to become a “multi-user spaceport” that could launch satellites for customers besides the U.S. government.

To accomplish this, KSC, the State of Florida, and even the U.S. Air Force have opened up Cape Canaveral real estate to paying customers, a shift that has already begun to transform the Space Coast. The new round of astronauts launches by the likes of Boeing and SpaceX remain years away, but Kennedy has become a dynamic spaceport that sees dozens of annual liftoffs.

SpaceX’s expansion plans for Kennedy anticipate a ferocious satellite launch schedule. Even without any crewed flights or novelty deep space car launches, its ambition is high. “There are over 70 missions on its manifest from commercial and government customers in the U.S. and countries around the world, representing more than $10 billion under contract,” SpaceX says in the report.

SpaceX plans on building a 133,000-sq-ft hangar to handle these customers. “With plans to refurbish and reuse Falcon vehicles to support manifest rate, an additional vehicle processing and storage facility is required,” the report says. Fitting the company’s sense of its place in history, SpaceX company is reserving an area to serve as a “rocket garden” to display its retired, trailblazing spacecraft to visitors.

Elon Musk isn’t the only one planting the seeds of a new industry at Cape Canaveral. Blue Origin, the space outfit of Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos, made an impact on the Cape by building a 750,000-square-foot rocket manufacturing facility in Exploration Park that is meant to be fully operational by the end of the year. The facility will create 270- and 300-foot-long rockets that will launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

Blue Origin is leasing Launch Complex 36 from the Air Force and remodeling it to accommodate their new rockets. There are also plans for additional development south of the current development site for expansion of their manufacturing and test facilities.

And it’s not just the billionaires who are finding a home at KSC. Two smaller rocket companies, Firefly Space Systems and Rocket Lab, will be launching suborbital rockets from the space center under a NASA contract. The Shuttle Landing Facility, a massive runway designed to land spaceplanes from orbit, is under state control and ready for air launches and spaceplane touchdowns. Small payloads on board new spacecraft could mean big business, and KSC wants to have a seat at the head of the table.

Small Sats, Big Opportunity

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SpaceX Falcon 9 leaves Kennedy Space Center
NASA

Frank DiBello stood before the board of Space Florida in early 2018 and spoke his gospel. By Space Florida’s count, Cape Canaveral saw 23 launches in 2017 and is on track to host around 30 launches this year. DiBello told his board that more launches are coming and predicted that the region could soon see 100 a year.

Why? There’s a new industry in town. The engine driving the next phase of the Cape’s growth is a newer but white-hot trend of using low earth orbit to host constellations of small satellites.

The small sat revolution exists at the intersection of tech trends: shrinking electronics; the development of small space rockets; an increase in personal/wearable electronics; improvements in spacecraft-to-spacecraft laser communications; and the realization that low Earth orbit is a workable home for communications satellites. Now companies are lining up to establish constellations of small sats that number in the hundreds and thousands. All those sats will need a ride into space, and that’s music to the ears of launch providers in search of missions and spaceports in need of working tenants.

On DiBello’s request, the Space Florida board approved $500,000 for improvements to their launchpad at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station called Launch Complex 46. “It’s attractive to a whole variety of midsize rocket users, and small launchers as well,” DiBello said, according to coverage in .

These constellations will require infrastructure on planet Earth that extends beyond ground transceivers. For example, the firm OneWeb is building a 100,000-square-foot satellite integration facility at Exploration Park. Here’s the ripple effect: a subsidiary of a Swiss aerospace company is opening a plant in nearby Titusville to make parts for OneWeb spacecraft.

Elon Musk also has launch plans for a constellation that could see a lot of liftoffs at KSC. Regulatory filings put the number of small sats in SpaceX’s Starlink constellation in the thousands. In February 2018, SpaceX launched experimental versions of their small communications spacecraft as secondary payloads on a launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base.

Even the United States Air Force is also getting involved in the small sat trend. Cape Canaveral Air Force Station and Patrick Air Force Base have already made infrastructure changes to accommodate commercial space. For example, the USAF Ground Systems Development and Operations Program developed a universal propellant servicing system and will construct LC-48 as a multi-use launch complex for small launch vehicles.

The commercial space industry is changing and other states besides Florida are eager to carve off a piece of the pie. With such a boom predicted, Kennedy Soace Center and the Florida Space Coast are ready to fight for their share.

DiBello told the Space Florida board that small sat space hardware could produce as many as 1000 space launches each year across the globe. “We’re not going to be able to capture all of that,” he said. “But we sure are going to try.”

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