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Legislative Preview 2019, Part 3: Maintaining Florida's Leadership In The Space Industry

Falcon Heavy launches for the first time from Kennedy Space Center. Photo: SpaceX
Falcon Heavy launches for the first time from Kennedy Space Center. Photo: SpaceX

This story is part of Legislative Preview 2019, a special series airing this week on 90.7 WMFE.  Learn more >>

Since the end of the shuttle program in 2011, Florida has worked to court private space business to fill the gap. Now, other states like Georgia, Texas and Colorado are looking to capitalize on the private space boom. Stakeholders, along with the Governor and Legislature, have a plan to hold on to Florida’s dominance in the space industry.

Firefly Aerospace is the latest company to pick Florida for a new rocket manufacturing and launch facility. The groundbreaking last month was the culmination of months of behind the scenes work by Space Florida. The state agency worked to secure funding and infrastructure upgrades for Firefly, which promises to bring more than 200 jobs with a salary of around $70,000.

"I think that these are good for our economy, it’s also just good for exploration," said Governor Ron DeSantis the groundbreaking ceremony for Firefly at Cape Canaveral. "I think our space mission, we’ve got good mojo back."

In his budget request, DeSantis asked the legislature for $7 million for Space Florida to attract new business opportunities and investors, and about $12 million for operating expenses. The funding is likely to get approved.

The investment into the agency is a "minor line item" on the Florida budget, but according to industry Analyst Chris Quilty the investment has paid "significant dividends for the state in terms of attracting young, growing companies."

So far, Space Florida’s efforts have brought big names like SpaceX, Blue Origin and OneWeb Satellites to the Space Coast and there are signs of even more growth statewide.

New technology like reusable rockets is changing the industry, along with new funding sources. "What we’ve seen for the first time in the history of the industry is venture capitalists investing in the space companies," said Quilty. 

But for some industry leaders, incentives packages, tax deals and infrastructure upgrades aren’t enough to keep Florida on the top of the list for aerospace businesses looking for a new home. It’s lacking one key thing: A workforce. 

"It’s the talent and the skilled labor to get done the high technology projects that are moving here," said Space Florida's Dale Ketcham. "University of Central Florida provides more engineering students to the aerospace industry than any other university in the county, but it still falls fall short of the capacity and demand we have."

Space Florida isn’t in charge of developing a workforce, but leaders at the agency urged lawmakers to consider the issue during a trip to the capital last month during Space Week.

Attracting and keeping a skilled workforce is on the minds of some lawmakers. "Talent is today’s currency," said Democratic House Representative Anna V. Eskamani. Central Florida has institutions that feed the space-coast’s appetite for a workforce, universities like UCF, Embry-Riddle and Florida Tech, "but if we’re not investing in them and creating the infrastructure where they want to call Florida home, were going to lose them to other states, to other parts of the world."

To attract and keep young workers, Eskamani wants lawmakers to invest in public transportation, arts and culture, and push for the passage of the competitive workforce act instead of trying to cut different tax deals to attract businesses. 

There’s also educational programs outside of traditional universities -- like apprenticeships -- which have won the support of the Governor. 

"We want kids in high school and in state colleges locally to be in apprenticeships at places like Firefly, Blue Origin, and places like that, and we’re willing to put up some money," said DeSantis. 

"It takes a lot of people to take these rockets to space," said United Launch Alliance CEO Tory Bruno. "Not just the rocket scientists, but people who are very skilled at assembling and building rockets, launching rockets, all of that is just as vital to the team as any other piece."

Bruno's company, which hires about 400 people in the state to build and launch military, commercial and NASA payloads, is looking at adding apprenticeship programs here in the state. 

And there’s another thing that could boost the space industry: President Donald Trump signed a directive to create a space command, and Governor DeSantis asked to headquarter the new program in Florida. That could bring even more jobs and more talent to the sunshine state.

This story is part of Legislative Preview 2019, a special series airing this week on 90.7 WMFE.  Learn more >>

Brendan Byrne is Central Florida Public Media's Assistant News Director, managing the day-to-day operations of the newsroom, editing daily news stories, and managing the organization's internship program. Byrne also hosts Central Florida Public Media's weekly radio show and podcast "Are We There Yet?" which explores human space exploration, and the weekly news roundup podcast "The Wrap."