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Small rockets could bring big boom for Space Coast economy

Astra's Rocket 3 awaits liftoff from Cape Canaveral. Photo: Astra / John Kraus
Astra's Rocket 3 awaits liftoff from Cape Canaveral. Photo: Astra / John Kraus

The FAA could soon award a launch license to private space company Astra paving the way for the company’s maiden launch from Florida’s Space Coast. The launch, which could happen as early as Saturday, marks the start to what could be a very busy year for new rockets leaving the planet from Florida and boosting the state's economy.

Astra's rocket called Rocket 3.3 is relatively small when compared to the rockets that have launched from the Space Coast. It’s about 38 feet tall. SpaceX’s Falcon 9 which stands nearly 230 feet.

While Saturday's launch will be the first from Florida, the company has seen orbital success. Back in December, it launched a demonstration payload for the U.S. Space Force into orbit from a launch facility in Kodiak, Alaska.

The launch is chartered by NASA and will send four CubeSats -- tiny satellites roughly the size of a loaf of bread -- into orbit. Rockets from Florida usually launch big, heavy satellites into space. But CubeSats and other smaller payloads are becoming more popular for science and commercial space missions.

"There's a clear growing market segment of the smaller launch vehicles that believe there's a robust market growing out there to support the small satellite launches," says Space Florida's Dale Ketcham. " There's every reason to believe that that is a growing market."

Astra is not the only small launcher. SpaceX packs dozens of small payloads and its Starlink satellites, which are quite small, frequently into its Falcon 9 rocket’s nose cone. Two other small launch companies plan to come online possibly this year: Firefly Aerospace and Relativity Space.

Organizations like Space Florida have worked to rebuild the Space Coast’s economy after the end of the Space Shuttle program back in 2011. This focus on private aerospace has really helped bolster the economy and according to Space Florida, it has replaced all those jobs lost after Shuttle.

It’s not just rockets bolster the economy. Florida has been working to bring manufacturing companies that make the things that get launched into space.

"It’s having a dramatic effect on the Space Coast economy," says economic analyst Dr. Hank Fishkind. "The Space Coast economy is out performing the state, it’s out performing Central Florida and that’s in large part because of this big surge in the space sector."

It’s not just these small launch companies that are bringing new rockets to Florida. Jeff Bezos’ company Blue Origin plans to launch an orbital called New Glenn from Cape Canaveral. United Launch Alliance plans to debut its new rocket Vulcan later this year. And Elon Musk says his Starship spacecraft, which will help land humans on the moon, will launch from Kennedy Space Center.

These companies, along with Florida’s historic ties to the space industry and its growing aerospace manufacturing sector are helping bring new business to the area.

“I think it's a given that Florida is well positioned to capture more than its fair share of this new market," says Ketcham. "That's what we're trying to do.”

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.