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Florida's space industry could be entering an era that's bigger than Apollo

Florida Senator Bill Nelson meets with reporters.
Matthew Peddie
NASA Administrator Bill Nelson, a former U.S. senator from Florida, said the increase in activity at Cape Canaveral — dominated by private sector launches — is having a bigger impact on the state than prior programs.

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said the uptick in activity, including launches from private sector companies, will usher in a "whole new era of space activity."

A sonic boom heard along Florida’s Northeast coast from a returning SpaceX Dragon capsule late Thursday was another sign of an uptick in space activity at Cape Canaveral.

And NASA Administrator Bill Nelson, a former U.S. senator from Florida, said Friday the increase — dominated by private sector launches — is having a bigger impact on the state than prior programs.

“Apollo (the Apollo program) had very specific things, primarily in the area of Cape Canaveral,” Nelson said after addressing the Economic Club of Florida at the Florida State University Alumni Center. “Now, you're seeing this industry and all of its suppliers as the activity increases at the cape. You're seeing that activity all over the state to the point that if you add it all up, it's about a $4 billion a year impact in the state of Florida just from the space business.”

Nelson earlier estimated spaceport operations were responsible for about 24,000 jobs in the state and had a direct impact of $2.25 billion a year on Florida's economy.

Late Thursday, media outlets in Northeast Florida and South Georgia reported the sonic boom from the returning SpaceX capsule, which was laden with science experiments.

The landing in the Atlantic Ocean just before 11 p.m. Thursday came less than two weeks after SpaceX ended the first all-civilian mission to orbit with a safe splashdown off Florida’s East Coast.

Nelson, a one-time payload specialist on a Space Shuttle Columbia mission, noted that companies competing for commercial space business are also using the Gulf of Mexico to return capsules, reducing transportation distances to facilities in and around the Kennedy Space Center.

“All of those abandoned launch pads from way back in the early space days, they're all coming to life,” said Nelson, who represented the Brevard County area in the U.S. House from 1979 to 1991. ”They're having rockets launch off on them. Rockets landing on them. We are in a whole new era of space activity.”

Nelson said he also expected a continued relocation of businesses such as Boca Raton-based Terran Orbital, which on Monday announced plans to build a 660,000-square-foot satellite manufacturing facility at Kennedy Space Center.

“It's economical for them to do the manufacturing of satellites that they are then going to put up in space right from the launch center, which is the Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Spaceport,” Nelson said. “And so, indeed, you'll continue to see more of that business located here.”

With the state aerospace agency Space Florida assisting in setting up the financing, Terran Orbital plans to spend more than $300 million on construction and equipment, with a goal of adding 2,100 jobs by the end of 2025.

Nelson’s focus is advancing the Artemis program, which is intended to return astronauts to the moon, before the next leap of missions to Mars.

“NASA in the 21st century is going to be the catalyst for the growth of a healthy and vibrant commercial space industry, expanding opportunities in low Earth orbit, and pushing further to the moon and beyond,” said Nelson, a three-term Democratic senator who lost a re-election bid in 2018 to U.S. Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla. “We're going to develop cutting-edge space technologies and transformative capabilities. Take, for example, we're going to learn how to take moon dust — regolith to the scientist — and how to mix it with the compound and make cement, and how to build habitats on the surface of the moon as we prepare to go to Mars.”

Cape Canaveral has had 14 successful orbital launches this year in 14 attempts, the most of any spaceport.

At least four more launches are planned before the end of the year, according to Kennedy Space Center, including a crewed SpaceX Dragon mission set for Oct. 30 and the initial launch of Artemis I in November.

The Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in China is next at 12 successful orbital launches this year in 14 attempts.

Last year, Cape Canaveral had 20 successful launches in 20 attempts. Next on the list was the Xichang Satellite Launch Center in China at 12.