Companies aiming to land payloads on the moon and launch missions from a runway may bring work to the Space Coast under deals with Space Florida.
At a board meeting Wednesday in Tampa, the state agency responsible for aerospace economic development approved loaning $1.5 million to a company identified only by the code name Project Forge, described as a contender to win contracts under a NASA program developing lunar landers.
Space Florida also committed to spending up to $1 million to upgrade utilities at Kennedy Space Center’s former space shuttle runway to support test flights — as soon as early 2019 — by another unidentified company, referred to as Project Pine.
“This is the first real space user for horizontal launch and landing,” board chairman Bill Dymond said of the three-mile runway that Space Florida is trying to commercialize after the shuttle’s 2011 retirement. “I think that’s very exciting.”
The lunar lander company deal would capitalize on a new program, called Commercial Lunar Payload Services, or CLPS, on which NASA has proposed spending $200 million next year.
Similar to how the agency has partnered with private companies to fly cargo and soon astronauts to the International Space Station, NASA envisions incrementally developing commercial moon landers for robotic and eventually human missions.
Space Florida said the company that it is giving a $1.5 million, four-year bridge loan to generates revenue and is “well-positioned” to win a portion of those NASA contracts as either a prime contractor or sub-contractor.
The loan “represents an early yet strategic position by Space Florida designed to create a foothold for prospective lunar service providers in Florida, and thus lead to a clustering effect to attract additional activity to Florida in this emerging market segment,” said Howard Haug, the agency’s treasurer and chief investment officer.
Haug said the company would establish lunar lander integration and technology development work exclusively in Florida, be expected to choose a Cape Canaveral facility “as part of their Florida footprint,” and to perform testing at the KSC runway.
One likely competitor for NASA’s early lunar contracts, Moon Express, has already established a presence at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Launch Complex 17, and performed prototype lander tests at the shuttle runway.
“We’re going to try and get all of the competitors into Florida,” said Frank DiBello, Space Florida CEO.
The planned utility upgrades at KSC’s former Shuttle Landing Facility — now called the Space Florida Launch and Landing Facility — are the start of a planned $38.8 million infusion of funds courtesy of the Florida Department of Transportation.
Wednesday’s meeting advanced nearly $1 million of that total to support a series of test flights by the undisclosed horizontal launch and landing company.
If the company fails to complete an agreed upon number of test flights, Haug said the state would recoup some its of investment in utilities including power and high-speed data connections.
“When that craft comes back, its need to plug into broadband is insatiable,” he said. “Because the minute that thing stops, they’re downloading gobs of data, and it stays connected.”
The planned improvements should ultimately prove useful to any runway users, whether spacecraft or aircraft, said Jim Kuzma, senior vice president and general manager at Space Florida.
In other business Wednesday, Space Florida’s board approved committing up to $14.5 million to SpaceX’s planned expansion at KSC, and up to $3.4 million for a new engine-related facility that Blue Origin will add to its New Glenn rocket manufacturing site at KSC’s Exploration Park.
“It actually provides a capability so they don’t have to ship the engines to other sites in the United States, they can do it on site,” said Kuzma.
Combined, the two FDOT-funded projects are expected to create 140 jobs — 90 at SpaceX and 50 at Blue Origin — with average annual wages of roughly $80,000.