As quickly as the crewed commercial rocket lifted off the launch pad and into the night sky, a new type of space race had begun.
The November 2020 launch of astronauts from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center on the first operational mission by a commercial company was the culmination of a new form of government and industry cooperation – an example of how vibrant and diverse American space activities have become.
This year, the launch cadence is only accelerating on Florida’s Space Coast. On the calendar for 2021 are more than 50 launches from the pads at Kennedy and the newly renamed Cape Canaveral Space Force Station (CCSFS).
This resurgence is proof the center has solidified its transformation to a multi-user spaceport and is focused on supporting the next 50 years of spaceflight, said Tom Engler, Kennedy Space Center’s planning and development director. He credits the range of government, military, and commercial partnerships that have made Kennedy the world’s premier space launch complex.
“It also took a clear vision, targeted investment, and hard work over many years,” Engler said. “Without that, this story could have had a very different ending.”
When the Space Shuttle Program ended in 2011, the Space Coast immediately felt the effects. Thousands of high-tech jobs disappeared, and opportunities for commercial suppliers dried up. Unused launch infrastructure was fated to rust away in the sea salt air.
But Bob Cabana had a different vision, Engler said. The Kennedy Space Center Director and four-time shuttle astronaut undertook a unique strategy to reinvent the center and expand the Space Coast’s role in securing the country’s space future.
The idea: to become an inclusive, multi-user spaceport where both government and commercial space companies could work, grow, and exist in partnerships. The goal: to increase access to space for not just NASA, but for long-standing partners like Boeing and Northrop Grumman as well as newcomers like Space Exploration Technologies Corporation (SpaceX) and Blue Origin.
“The challenge we faced was immense, but so was the opportunity,” said Cabana, who remains center director today. “We knew the Kennedy Space Center would have to change if we were going to keep up and become more efficient. Moving into the future was exciting and brought with it a number of challenges, such as creating an exploration capability for pioneering beyond low-Earth orbit, enabling commercial partnerships, evolving the workforce, and increasing access to space.”
NASA proactively sought partners interested in the center’s underused facilities and undeveloped land to support activities such as launch operations, assembly, testing and processing, renewable energy, and vertical launch and landing.
The agency also invested in restoration and modernization projects to protect critical spaceport infrastructure, such as shoring up the dunes near Launch Complex 39 to create a natural barrier from storm events, upgrading electrical infrastructure, upgrading capabilities for both gaseous nitrogen and gaseous helium distribution, and improving an aging communications center.
Kennedy’s partnership-building efforts have resulted in agreements of varying sizes with commercial entities and universities, as well as federal, state, and local government for physical assets and services. These services range from access to Kennedy’s vast knowledge base and technical expertise to the use of its launch sites for large and small rockets.
Today, Kennedy also is working with partners to improve infrastructure outside the spaceport, Engler added. The Indian River Bridge has been a critical accessway to Kennedy since the early days of the space program. Opened in 1965 to support the Apollo program, the bridge remains the main thoroughfare by which space hardware, employees, and tourists access the spaceport and the launch facilities at CCSFS.
After a 2017 study showed the aging bridge that connects Titusville to the spaceport was failing, NASA officials and state legislators met to find a solution. All recognized the importance of this artery, which serves not just the center’s workforce, but also CCSFS, Astrotech, Blue Origin, Exploration Park, the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, and North Merritt Island. Additionally, the bridge is a critical hurricane evacuation route.
In 2019, Space Florida, the state’s entity for developing Florida’s space economy, secured a $90 million grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation to replace the bridge and widen Space Commerce Way. The grant, awarded in July 2019, funds nearly 50% of the estimated bridge replacement, with the state of Florida and NASA providing the remaining funds. NASA funded the design of the new bridge, demolition of the old bridge, and utility relocation in order to facilitate the bridge replacement.
The Florida Department of Transportation, agile and experienced in building bridges and roads, is now taking the lead, working directly with NASA to complete the project, Engler said.
“When this crucial piece of infrastructure is replaced, it will support our vibrant spaceport, meeting our nation’s critical defense needs and provide for our growing commercial space economy,” he said. “The construction project alone is going to increase jobs in our area and secure our multi-user spaceport’s ability to cooperate and serve our more than 90 active partners.”
Through hard work and innovation, Kennedy Space Center and its partners have realized Cabana’s vision to create a healthy space ecosystem, Engler said. “These efforts enable government and commercial ventures, open opportunities to all entities that want to be part of the multi-user spaceport, and ultimately make Florida’s Space Coast the world’s epicenter for space access and activities,” he said.