Despite hosting 23 of the 86 successful satellite launches made around the world in 1997, the Cape Canaveral launch base and the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida, are facing a challenging future. The Cape Canaveral base in particular, and supporting local industries, could be driven out of the space business - worth $2.5 billion for Florida - by changes in the launch market.

The explosive growth of the $77 billion satellite communications industry is creating a huge demand for international launcher services and the building of new launch sites - meaning that, although there could be more business for the Cape, there will be a smaller market share.

New launchers that will not require flights over the sea are planned. The X-33 sub-orbital technology demonstrator will be launched in 1999 from near Edwards AFB, California, and a fully fledged re-usable launch vehicle, the Lockheed Martin VentureStar, is planned after this.

Florida is already fighting to become the launch site for the VentureStar (which could be the replacement for the Space Shuttle) against competition from other US states (California, New Mexico and Virginia) and from overseas. Lockheed Martin is expected to decide on the launch venue as early as 1999. It has invested $200 million of its own money in the $941 million suborbital prototype project (NASA provided most of the rest) and expects that the fully fledged VentureStar could cost $5 billion.

Other issues affecting Florida include the decision of the US Department of Defense to turn over some launches to private operators, which are always looking at cheaper sites. The growing satellite market requires polar orbit launches which can not be accommodated in Florida. Finally, NASA is backing off from its plans to launch people to Mars. In short, Florida's dominance is threatened.

Leading the fight for the space industry is the Spaceport Florida Authority (SFA), created in 1989 to provide the infrastructure for the state's launch industry and for increasing space related jobs and investment. The SFA has entered the VentureStar race by raising $4 million to help build a re-usable launch vehicle hangar near the KSC's Shuttle Landing Facility runway.

The SFA works closely with NASA, the US Air Force (which, as the 45th Space Wing, is the official operator of Cape Canaveral) and other services. These all provide more than $1 billion to Florida's economy through infrastructure projects designed to meet domestic and international launch requirements, including suborbital, expendable and future re-usable launchers.

The authority has attracted more than $100 million in new investments in the state and its major recent success has been the $8 million conversion of the US Navy's Trident missile Pad 46, almost at the tip of the Cape Canaveral peninsula, to provide a multi-user solid propellant and liquid fuelled launcher capability for private companies such as Orbital Sciences (OSC) and Lockheed Martin. These manufacture the Taurus and Athena launch vehicles, respectively, with first stages based on the Thiokol Castor 120 motor. The inaugural launch from the SFA's Pad 46 was on 6 January, when Lockheed Martin's first Athena 2 booster propelled NASA's Lunar Prospector into orbit.

The Trident missile can also be launched from Pad 46, if required. "We have no plans to modify 46 further, although one day we may decide to build a second launch stand, if launch rates grow," says SFA director of policy and programme development Edward Ellegood.

The SFA is now converting its second Canaveral launch pad to a "quick reaction" base for new multiple programmes, particularly small satellite launchers and suborbital sounding rockets, with the help of $2.5 million from the Florida National Guard.

The old Titan II pad includes three launch stands and a launch control blockhouse, which will also be used for Pad 46. Pad 20 is the choice for Minuteman-based boosters, being developed by OSC for suborbital and orbital space launches, and will also be configured for international vehicles, such as Israel's Shavit.

As a result of the SFA's collaboration with NASA, the new re-usable launch systems hangar will be used initially for the OSC X-34 hypersonic test vehicle in 1999. The SFA has leveraged $4 million of state funding to the $8 million centre. The hangar could also support Pegasus launches from OSC's Lockheed L-1011 and, possibly, the VentureStar.

Other investments have been a $27 million solid rocket motor storage site in north Florida, leased to Lockheed Martin for the Titan IV programme, a $25 million Air Products liquid hydrogen production plant in north-west Florida and a customer service centre, to support the operations of private launch companies. A $60,000 effort is now under way with the USAF to identify sites at the Cape suitable for conversion to dual use operations.

The Authority administers its own sub-orbital launcher programme, with lift-offs from Pad 47 at the Cape, and other sites in Florida, for science and research purposes. It is also working on a project to convert Hangar AM at the Cape to help universities to develop space research projects.

The X-33 VentureStar launch and landing, however, is the big prize. "It is going to be a very, very hot competition," says Ellegood. "If Florida loses the VentureStar, its space industry could face extinction by the year 2025," says John Byron, space launch industry advisor to the Florida Aviation Aerospace Alliance.

Source: Flight International