“Right now when there is federal property that is excess or could be turned over to the state for purposes of meeting the market need, we have to go through a federal process that is long and cumbersome,” DiBello said. “I would love to see that streamlined. We’re pretty far down on the pecking order.”
For example, when NASA has excess property it must first offer it to other NASA centers and government agencies before Space Florida can bid on it, he pointed out.
Not surprisingly, other hurdles are environmental in nature. “We want to see some uniformity to the application of the environmental clearances that are necessary to be able to build something on the land that was previously federal,” he said.
DiBello, who also served on the Reagan Administration’s Grace Commission to root out waste in the federal government, spoke about Space Florida’s relationship with NASA and Air Force space facilities, the expected growth in launches on Florida’s space coast, and the future of private spaceports.
This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
How is Space Florida preparing for the predicted uptick in commercial space launches?
For the last 10 years, ever since the retirement of the shuttle, we have been focused on investing in … federal infrastructure that was underutilized or excess and we’ve put money into it to make it available for commercial companies. … We have the ability to marshal private sector capital and apply it to space infrastructure that is for commercial purposes, allowing our federal partners to focus on what they do best. … It’s not their job to be taking care of commercial companies. … We are able to use private sector capital to get them into the infrastructure they needs. That includes everything from launch pads, satellite processing facilities, payload processing facilities, manufacturing facilities, research and development, test capabilities. Those are the kinds of things that we are focused on. To date we’ve put over $1 billion into space port infrastructure predominantly for commercial companies.
One example is we took an old facility that was used for processing the shuttle … [and] spent money to make it a world class manufacturing facility that Boeing is using today to process its Starliner. … We put money into Orbiter Processing Facilities One and Two to make those available for the Air Force and its classified flight program, the X-37.
From the time that the shuttle retired and we were facing devastating job losses, we have more than replaced every job lost and done a lot to commercialize former federal property that is no longer needed or underutilized and make it available as world-class facilities for this next generation of commercial space activity.
Do you think spaceports will some day replace federal launch ranges entirely?
I see us as partnering with federal agencies that have a space mission, whether that’s space exploration, national security, weather forecasting, remote sensing or telecommunications. … The way we look at ourselves is not unlike the Port of London was several hundred years ago opening up maritime trade. We see ourselves as a global leader in enabling space commerce. We want to … support the myriad of public sector companies and even governments … going up into space, whether it’s lower earth orbit or all the way to the lunar surface and beyond either to support a federal mission or going up there to do research or to manufacture things.
How do you expect your launch cadence to grow?
At the beginning of the decade, we were doing roughly eight to 12 launches a year. Towards the end of the decade, that’s moved into the 20s. We did 28 last year. We were on track to be the busiest spaceport in the world, but the Chinese I think did 34 last year and the Russians had one spaceport that did more than we did. … The only thing that stopped us from being the busiest spaceport in the world last year were a few anomalies that are just part of the business of space business.. … If you look at the manifest for this year, we should be doing well into the forties [for all commercial, Air Force and NASA launches in at Cape Canaveral.] We’re very close to 50 … and I expect by the end of the decade we’ll be doing a hundred launches a year out of Cape Canaveral.
How do you work with the Air Force and NASA in Florida?
What we have is the authority to apply our tools to any of that territory where it advances the state’s mission. We also have some responsibility for public safety and for a variety of other infrastructure concerns. So we pay attention to the roads and bridges and freight logistics system doesn’t support the spaceport in an economic sense. We care about the flow of utilities to the space board, whether it be through pipeline or on trucks, because all of that impacts the region that surrounds the spaceport. We clearly have an authority role to work in partnership with the feds, but we don’t manage the Air Force or NASA as an agency.
How can spaceport regulations be streamlined?
Clearly we’re coming from an era where everything was federal. The increase in the number of commercial customers and the number of commercial launches is clearly having an impact as well as the introduction of new kinds of spacecraft. In this next decade we’re going to see a number of new launch vehicles come into play, both large and small. Blue Origin’s New Glenn will start to fly. Northrop Grumman will have Omega. ULA will have Vulcan. You’ll see Firefly and Relativity and a whole lot of others on the smaller side, as well as a number of horizontal take off and landing vehicles that support space activity in low earth orbit. We think that there has to be a model that supports that and right now things are still being run using a lot of the models that were in place when there were much fewer launches.
Having said that, I will compliment both the Air Force and NASA for having worked hard with us to streamline processes so that we can support the kind of launch manifests that we’re predicting for this year. You can’t get 40 launches through the Cape without some streamlining.
Have you seen regulations become more streamlined during the Trump administration?
There’s been a real emphasis on the part of the National Space Council and that has flowed down to the FAA, the Department of Commerce, and even into the national security apparatus to promote easier ways of doing things. … One of the areas that I think is important is that a lot of the property that is currently federal was given by the state to the federal government for both national security as well as space exploration missions.
Right now when there is federal property that is excess or could be turned over to the state for purposes of meeting the market need, we have to go through a federal process that is long and cumbersome. I would love to see that streamlined. We’re pretty far down on the pecking order. As an example, NASA first has to offer the property to every other NASA center, then to other federal agencies. Eventually it gets to [the General Services Administration,] and we can make a bid. But it’s not the most streamlined or efficient way to meet the market need.
How long can that process take?
It can take months or it can be years. There are also a number of environmental requirements that are different for federal agencies versus us when we pursue them. We want to see some uniformity to the application of the environmental clearances that are necessary to be able to build something on the land that was previously federal.
What are the top things you’re watching on Capitol Hill?
There is a NASA authorization draft bill was put together last week that we’re not real thrilled with because it seems to take NASA back from the direction they were headed toward a greater reliance on commercial companies. It seems to diminish some of the procurement authority that they add to rely on some commercial companies for the lunar lander as well as some of the orbital hardware. We think that’s a step in the wrong direction. I frankly think the best of all solutions is one where NASA hand in hand with commercial companies and goes out there for space exploration purposes and commercial companies go along with them to provide logistics support.