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Interview with Frank DiBello, Space Florida

 

Frank DiBello, President & Chief Executive Officer, Space Florida

“It is clear that significant change in today’s space industry is being driven primarily by private sector investment in key space technologies.”

Space Florida, as we know it today, commemorates twelve years on September.  Since May 2009 you are leading this organization that looks for attracting and expanding the next generation of aerospace industry businesses. What are the main goals achieved during these years?

When I took over Space Florida in 2009, our state and the local region was facing the imminent retirement of the NASA Shuttle Program, and the attendant looes of over 9,135 aerospace jobs.  This event would mark several times in Florida’s history that our state would be economically maimed, because of dependence soley on a large federal launch program that was cancelled.

With the secondary effects of the aerospace job losses reaching into our local merchants, restaurants, hotels, real estate and schools, we were facing losses more than double the 9,135 and an economic impact that was potentially devastating to the local economy.

With the Space Florida Board, we engaged a strategy to ensure that this would never happen again, with specific goals to diversify Florida’s space and aerospace economy, and to build the depth of its supply chain.

Since that time, we have been largely successful in achieving that goal, so that today, we are no longer just launching rockets, but now building rockets that we will launch here (Blue Origin), we are manufacturing  and integrating two next-generation spacecraft here (Boeing’s Star-liner Crewed Vehicle and Lockheed Martin’s Orion Space Exploration Capsule), and we are also building satellites here, in what is perhaps the most advanced satellite manufacturing facility in the world (One Web).  Additionally, we have also grown the depth of the state’s space industry supply chain.

Testament to our success is that now our most pressing challenge is not jobs, but the need for the skilled workforce to fill the thousands of new aerospace careers blossoming in Florida.  The demand for high-wage high-skilled employees is a pressing national problem, but our recent success here on the Space Coast has made that problem that much more acute here on the Space Coast. Aggressive new collaborations between industry, academia and the public school systems are rising up to meet this new challenge.

 

“Vision 2020” is Space Florida’s strategy to target 10 commercial markets in the coming years that are expanding their use of space-based technologies. What are the markets that are growing most?

Vision 2020 was a very successful initiative to target 10 commercial space markets, and we have grown our primary and secondary supply chain in all of them.  But the fastest growing are markets with companies building and using satellites and space technology on-orbit to make money in telecommunications, providing bandwidth services, remote sensing and digital imaging, and micro-gravity research in space. While the rockets and payloads they carry are very important, the companies that are developing value-added product and service offerings using the signals, data, imaging and insights gained from the on-orbit platforms, are where the real economic payoff has been. These value-added service companies are those that often grow at compound average annual growth rates of 30% or more, and reach into making our everyday lives better here on Earth.

 

The future for space lies in looking beyond NASA. The new Space race welcomes private initiatives that are changing the paradigm, like SpaceX and Blue Origin (both supported by Space Florida). How is changing the space sector thanks to these new key players?

It is clear that significant change in today’s space industry is being driven primarily by private sector investment in key space technologies.  Space X and Blue Origin are examples of just two of the more visible ones, but today there are over a dozen multibillionaires investing in space companies, and the capital community, on a global basis has taken notice of this.

Two major factors are driving this, the private sector is more agile and able to develop and advance new technologies faster than traditional government institutions and adapt them into product more rapidly as well.  And second, many advanced technologies are merging allowing new breakthroughs in areas not traditionally seen before.  This is seen especially as we look to the increased capabilities of advanced sensors into small satellite technology, new forms of quantum computing and data storage, the fusion of bio-materials into Nano-devices, and the introduction of the concept of “reusability” into space systems and hardware. 

As the private sector drives the cost of space hardware and space access down, more market applications will be developed and expanded.

 

In your words “industry is likely to require 800 to 1,000 launches worldwide a year by the end of the next decade”. Since 2013 Florida is working on a Spaceport System Plan to accommodate the needs of the space transportation industry, so it appears exceptionally well placed to support existing and forecast launch activity…

Space Florida has long been aware of the need to grow its spaceport capabilities to keep up with the speed and capacity needs of industry!  To date, we have invested over $2 billion dollars into advanced aerospace and spaceport facilities to be prepared for the next era of space exploration and exploitation, increasingly and inevitably more commercially driven.  We are closely partnered with our federal state partners to take aged infrastructure, no longer needed or underutilized for federal missions and rebuild or re-purpose this infrastructure for the next era of space business and commerce. 

Additionally, we are building new infrastructure to meet the demand of the industry to accommodate an anticipated launch cadence at the Cape Canaveral Spaceport of over 100 launches a year, supporting the movement of both cargo and passengers into space, as well as a new era of on-orbit space activity and services.  Our goal is for Florida to serve as the global leader in enabling space commerce, and its spaceport system, to become a global space trade-port!

 

Does the governance and ownership of the spaceport infrastructure may see shifts to adapt to the evolving space industry?

The changing nature of the space industry should also drive an evolution in the way that spaceports are developed and managed.  The past 60 years off space activity and exploration has been largely federally driven, and much of the spaceport infrastructure was developed for that purpose … to meet federal mission needs, both in national security and civil space science and exploration programs.  These needs will certainly continue for uniquely federal activity, but increasingly, as commercial industry demonstrates the capabilities to execute space logistics, transport for cargo and people, and research and exploitation missions on the lunar surface and on-orbit, government has a policy of “commercial reliance” which should be followed.  The same is true for the continued development and management of spaceport functions, where possible government should enjoy market-benefits as customers, not operators. 

Today, there is no reason why government should continue to invest scarce program dollars in the management, operation and maintenance of spaceport roads, bridges, and facilities for a marketplace that is increasingly and inevitably more commercial.  An evolved spaceport management model must be able to access private sector capital to build new next-generation infrastructure for commercial space-launch businesses and manage its spaceport infrastructure as a sustainable business model, just like major airports or seaports. 

 

You hold more than 50 years of direct aerospace, defense and emerging space industry-related experience. From your point of view and expertise, how has the aerospace sector evolved and what we can expect in the coming future?

The aerospace industry has been evolving for a long time, with continued consolidations and shortening of the supply chains for major primes.  Additionally, many primes are seeking to more vertically integrate and control or move up the value chain as they seek higher and higher margins of systems integration work.  The last two years have seen the highest investment levels of aerospace merger and acquisitions in decades.  And this may open up the way for thousands of new-start companies who are both more agile and increasingly able to advance and adapt new technologies needed by the industry.  Many of these companies will become acquisition targets, and many partners in the constantly replenishing innovation supply chain.  And all of this good for the future of the aerospace industry and its important contributions to our nation’s economic well-being!

 

 

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26/09/2018

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