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Florida's Aerospace Mission: Protect, Expand Market Share

Gov. Jeb Bush plans to ask state lawmakers to devote $55 million to attract new ventures. Officials in California feel the pressure.

January 23, 2006|John-Thor Dahlburg | Times Staff Writer

MIAMI — Even before there was a space program, Florida had a piece of it -- it was the site of the imaginary moonshot described in 1865 by Jules Verne. Now, as a new era in public and private space ventures is about to begin -- and with competition from other states increasing -- Florida is intent on keeping and building its share of the cosmic action.

"We're the Hollywood of the space industry, and we're going to stay there," said state Sen. Bill Posey, a Republican whose district includes part of Kennedy Space Center.

This week, Lt. Gov. Toni Jennings, who heads a commission created by Gov. Jeb Bush to chart the future of space and aeronautics in the state, said Bush would ask state lawmakers to spend $55 million in the next budget year to attract new space ventures to Florida.

"We know we are going to send men and women to Mars and beyond," Jennings, a Republican, said at a news conference in Tallahassee. "They need to be coming from Florida and coming back to Florida."

To woo contracts linked to NASA's reusable crew exploration vehicle -- meant to replace the space shuttle after 2010 -- Bush wants to spend $35 million to refit existing buildings at Cape Canaveral.

The next generation of NASA's manned craft are virtually certain to be launched from the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, but Florida wants to be more than a launch site. The state wants to snare as great a share as possible of the assembly, testing and servicing of the vehicles, Jennings said.

What's more, there is the relatively new and promising activity of what Florida's lieutenant governor dubs "astroneurs" -- those entrepreneurs envisioning space tourism or other private ventures. To help serve the new niche, the commission recommended building a commercial spaceport unconnected to Kennedy Space Center. It would be designed for spacecraft that take off from runways.

Florida's new game plan dwarfs the $3 million it is spending for space operations in the current budget year.

Among the recommendations in the plan: exemption from state sales tax for space-related machinery, equipment and research and development; creation of a new public-private agency, Space Florida, to promote commercial space business in Florida; boost in education in engineering, science and mathematics to foster talent for the industry.

"If we're going to walk on the moon in 2018, that person is sitting in our elementary schools today," said Jennings, referring to the date fixed by President Bush for a return by Americans to the moon as the jumping-off point for a future expedition to Mars.

The overall goal of Florida's leaders, Jennings said, is to safeguard the state's position as the nation's major gateway into space, win a chunk of the new business, and if possible, coax existing aerospace companies into leaving California and other states.

"For the longest time, we sort of assumed Florida was the place for space," Jennings said. "Now we can no longer take that for granted."

According to her committee's report, eight other states -- Alabama, Nevada, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Texas, Utah, Washington and Wisconsin -- are working toward their own commercial spaceport, with New Mexico committing more than $200 million to the effort.

"It's a very competitive business," said Steve Eisenhart, senior vice president for policy and public affairs at the Space Foundation, a Colorado Springs, Colo., nonprofit whose goal is to advance civil and commercial space ventures.

One reason is that the space sector tends to generate jobs that pay above-average wages. Another is the magnet effect of technology, he said.

"It seems that if you get a little bit of high tech in, you tend to attract more," Eisenhart said.

Florida, with about 148,000 jobs, ranks third in the nation in space, aeronautics and aviation employment. California is the No. 1 job market in those industries, followed by Texas.

California, with about 280,000 employees in the sector, is home to numerous aerospace companies and NASA facilities and the polar launch site at Vandenberg Air Force Base.

In Sacramento, representatives of California's aerospace industry have been watching Florida's initiative with some concern.

The industry seems to have more political clout in Florida than in California, said Eric Daniels, director of state and local government relations for the California Space Authority, which represents aerospace companies.

"There's a lot of reaction here sometimes. We'd like to see more pro-action," Daniels said. Florida and other states, he said, are eager to challenge California's lead in aerospace.

"We do retain it, but it's being nibbled away," Daniels said. "We have the governors of Colorado, Florida and New Mexico blowing into California and meeting with executives of medium-sized space-related businesses and doing everything they can to get them to move. That's the kind of focus we don't have in California."

Posey, who worked as a quality control expert on the Saturn V, the rocket that sent Apollo astronauts to the moon, predicted the Florida Legislature would spend whatever sum was necessary to keep the state well-placed in the race for aerospace jobs and dollars.

"The $55 million is like an earnest money deposit," Posey said.

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