Florida has driven the US’s extraterrestrial adventures for decades. In July 1969, it was the launch site of Apollo 11, the first mission to land on the moon. By 1973, the state’s Kennedy Space Center was the home base of Skylab, Nasa’s first space station. Between 1981 and 2011, there were more than 130 space shuttle launches from the Sunshine State.

In other words, the history of space exploration would be inconceivable without Floridian participation. However, the 2011 closure of the space shuttle programme prompted questions about the future of Florida as a space hub.

Those questions are now being well and truly answered. With the spectacular growth of commercial space flight, Florida is once again firmly establishing itself as the location of choice for those aiming for the stars. More than that, the sector has diversified. From manufacturing to R&D, this is no longer simply a place to launch rockets – a fact that promises to keep Florida relevant even as rival hubs try and muscle in on its position.

Flying high

Dale Ketcham has been around the Space Coast for so long that he remembers when Nasa treated rockets like rough-and-tumble toys. “In the very early days, it was very much an exercise in improvisation,” he recounts. “We had rockets launched out here that had duct tape on them.”

As the vice-president of government and external relations at Space Florida unsurprisingly adds: “Duct tape is not something you find on a launch thing nowadays.” All the same, his recollections speak vividly to the sheer longevity of the Space Coast, a narrow strip of Florida lowlands and home to Cape Canaveral.

The easiest way to understand this endurance is geography. Flanked by the Atlantic, and miles from major metropolises, this is an ideal spot to launch rockets packed with more than a million gallons of fuel.

Florida’s location is useful in other ways too. By launching from the Eastern Seaboard, rockets leaving the Earth’s surface and travelling eastward get a boost – thanks to the planet’s west-to-east spin. That is shadowed by the region’s excellent transport infrastructure, boasting 130 public-use airports, railway links across the US and a major harbour at Port Canaveral.

At the same time, suggests Ketcham, Florida’s long association with space travel has created a robust entrepreneurial atmosphere. “The culture of the space programme certainly permeates east-central Florida,” he says. “It always has in terms of enthusiasm, excitement and a cultural recognition that this is very much part of our self-identity.”

This is reflected in more practical ways too. Florida now employs approximately 130,000 people in aerospace, while military units like the 45th Space Wing are also based locally. Even the local dial code – 321 – was picked to evoke the countdown to a rocket launch.

Billion-dollar questions

In 2004, President Bush announced he planned to cancel the space shuttle mission – and in 2011, the last shuttle blasted off from the Space Coast.

As Ketcham notes, this was a major blow to the region, especially one that had traditionally been so reliant on government investment. It is equally clear, however, that Florida’s leaders understood the need to jump toward new opportunities.

“The state made very intentional efforts on two fronts,” says Ketcham. The first was to bring more commercial operations to the state. The second was to encourage manufacturing opportunities, ensuring that Florida would remain an aerospace hub even if launches themselves became rarer.

To a striking degree, Ketcham suggests that this pivot was made smoother by harking back to the Space Coast’s history, especially the mad scientist spirit of those early Apollo missions. “The process by which [private companies] develop their technology is not one of ‘we can’t afford to fail’,” he says. “It is ‘fail fast and iterate’.”

If nothing else, this is reflected in the kinds of buccaneering companies that have come to Florida. That includes SpaceX, Elon Musk’s space company, and Blue Origin, Jeff Bezos’s rival outfit. Both entrepreneurs have spent many millions of dollars on their respective projects – even as several unmanned test flights have very much aligned with the “fail fast and iterate” modus operandi.

Scope for investment

Not that Florida’s move toward commercial flight should be characterised as merely the plaything of billionaires. On the contrary, Ketcham emphasises that government institutions, notably the National Reconnaissance Office, are involved in building payloads, even if private partners are increasingly the ones actually launching them.

Beyond these commercial opportunities, moreover, the state also offers incentives for incoming aerospace companies. That includes financing for new equipment and generous business tax rates.

In a similar vein, officials seem just as successful at the second pillar of their redevelopment plan: boosting manufacturing. The Space Coast, after all, boasts the highest concentration of high-tech businesses in Florida, something that naturally helps the local economy too.

Specific projects speak to this as well. Lockheed Martin, builders of Nasa’s new Orion spacecraft, are now established in Florida. Towns like Gainesville and West Palm Beach, for their part, have become hubs for everything from satellites to rocket engines.

Back to the future

More broadly, Ketcham accepts that as space flight becomes cheaper and safer, other places will try and compete with Florida. Texas, with its own tradition of space flight, is one obvious rival. However, in a world where launches no longer need to happen near water, landlocked rural states like Colorado could mature too.

All the same, Ketcham is ultimately optimistic. With a vigorous and expanding manufacturing base, he believes the state will continue to be a popular place to settle, especially considering the immense potential of space mining and other lucrative future industries.

Space Florida is looking to fully leverage these investment opportunities, working with domestic and foreign partners on an array of projects. To give one example, the state recently issued a joint call with Israel for research projects covering unmanned aerial systems, airborne radiation sensing and more.

To put it another way, this is clearly still a place with its eyes on the technologies of tomorrow, even if the duct tape seems likely to remain in the supply cabinet this time around.

How can your company be part of the innovation on Florida’s Space Coast? Talk with the PoweringFlorida team today to learn more.