Blue Origin eyes Cape Canaveral to build, launch rockets
Companys arrival would be boost for the Space Coast's future
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. – A billionaire-backed company that aspires to make human spaceflight more affordable would build rockets near Kennedy Space Center and launch them from Cape Canaveral if state officials can secure its commitment in the coming weeks.
Blue Origin, founded in 2000 by Amazon.com CEO Jeff Bezos, could choose from among several states as soon as next month. Brevard County is a contender to win a rocket manufacturing site and up to 300 jobs in preparation for orbital launches in the next five years.
"I have talked to Jeff Bezos, urging him to come to the Cape," U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson told Local 6 News partner Florida Today, confirming Seattle-based Blue Origin is the company the state has been wooing under the code name of Project Panther.
Blue Origin's arrival would be a boost for the Space Coast's future in the commercial space sector, not long after SpaceX chose Texas as a commercial launch site.
It would also mark a successful conclusion to a deal forced to shift gears late when the company's preferred launch site near Volusia County ran into obstacles, threatening the state's bid.
The state's revised proposal would have Blue Origin set up a manufacturing site in Exploration Park, a planned research and industrial complex outside KSC's south gate, and launch from Launch Complex 36, a state-run pad on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.
Blue Origin so far has confirmed only that Florida is one of the states it is considering for orbital launches. "We're hoping to make a decision about that soon," said company President Rob Meyerson.
The company plans to begin flight tests this year of a suborbital spacecraft designed to carry at least three people. It is also developing an engine to power a new rocket for United Launch Alliance, the U.S. government's primary launcher of high-value missions.
Fighting for Shiloh
Talks about the so-called Project Panther initially focused on the state's proposed Shiloh commercial launch complex, which straddles the Brevard-Volusia border on property NASA shares with the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge. A rocket factory would have been located in nearby Oak Hill in southern Volusia County.
Blue Origin was one of the first commercial space companies to express interest in the Shiloh site after Space Florida in 2012 asked NASA for 200 acres of land there for one or two launch pads.
Like SpaceX, which plans to build a private launch complex in Texas, Blue Origin believes commercial launchers need facilities outside NASA or Air Force control to thrive, just as commercial aviation operates independently from military bases.
Blue Origin will fly its new Shepard suborbital capsule from its own private range in western Texas, a step toward development of an orbital rocket and spacecraft.
"Blue Origin's got a very long-term vision to extend humankind beyond our planet," Meyerson told reporters Tuesday during a briefing about the company's completion of a new rocket engine. "We're committed to making space travel more reliable, accessible and affordable so that one day millions of people are living and working in space."
Speculation about the company's pursuit of operations at Shiloh and in Volusia County began in February when the owner of a 400-acre property in Oak Hill sought a zoning change to permit manufacturing.
Around the same time, a site selector working for Blue Origin met with representatives from environmental organizations, and described Project Panther as a company interested in Shiloh and a competitor to SpaceX.
Shiloh opponents, upset by the project's secrecy and worried it might involve hazardous operations near the refuge and Canaveral National Seashore, fought the zoning change.
"I made it very clear to them that we intended to fight Shiloh as long as practicable," said Clay Henderson, a New Smyrna Beach attorney working on behalf of several environmental groups. "We think we can keep it tied up indefinitely, given the inordinate amount of environmental issues and historic preservation issues associated with it."
Oak Hill city commissioners approved a first look at the zoning change by a 4-1 vote. But the Florida Audubon Society and Southeast Volusia Audubon Society challenged the decision, and it faces a review this month by the Volusia Growth Management Commission.
In addition to those delays, a potential Shiloh deal hit another snag that threw Florida's prospects into doubt.
Blue Origin and Space Florida wanted assurance that NASA would provide the Shiloh land if an ongoing environmental review determined the site was feasible.
But NASA would not provide that conditional support, saying it had to wait until after the Federal Aviation Administration completed the environmental study, which could take another year or more.
KSC, which is touting its transformation into a multi-user spaceport, instead encouraged the company to consider alternatives outlined in KSC's master plan. The plan suggests two locations for commercial launch pads near the center's two existing pads.
"We believe that KSC offers the broadest number of development options that would be responsive to the partner's needs, and this project could be a celebrated cornerstone in our quest to establish a multi-user spaceport," Scott Colloredo, head of KSC's Center Planning and Development Office, wrote in a January letter to Space Florida, provided to FLORIDA TODAY in response to a public records request.
Space Florida has questioned the viability of KSC's proposed sites, saying they are situated in wetlands that would be more environmentally damaging than Shiloh and prohibitively expensive to develop, and that they are too close to NASA's primary pad and would shut down Titusville's access to Playalinda Beach during launch activity.
As the Shiloh-Volusia option began to appear too uncertain, the state's Launch Complex 36 surfaced as a backup worth a closer look.
It did not fit Blue Origin's initial request to be based outside KSC or Air Force fences.
But the company may decide the Air Force Station offers a faster path to flight than sites in Georgia, North Carolina or another state, which would also require lengthy environmental reviews. It would also be less expensive because some infrastructure is already in place, compared to starting from scratch elsewhere.
And Blue Origin may have more confidence that the Air Force will offer increased flexibility to commercial operators, making Launch Complex 36 good enough for now while efforts to approve the Shiloh site continue.
Keeping commercial space in Florida
Members of Florida's congressional delegation, led by Sen. Nelson, have been pressuring the Air Force and NASA to find ways to accommodate emerging commercial space businesses rather than driving them away. They have been involved in discussions about Project Panther, as has Florida Gov. Rick Scott.
If Blue Origin does end up choosing another state, however, it would expose severe shortcomings in the Cape's commercial viability.
Already, SpaceX plans commercial launches from Texas, Orbital ATK chose to launch from Virginia, and Virgin Galactic will fly a suborbital spaceship from New Mexico.
Not wanting Blue Origin to join that list, Nelson, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio and U.S. Rep. Bill Posey jointly wrote a letter supporting Space Florida's efforts to lure Project Panther and grow commercial activity at the Cape.
They encouraged the state to pursue agreements with the Air Force and NASA enabling "streamlined business operations" for commercial operations whether on or off federal property, according to the Feb. 20 letter.
The letter concludes: "We now look forward to a new era of human space flight — an era where commercial endeavors settle the frontier of space as NASA presses farther out in the solar system — an era where explorers, adventurers, travelers, and settlers continue to look to Florida as their port of departure to the cosmos."
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