by Joe Wilhelm Jr.
Gov. Charlie Crist visited Jacksonville Wednesday to talk to leaders of the Jacksonville Aviation Authority (JAA) about the future of a spaceport at Cecil Field after the facility was recently licensed for horizontal launches of spacecraft.
This visit was spurred by JAA’s announcement Tuesday that the four-year process of obtaining a license for Cecil Field Airport to operate as a commercial, horizontal launch spaceport was complete. Cecil Field is the only spaceport of its kind on the East Coast and one of eight in the nation.
“It’s a wonderful accomplishment to have the opportunity to get into the commercial space industry and do it right here from the First Coast,” said Crist. “Anything we can do at the state level to continue to be of assistance in that, we stand at the ready to do exactly that.”
Crist is chairman of the board of directors for Space Florida, an organization created to strengthen Florida’s position as the global leader in aerospace research, investment, exploration and commerce. The new JAA Executive Director/CEO Steve Grossman believes that Cecil Field is in a position to do just that.
“We’ve spent about $70 million to improve our infrastructure and there are more improvements to come,” said Grossman. “This proactive approach will give us the ability to take advantage of our position as a leader in the industry when the economy recovers.”
One of the reasons Cecil Field stands out in the aerospace field is its 12,500-foot main runway, which is the third longest in Florida, that allows for horizontal launch of spacecraft. During this process, a spacecraft takes off and lands horizontally just like airplanes do regularly at the facility. Proximity to the ocean is another feature that makes Cecil ideal for the industry. After the spacecraft takes off from the launch site, it must wait until it is over the ocean before it can ignite its rockets to propel it into suborbital outer space.
One of the uses for a horizontal launch site that has been getting the most publicity is space tourism — the ability to send the general public into outer space — but a variety of uses are being developed.
“There are only so many people with an extra $200,000 lying around that can afford the ride into space,” said Grossman. “There will be more practical uses for this technology.”
Some of those uses include international travel, freight delivery and placement of satellites in orbit. Currently, air travel and delivery involves airplanes following the curvature of the earth. This process takes longer than if the craft could take a more angled path up to suborbital space and back down to its destination. Space flight could speed up both arrival and delivery times.
“I equate this to when the Wright Brothers started flying,” said Chip Seymour, senior manager of planning for JAA. “Using this vehicle for space travel is at its infancy. It could have many different uses.”
The next step for JAA is to find an operator for its spaceport. Operators within in the U.S. include Xcor, Rocket Plane Global Inc. and Virgin Galactic. JAA is also looking at operators from overseas.