State grant helps Cecil Spaceport prepare for launch

November 28, 2013
Nate Monroe

Cecil Spaceport is getting ready for launch.
With its first tenant and a $1.8 million state grant in hand, Jacksonville Aviation Authority officials are looking to construct a hangar designed to accommodate commercial launch vehicles at the west Jacksonville airport.

JAA will match the $1.8 million grant from the Florida Department of Transportation and Space Florida, the state organization responsible for fostering growth in Florida’s space industry. The final cost of the hangar could be more than $4 million and will be completed by early 2015, according to Todd Lindner, JAA’s senior manager of aviation planning and spaceport development.

Meanwhile, Generation Orbit Launch Services Inc., the spaceport’s first tenant, is preparing for two test launches next year off Cecil’s runway in ahead of its first commercial launch in 2016.

The Atlanta-based company specializes in launching “micro” and “nano” satellites — which in some cases are small enough to hold in your hand — from a rocket attached to an airplane that takes off and lands on runways like passenger jets. That so-called “horizontal” launch method is less expensive than its traditional “vertical” counterpart.

JAA officials worked for years to designate Cecil as a spaceport, hoping to capitalize on space tourism and cargo industries that remain largely new and untested.

“Every spaceport in the nascent commercial space industry faces a similar hurdle: the lack of commercial manned space vehicle options. This is particularly true of spaceports that, like Cecil Spaceport, rely on horizontal takeoff and landing vehicles,” reads JAA’s 2012 master plan for Cecil Spaceport. “Despite a wide variety of commercial space vehicles in the conceptual and design stages, operational commercial space vehicles are currently limited to vertical launch rockets that deliver unmanned payloads.”

In August 2012, Gov. Rick Scott signed legislation finalizing the designation, paving the way for commercial operators to use the former military base for horizontal space launches.

“There are a large number of entities that have wanted access to lower orbit and zero gravity for initiatives like communications,” said Michael Stewart, JAA’s external affairs director. “The great thing about this industry besides the fact that it’s embryonic and it’s still developing right before our eyes is that it’s a proven technology.”


Cecil touts competitive advantages in luring commercial space operators and is “experiencing a high level of interest” from the industry, Lindner said.

In addition to its 12,500-foot runway — one of the longest on the East Coast — JAA has also coordinated with the Federal Aviation Administration and other agencies to create a safe flight path for launch planes to reach a designated zone in the Atlantic Ocean where actual launch operations take place.

“If [the flight path] didn’t exist, we’d have to find it and that would take significant resources,” said A.J. Piplica, chief operating officer of Generation Orbit. “It checks a lot of boxes for us.”

Generation Orbit won a $2.1 million NASA contract in September to launch three research nano-satellites in 2016, the first time it will use Cecil for official takeoff.

A test flight is scheduled for March or April next year and a second for the summer, Lindner said.

The hangar, currently under design, will likely have about 23,000 to 25,000 square feet of hangar bay space,10,000 to 15,000 square feet of work space and an additional 10,000 to 15,000 square feet of space specifically for launch vehicles, Lindner said. The hangar will be able accommodate traditional aircrafts as well as launch planes by incorporating “white space” into the design. Those spaces, used to secure launch payloads to air crafts, are carefully controlled to eliminate dust and other particulates.

Nate Monroe: (904) 359-4289



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