The ribbon cutting on Tuesday morning seemed like a small step at the Jacksonville Aviation Authority's Cecil Air and Spaceport.
But it was a giant leap as its new 11-story-tall air traffic control tower and spaceflight facility were officially dedicated as the Dr. Norman Thagard Mission Control Center.
The Paxon High School graduate, who completed five missions in space and was the first American astronaut to ride to space on a Russian spacecraft, helped cut the ribbon as the site's former U.S. Navy base tower was decommissioned.
Now comes the work to get the first orbital mission launched from the 17,000-acre airfield and aerospace facility by Aevum Inc., hopefully by mid-2022. Then the spaceport's new managing director said he optimistically hopes to launch five to 10 more satellites or orbital packages from the site in the next five years.
"This is more tangible proof of progress in the commercial space industry at Cecil," Matt Bocchino said. "This makes it easier to conduct launches. When a launch operator comes here for a launch, this is what they need. They need a mission control center to set up all their equipment and basically plug and play for telemetry, guidance and navigation."
A plaque naming the mission control center after Thagard will be at its entrance, as is a period photo of him in a spacesuit flanked by all his NASA mission patches. The veteran astronaut said he never could have predicted the current boom in commercial spaceflight business when he flew with NASA, including the recent suborbital launches of Virgin Galactic's Spaceship Two and Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket.
"I don't think that was thought of. There were efforts and have been through the years at sites like White Sands," Thagard said. "For the most part, they did not go very far. ... But it looks like now it is something that will take off."
The U.S. Navy shut down Naval Air Station Cecil Field in 1999, signing over the site to the city for development as a business park and commercial airport.
Since then, the Cecil Commerce Center has seen dozens of companies occupy facilities at the former base, from FlightStar aircraft maintenance and Boeing's FA-18 repair operation to SAFT America's high-technology battery plant and Bridgestone Americas Tire Operations. Florida State College at Jacksonville has a campus there, while the U.S. Coast Guard, U.S. Customs and Border Protection and Florida Army National Guard operate there, along with the JAA's Jacksonville JetPort.
In 2010 the state designated Cecil Airport as a spaceport, preparing the way for commercial industry to set up space-related operations there, overseen by the JAA.
Florida is prime for spaceport industry
The air traffic control facility is about 7,500 square feet, with offices and training rooms topped by a large glassed-in center where all flight operations are handled. The first-floor mission control center is 1,831 square feet and will soon be built out with tables and power for commercial operations to set up and handle launches.
When a commercial space launch is planned, staff from the company conducting it will set up shop in the control center. Spaceport staff will assist in preparation, launch and recovery. Design and construction were paid for with Florida Department of Transportation and Space Florida grants.
Cecil Spaceport is one of 13 Federal Aviation Administration-licensed spaceports now in the United States, with four in Florida, three of those clustered at or near the Kennedy Space Center.
Cecil is one of nine so-called horizontal launch centers with the third-longest commercial runway in Florida. That means manned or autonomous jets will carry reusable launch vehicles over the ocean, where they will rocket into orbit to deliver micro-satellites or a payload. Then the jet and reusable launch vehicle return to Cecil.
The spaceport has also applied for permission to operate as a landing site for other horizontal spacecraft launches and is talking with some space tourism companies, Bocchino said.
"The bulk of the money is going to be made in satellite launching in the industry in general," he said. "That's where the demand is in the commercial space industry. ... We will take the space tourism, but that's a very small market at this time."
Thagard, an aviation legend
Thagard is a 1961 Paxon graduate who flew 163 combat missions in Vietnam as a U.S. Marine Corps reservist before getting a medical degree in 1977. One of 35 astronaut candidates in 1977, he has spent 140 days in space on five flights, including 1995's flight and three-month stay aboard the Russian Mir 18 space station. The now-retired Florida State University associate dean and professor is pleased his hometown has a spaceport.
"I would like to see Jacksonville be successful," said Thagard, 78. "And with my association with spaceflight, it makes it doubly exciting. I like it."
Thagard was joined at the grand opening by Lt. Gov. Jeanette Nunez, who is chairwoman of the Space Florida board responsible for all aspects of the state’s aerospace industry. She applauded the spaceport after commercial spaceflight has "become a focus" in Florida during the COVID-19 pandemic at the state's other FAA-approved facilities in the Brevard County area.
"During the pandemic, when many businesses were struggling, space is the one bright spot in our economy," Nunez said. "... Space has really been, and pardon my pun, the rocket that has propelled us to excellence in our economy. We want to continue to focus on that."
Spacecraft engine testing has already taken place at Cecil. Aerospace contractor Aevum was awarded a $4.9 million contract from the Air Force Space and Missile Systems center to launch small satellites to low earth orbit from Cecil. Aevum joins Generation Orbit, a contractor that’s already been working on projects at the Cecil Spaceport since 2014.
Camden County, Ga., is proposing to build a spaceport on a 12,000-acre brownfield site about 4.5 miles inland from Cumberland Island. The county has applied to the FAA for permission to build a commercial space launch site.
Quelle: Florida Times-Union