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Is Space in Cecil's Future

By Timothy J. Gibbons
Published by Florida Times-Union on November 30, 2005.

Space's next frontier could be Jacksonville's Westside.

Cecil Commerce Center could become a commercial spaceport, capable of sending tourists into orbit, if Florida and local officials have their way.

The quiet efforts to land space aviation there are the latest twist for development at Cecil, where Mayor John Peyton abandoned a bid last month to relocate fighter jets to the former Navy base. It's now a budding aviation business park.

The Florida Space Authority, an economic development agency based in Cape Canaveral, is preparing to support creation of the spaceport when it takes up the issue at its Dec. 7 teleconference meeting. The idea also would have to be approved by the Jacksonville Airport Authority. Authority leaders have briefed the City Council and Westside residents recently to curry support.

The eventual spaceport would not have tall rockets launching. Space vessels would piggy-back on large planes that use a runway for liftoff and then would glide back to Earth after their orbits.

Most of the loud noises associated with the flights, such as when it fires engines or breaks the sound barrier, would take place over the ocean, airport authority officials said.

"We are going to have aircraft at Cecil Commerce Center landing and taking off. That's what we have, aviation industry," said City Councilman Daniel Davis, whose district includes Cecil. "It seems complementary to the plans we have at Cecil Commerce Center."

Jacksonville and Titusville have been considered locations for the spaceport, but Titusville's infrastructure is much smaller than Cecil Field, the airport portion of Cecil Commerce Center, according to a study conducted by consultants for the Space Authority.

Cecil's runway, a backup landing spot for the space shuttles, is 12,500 feet long and 200 feet wide, well beyond the 7,320-foot-long and 150-foot-wide runway at Titusville's Space Coast Regional Airport and the seven other airports the consultants considered. The "ideal spaceport" would have a runway at least 10,000 feet long by 200 feet wide, the state's consultants said.

Getting the nod from the state space agency would be the first step toward Cecil receiving a license from the Federal Aviation Administration and approval from the Department of Environmental Protection, both necessary for it to be a launch site. A memorandum of understanding between the state and local entity might take several months, JAA spokesman Michael Stewart said.

It's unclear who would pay for the construction of the spaceport, which could cost $10.5 million to $28 million, or how much would fall on local taxpayers.

Airport officials stressed that the facility would be used by private businesses.

Initially, the site would be used only to launch tourists into space, but ultimately it also could be a site for commercial ventures such as satellite launches and other space-related businesses. Space tourism now is limited to the wealthy, but advocates say it eventually will be less expensive.

"What I don't know is how viable an industry it really is," said council President Kevin Hyde, who said the idea was intriguing.

By the end of the decade, the consultants said, Florida could see dozens of launches per year, and by 2010 could be creating between $6.3 million and $17.5 million worth of economic activity, including 35 to 115 jobs.

Only five places, including Cape Canaveral, are licensed nationally for commercial spaceports. In 2001 there were 27 commercial launches and up to 41 annually in recent years, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.

It's uncertain how the venture would affect the existing businesses at Cecil Field. Airport officials said they would meet with tenants who use the runway now once they have a better understanding of the scope of the project.

"We have to look at operation issues in terms of how this fits into our operational plans," Stewart said.

Currently the airport sees 95,000 operations a year, including helicopters, private jets and military and private aircraft being brought in for maintenance.

"There's just so many unknowns with it," said City Councilman Ronnie Fussell, a Westsider informed of the proposal.

Peyton spokeswoman Misty Skipper said the mayor was excited about the opportunity. City officials began speaking about it at the Super Bowl in February, she said. But she said Peyton was not available Tuesday to take questions, such as why he and Gov. Jeb Bush spearheaded the Navy's return while the spaceport option was being considered. The Space Authority's chairwoman is Lt. Gov. Toni Jennings.

On Monday night JAA officials briefed members of the Better Westside Project, who worked with Davis to block the Navy's return to Cecil. According to attendees, they included JAA Director John Clark and Director of General Aviation Bob Simpson, who oversees Cecil. They gathered inside the airport authority's offices there.

"We are trying to be fairly transparent," Stewart said about the meeting. "Our intent was to say, 'Here's something we'll be involved in because of the Florida Space Authority.' "

Russ Stalvey, a pilot and Better Westside leader, said he attended the meeting because the group has been concerned about Cecil's future. He would not discuss details of the space-related discussion, because he agreed to keep them confidential.

"One of the reasons they called us into the meeting, they didn't want to do what the mayor did," Stalvey said, referring to Peyton's decision to seek the Navy first, then get residents' input.

Officials at the Space Authority did not return calls seeking comment about Cecil.

Most space tourism companies -- such as the developers of Bert Rutan's SpaceShipOne and Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic -- need runways to land, according to the Space Authority report.

Licensing an existing airport -- which Cecil still is -- would be "an extremely efficient way" to have a spaceport, according to a consultant's report to the space agency. Cecil might be attractive because it's not used for routine commercial flights such as those at Jacksonville International Airport, Stewart said.

Even if the state agency does select Cecil as a spaceport site, state and local officials will still face the challenge of luring businesses to the site. "This is just a licensing process," said Chip Snowden, the airport authority's chief administration officer. "That doesn't presume that businesses will come here."

But if the spaceport doesn't come, Stewart said, "It will give us a platform to talk about the benefits of Cecil."

david.decamp@jacksonville.com, (904) 359-4699

timothy.gibbons@jacksonville.com, (904) 359-4103

WHY HERE?

Cecil's runway, a backup landing spot for the space shuttles, is 12,500 feet long and 200 feet wide. The "ideal spaceport" would have a runway at least 10,000 feet long by 200 feet wide.

THE SPACECRAFT

Tall rockets would not launch from the spaceport. Space vessels would piggy-back on large planes that use a runway for liftoff and then would glide back to Earth after their orbits.

ECONOMIC IMPACT

Consultants say a spaceport industry by 2010 could create between $6.3 million and $17.5 million worth of economic activity, including 35 to 115 jobs.

ONLINE

@For more information, go to Jacksonville.com, keywords: space authority. Also, listen to a podcast on Cecil's chances of becoming a spaceport.



About

This is a showcase of the work done by Timothy J. Gibbons during a journalism career now stretching back more than a decade.

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