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On Florida’s Space Coast, Small Satellites Have Big Potential

The Space Coast’s commercial launch companies and manufacturers are all part of Florida’s aerospace ecosystem

With the Kennedy Space Center transforming into a hub for commercial launches, the nation’s gateway to space is poised to write a new chapter in the history of spaceflight. But the new aerospace companies arriving on Florida’s Space Coast are looking back to an earlier mode of transport for inspiration.

“In this new approach to the manufacturing of satellite structures, we tried to replicate the model of the car industry where the suppliers get as close to the production line as possible,” says Franck Mouriaux, general manager for structures for RUAG Space. In July, the Swiss aerospace company opened a 23,800-square-foot production facility in the shadow of the Kennedy Space Center.  “There’s already a huge asset in the area, and it was obvious that things were starting again.”

While new launch companies SpaceX and Blue Origin have drawn worldwide attention with their ambitious Cape Canaveral plans, an entire ecosystem of aerospace manufacturers and suppliers is taking growing rapidly across Florida’s Space Coast. As was the case as the automotive industry grew and flourished, suppliers are opting to locate near rocket and satellite manufacturers in order to be responsive and optimize supply chain logistics. RUAG selected Titusville as one of its first U.S. locations in order to serve a nearby facility being built by OneWeb, a satellite manufacturer with ambitious plans to build 900 small satellites—“smallsats,” in the language of the sector—to provide broadband Internet service to underserved regions of the world.

“The smallsat market has huge potential,” Mouriaux adds. “It is a large market and growing, and we want to be part of it.”

The smallsat sector, which focuses on producing large numbers of highly redundant, low-cost satellites, lives up to its name: OneWeb’s satellites will be a tenth of the size of a typical communications satellite. They’re also far less expensive than traditional satellites, providing new opportunities and challenges for companies in the sector.

“It’s a different kind of business,” says Mouriaux. “It was a challenge for us putting into practice some ideas on how we could work faster and cheaper to allow the operator to fulfill its mission,” including new automated production equipment. “The smallsat market has huge potential,” Mouriaux adds. “It is a large market and growing, and we want to be part of it.”

When OneWeb and its suppliers reach full capacity, they will be producing as many as three satellites a day. RUAG, which will deliver the first structures for OneWeb satellites in September, projects that employment at its Titusville plant will grow from 15 people to 50 or more over the next five years as it ramps up to serve additional customers in the market.

In the next few years, OneWeb will partner with Blue Origin and other private launch companies to send their satellites to space.

Earlier this year, SpaceX launched and successfully landed a reused first-stage rocket from Launch Complex 39A, the starting point of rockets ranging from Apollo missions to the Space Shuttle. Nearby, Blue Origin is preparing its own orbital launch complex and test stands on sites where the Pioneer, Mariner, and Surveyor spacecraft once launched. Both companies are betting heavily on reusable rockets as a key to reducing launch costs and making suborbital and orbital spaceflight more commercially feasible. Meanwhile, United Launch Alliance, a partnership between aerospace giant’s Boeing and Lockheed Martin, already is supplying the International Space Station and other government and commercial customers from the Cape.

The Space Coast’s commercial launch companies and manufacturers are all part of Florida’s aerospace ecosystem, a $5.2 billion sector with more than 500 businesses supporting two spaceports and 20 major military installations. They are supported by a combination of private and public sector organizations, including Space Florida, state and local economic development organizations, and Enterprise Florida. This high level of support “confirmed our idea that Florida’s Space Coast would continue to grow in the future,” Mouriaux says. And with launch companies ultimately eyeing manned missions to Mars, the sky’s literally no longer the limit.