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HomeAt Home & BeyondSpace Hub: Hernando County is Positioning for the Future

Space Hub: Hernando County is Positioning for the Future

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The aviation and commercial space industry here in Florida is booming and growing at “ludicrous speed.” (A Spaceballs reference for the Mel Brooks faithful.) A group of local leaders and educators are looking to make sure Hernando County grows with it.

After Florida saw only a relative handful of space launches per year between 2010 and 2019, the number of launches from Florida’s Space Coast soared to 72 during 2023. Current launch schedules indicate that 2024 may come close to doubling or exceeding that number. Globally, orbital launches set a new all-time high last year at 223, surpassing the 186 launches in 2022 by almost 20 percent.

The driving forces behind the rapidly increasing launch cadences are varied. Among the most notable are private companies such as Space X, Amazon, and others, each intending to create their own worldwide satellite internet network. Each network literally requires thousands of satellites to be launched into orbit. (As of this month, Space X had over 6000 satellites orbiting as part of their Starlink constellation, with at least another 6000 planned, according to the company.)

Dozens of other private companies have been born in the last few years with their sights on providing for-hire launch services, astronaut training, space technology development, space tourism, and even commercial space stations. At least two plan to be operating a commercial station by the end of the decade.

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There are also governmental needs, covering everything from space exploration and weather forecasting to national security. In the last few years, the federal government has awarded contracts to hundreds of private companies. The contracts call not only for the companies to develop technologies for government needs but to actually get the technologies into space and in some cases, land them on the moon.

And we are not talking about just the US government. Several foreign governments launched both their astronauts and payloads into space from Florida last year. Countries and companies all over the world utilize the services of various commercial spaceflight companies such as Axiom, United Launch Alliance, and SpaceX, just to name a few. In fact, launch demand worldwide still exceeds launch capacity, creating a backlog of payloads waiting to get into space.

The economic impact of commercial spaceflight in Florida doesn’t stop with the primary companies involved. Each private company has to rely on dozens of subcontractors to meet their development and supply chain needs.

The hefty increase in Florida’s aerospace activity over the last few years has had local school districts and governmental entities taking notice.

Enter Sophia Watson, director of Director of Hernando County’s Wilton Simpson Technical College. The college, part of the County’s School District, began planning in 2019 to build a new large campus on the northeast corner of Brooksville Regional Airport.

After Watson and others attended a 2022 conference sponsored by Space Florida (a governmental entity designed to promote the space economy within Florida), an idea was born. Watson and other local leaders recognized the need to both prepare and attract businesses for the needs of the commercial spaceflight boom and to prepare students to be part of tomorrow’s workforce. Watson found herself heading up the effort to bring a “Space Hub” small business incubator to the region, focusing on advanced technologies that can be used in space. Watson says the new airport campus is just the place to do it.

Commenting on the effort, Watson said, “When considering that the aerospace industry operates in three distinct phases – groundwork, launch, and operations in space – we recognized that Hernando is well suited to contribute to the operations phase. The same trades that exist today will be needed in space tomorrow.”

Touting Hernando County as a perfect place for putting together the Space Hub, she said, “In addition to reasonable proximity to the Space Coast, our local assets include a motivated workforce seeking advanced employment opportunities, excellent training providers, and a collaborative community spirit. Our Space Hub is another way to position Hernando as a leading partner in this industry.”

Watson’s enthusiasm for the project was echoed by Valerie Pianta, Hernando County Economic Development Director. Pianta told the Hernando Sun, “The Space Hub project is an amazing opportunity to strengthen and grow Hernando County’s participation in aviation and aerospace. The Office of Economic Development has collaborated with the school district for several years to ensure we can meet the needs of industries investing in our community through quality education programs. The Space Hub idea is really a natural progression, focusing on entrepreneurs directly in or supporting the aerospace industry.

And, the Brooksville – Tampa Bay Regional Airport & Technology Center provides the perfect backdrop with its 2400-acre footprint, 7000 ft runway and more than 100 businesses calling it home. The ability to have an incubator to “grow our own” adds to the county’s robust economic development program, which includes business recruitment and retention programs and support of the USF Small Business Development Center.”

Getting the facility off the ground won’t be cheap…somewhere around $4,000,000 dollars. The price tag has led to the pursuit of federal funding in the form of a Community Block Grant. Though the window to apply for funding has not yet opened, local district and governmental officials are already collaborating to make the dream a reality. The plan thus far has been discussed by school, city, and county officials at a March interlocal meeting, with substantive action already in progress.

Brooksville Mayor Blake Bell recently penned a letter to Congressman Gus Bilirakis. That letter read:

Today, on behalf of the City Council for the City of Brooksville, I strongly urge your consideration and support of Hernando County School District’s request for a federal Community Projects Funding. Hernando County School District is seeking a $4,000,000 federal Community Projects Funding for Hub to remain a prominent workforce and economic development driver for the County and region. Planned to be located in the Dennis Wilfong Center for Success, the Space Hub will be focused on advancing space technologies in the heart of Hernando’s Technology Center. Under the District’s leadership, many community collaborators support this proposed and exciting project! In a high growth School District, innovation and support from the federal government, state government, local governments and community leaders is essential. It is critical that Hernando County and Hernando County School Districts be able to compete with other similar and nearby counties. A report by the U.S. Economic Development Administration (EDA) found that for every $1 of public investment in business incubation programs, approximately $30 of local economic impact is generated. Together, with your leadership, Hernando County and the School District will achieve new heights for the residents, taxpayers, students and business community.

The Hernando Sun reached out to Congressman Bilirakis’s office for comment but was told that the office could not make any comments on funding requests this early in the process.

As one would expect, NASA is very supportive of initiatives like the one proposed locally. Kimberlyn B. Carter, director of the Office of Center Engagement and Business Integration Services, told the Sun, “NASA relies on a diverse STEM skilled workforce for its needs today and in the future. The agency has a long history of engaging students of all ages in science, technology, engineering and math, as well as fostering technological innovation and supporting the growth of the commercial space sector. And as an agency, we are executing a strategy to develop a vibrant economy in low Earth orbit that is sustainable, cost-effective, and safe, and NASA Kennedy’s Master Plan is posturing us for sustainable growth of the spaceport. The synergy and collaboration that results from all of these efforts is good for students, good for NASA and the space industry, and good for the nation.”

Underscoring the need for the Space Hub, a report by the World Economic Forum released this week said: “The space economy is forecast to soar to $1.8 trillion by 2035 in an increasingly connected and mobile world, impacting and creating value for nearly all industries on Earth and providing solutions to many of the world’s greatest challenges. But it’s about more than rocket science, with space increasingly playing a role in everything from the weather forecast you look at in the morning, the dinner that gets delivered to your door, and the call you make from your smart watch. Indeed, industries like supply chain and transportation are only going to become more dependent on satellite and other space technologies.

“Five industries – supply chain and transportation; food and beverage; state-sponsored defense; retail, consumer goods / lifestyle; and digital communications – will generate more than 60% of the increase in the space economy by 2035. In addition, nine other industries will see space-related revenues reach several billion dollars – creating opportunities for traditional and non-traditional players alike.”
With numbers like that, there will be plenty of room for Hernando County to claim its slice of the pie.

Construction of the Wilton Simpson Technical College is well underway, with completion slated for later this year. [Credit: Mark Stone/FMN]
Construction of the Wilton Simpson Technical College is well underway, with completion slated for later this year. [Credit: Mark Stone/FMN]
Artist’s rendering of the new Wilton Simpson Technical College at Brooksville Airport. [Courtesy of Hernando County School District]
Artist’s rendering of the new Wilton Simpson Technical College at Brooksville Airport. [Courtesy of Hernando County School District]

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