ORLANDO, Fla. — Florida and other states appear eager to catch the next wave of the rocket-launch business. But before they throw big public money at private commercial space interests, state officials should do a serious reality check, a top expert says.
While the space industry's commercial future may promise riches, there are still many unanswered questions about the costs vs. benefits, said Dr. Henry R. Hertzfeld, research professor of space policy and international affairs at George Washington University.
"There is a sort of war between the states for the next big thing in the space business," he said. "They are all jockeying for position. But nobody really knows how big this thing is going to be in terms of jobs and all the rest of the economic impact — which might actually turn out to be not that significant."
Such comments may sound like heresy in space-rich Florida as it tries to capture the next-generation launch business of players such as SpaceX and Blue Origin, while recapturing the "right stuff" glory associated with NASA's next manned spaceflight launches.
Hertzfeld insists, however, that expectations for jobs and revenue growth may be overblown. Demand for launch services has been flat, and the number of launches has been relatively constant in recent years, he said. Potentially blockbuster new businesses — such as space tourism – could take decades to develop. Meanwhile, starting and maintaining a new spaceport would be very expensive.
"The bottom line is the projection of dramatic growth for this business is speculative, quite speculative," Hertzfeld said. "There are many questions for which we still just don't have the answers."
Officials for Space Florida — the state's space development arm — have focused instead on the potential benefits of hosting the emerging space industry.
"These global space markets today represent a $314 billion industry, with new sectors emerging and growing at a high rate every day," the agency's chief executive, Frank DiBello, said at a recent forum. "It is essential for space transportation and spaceport entities to be responsive to their needs."
Later, the agency said DiBello was actually referring to the potential future demand for space launch services by every industry that uses satellites — including broadcast and cable television, Internet communications, wireless services, weather services, government research agencies, defense and intelligence operations.
Currently, the value of the space-launch industry is substantially less — about $10 billion a year, Space Florida said.