Commercial aerospace industry offers limitless possibilities — and state is uniquely suited for it
By SHAWN T. CRUZEN — Special to the Ledger-Enquirer
On April 28, history was made high above the California desert. For the first time, a vessel designed specifically to take tourists into space fired its engine and achieved rocket-powered flight, breaking the sound barrier in the process. Rocket planes blazing above desert skies should remind us all of the days when Chuck Yeager and Scott Crossfield shattered Mach 1, and then Mach 2, and America was the clear leader in aerospace advancements.
However, the most recent remarkable feat was not orchestrated by a nation or government, but by a billionaire entrepreneur, Sir Richard Branson, CEO of the Virgin group. Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo took one giant leap forward toward becoming the first-ever privately financed spacecraft to carry humans into space. The company projects it will fly the first private tourists into space in less than a year. Virgin Galactic and other companies, like SpaceX, XCOR Aerospace and Orbital Sciences, are the vanguard of a burgeoning commercial space industry that is coming of age in the wake of changes at NASA.
What does any of this have to do with Georgia? Well, potentially plenty.
Georgia is ideally situated, in terms of both geography and infrastructure, to locate a commercial spaceport. Our southern latitude is important because spacecraft get an additional boost from Earth’s rotation the farther south they launch. Also, launching spacecraft over the ocean, rather than heavily populated land areas, reduces the risk. Where can you find a southeastern coastline? Georgia. These geographical assets are further enhanced with barge access to the Atlantic, a superior interstate system, and the world’s busiest airport nearby. Combine these benefits with a population of 85,000 aerospace workers in the state and an outstanding university system to train and enhance the next generation workforce, and Georgia presents a highly attractive package for space entrepreneurs. Few people today realize that in 1960, when NASA was looking for a site to launch rockets, Georgia was on the short list for many of these reasons.
It seems that Georgia may yet have a space destiny. In 1998 a committee of the Georgia Senate studied aerospace development and commercial space activities. One of their recommendations was for Georgia to develop a space launch facility. In 2008, the Georgia Military Affairs Committee commissioned a private firm to do a strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats (SWOT) analysis in preparation for another round of BRAC assessment. The company also was asked to make recommendations for industries that were a great fit for Georgia. When the study was finalized, two industries were strongly recommended; unmanned vehicles and space.
Based on the 2008 recommendations, the Georgia Space Working Group was formed. They did their own SWOT analysis of space activities across the nation and particularly in Georgia. The results showed the space industry in the United States was an $80 billion dollar business, but Georgia had less than .5% of that business. Georgia’s great aerospace industry has a far larger focus on aviation, and less on spaceflight.