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.
These factors place Georgia in a unique situation. As a state, we are a national leader in the aerospace industry, but with a hugely underdeveloped portion of the business providing almost unlimited opportunity. We are in the right place at the right time. NASA has changed. It's currently paying Russia $70 million per seat for American astronauts to ride to space. The environment is ideal for commercial space companies to grow and flourish. But these companies have been frustrated by having to launch from government launch facilities where commercial companies are a lower priority. These companies began looking for their own launch facilities where the priority would be on commercial launches.
Because of the work of the space working group, Georgia was ready. Property had recently become available on the coast of Georgia very near the location originally considered by NASA. Several companies made the trip to coastal Georgia, looked at the property, and said they felt it was the premier property for commercial launch in the entire country. Its location can support vertical launch into orbit, as well as horizontal launch for space tourists and science experiments into suborbital space. It's coastal and it has infrastructure. It is remote, yet it has cities nearby. It can support year-round operations. These are exactly the characteristics the companies wanted.
The work to obtain this property and do the things necessary for it to become a commercial launch facility has already begun. If successful, one need only look at the area surrounding the Kennedy Space Center to see what it could mean for Georgia. Since 1960, the population has grown from 17,000 to 700,000. Imagine the high-tech companies that have located near the center and the jobs that have been created, both in the space industry and those necessary to support that increasing population. Add to that the tourists who visit the space coast every day and the additional tourists who come to the area for each launch. Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX, recently said in an interview that whoever gets this complex will be getting the Cape Canaveral of commercial space. The economic potential is simply astounding.
However, another vital consideration cannot be overlooked. That is to provide our children with the kind of experiences that will inspire them to become the next generation of scientists and engineers. Last month, Columbus State University hosted the Hunter Lecture and NextGen STEM Immersion conference featuring Dr. Bernard Harris, the first African-American to walk in space. During this event, Dr. Harris spoke to nearly 1,000 captivated students about space exploration and achieving their dreams. Also, representatives from internationally recognized XCOR Aerospace and SpaceWorks Enterprises led a panel discussion on workforce development, an effort aimed at providing technical careers for these students. Space is still exciting to students, and a spaceport in Georgia could inspire countless thousands to pursue science and mathematics as a career.
Will a commercial launch complex land in Georgia? We have an opportunity to make it happen, but we have to move quickly. Creating Spaceport Georgia is something we can control, and if we are successful it will create one of the biggest economic opportunities in our history.
Shawn T. Cruzen, professor, Department of Earth and Space Sciences at Columbus State University, is executive director of the Coca-Cola Space Science Center.