Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, Volusia County aim to land piece of growing space industry

Fifty years after the Apollo 11 put men on the moon, Volusia County is taking giant steps to play a role in today's race for space.

Led not by NASA but rather commercial spaceflight ventures such as Elon Musk's SpaceX and Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin, the new space industry is already generating significant launch activity at Cape Canaveral, located about 60 miles south of Daytona Beach.

That is creating more economic development opportunities for Volusia County.

"With all the growth in space activity at the Cape comes the need for a lot of supporting businesses, the suppliers and operations-type people," said Dr. Barry Butler, president of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, which counts seven astronauts as alumni. "Volusia County is well suited for that."

The increase in aerospace activity here is already underway.

Nick Lopac monitors the mobility of Chase Covello in a space suit prior to pressurization as Keith Crisman and student Michael Fortunato observe in the S.U.I.T. (Spacesuit Utilization of Innovative Technology) Lab at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach on Sept. 24, 2018. [DAVID MASSEY/EMBRY-RIDDLE AERONAUTICAL UNIVERSITY]


In June, New Jersey aerospace startup Orbit Beyond Inc. confirmed plans to locate a manufacturing/assembly facility in Port Orange where it will produce unmanned lunar landers for commercial use. The project is funded in part by a $97.7 million contract from NASA.

READ MORE: Company to build lunar landers in Port Orange

A California developer also recently began touting plans to convert the Volusia Square shopping center near the Interstate 95/International Speedway Boulevard interchange into an aeropace research park called Space Square.

Last month also saw the announcement at the Paris Air Show by high-tech communications company Arralis of its agreement to lease the last remaining available space at Embry-Riddle's MicaPlex research complex in Daytona Beach. The Ireland-based company intends to eventually build a manufacturing-and-assembly plant in Florida, possibly in Volusia.

The MicaPlex opened in March 2017 on South Clyde Morris Boulevard just south of Embry-Riddle's Daytona Beach campus. It is the first building in a planned 94-acre aviation/aerospace research park.

The research park last year added a $10 million wind tunnel facility and this fall is set to welcome the opening of the first of three planned research hangars. The park today is home to 17 startups that have created 33 jobs paying an average of $60,000 a year, as well as 76 internship positions, said Ginger Pinholster, a spokeswoman for the university.

"The space industry in Florida is exploding, and Volusia County is going to be extremely important to Space Florida's efforts (to draw aerospace companies to the Sunshine State)," said Mori Hosseini, Embry-Riddle's board chairman.

"Embry-Riddle is going to be the focal point, the pivot of everything happening and because it's in Volusia County, it's going to bring companies here," said Hosseini, who also serves on the boards for both Space Florida and Enterprise Florida. 

A recent Florida Department of Economic Opportunity-funded study completed by consultants with Alexandria, Virginia-based Bryce Space and Technology found that Volusia County is well-positioned to cater to the growing private space industry, thanks to its location in the north point of the so-called Florida Space Triangle that includes the Cape and Orlando.

The opportunities for Volusia County include the growing use of small satellites, with more than 10,000 launches planned in the next decade; NASA's increased reliance of commercial cargo and crew programs, with 65 such missions planned by 2027; the expanded use of small satellite launch vehicles, with more than 40 in development; and the development of refurbishable vehicles.

The report "did a good job of identifying our role," said Rodney Cruise, senior vice president of administration and planning for Embry-Riddle.

Cruise added that the county has more than just its proximity to the Cape going for it. It also is a wellspring for skilled workers, including engineers and information technology workers, with some 7,000 students set to attend classes at Embry-Riddle's Daytona Beach campus this fall.

While the university is perennially ranked as one of the leading aviation/aerospace universities in the world, historically only a small fraction of its graduates remain in Volusia County to pursue their careers. Embry-Riddle and local business leaders are hopeful that will change as more aerospace companies and suppliers establish operations here.

Cruise said Embry-Riddle has undergone a transformation in recent years that could aid that effort by taking a leadership role in aviation/aerospace research, as opposed to primarily being a teaching institution. The research park was created with the goal of serving as an incubator for promising startups that can develop new technologies and products.

"You don't know which one of these (startup) companies will become the next Microsoft or Amazon," Cruise said.

Frank DiBello is president and CEO of Space Florida. In an interview in June, he said he has high hopes that Volusia County and the Daytona Beach area will hold a key position in the new space industry. 

"You have a lot to bring to the table, including a (steady) supply of talent from Embry-Riddle and an available supply of buildings (and shovel-ready sites)," DiBello said. "Raydon (the manufacturing plant in Port Orange where Orbit Beyond plans to lease a large space) is a perfect example of being able to meet their fast timetable."

NASA has set Orbit Beyond a September 2020 deadline for delivering its first lunar landers capable of being deployed.

"I think in the future, more and more companies are going to discover the Volusia County/Daytona area as an attractive area for future space business," DiBello said.

Keith Norden, president and CEO of Team Volusia Economic Development Corp., said "momentum is building" for Volusia county to become an aerospace hub.

The business recruiter was part of a contingent of local leaders from Volusia County that traveled to the Paris Air Show in June to promote the region. Arralis was one of the leads Norden said Team Volusia initially made at last year's Farnborough International Airshow in the United Kingdom. The company is expected to initially create at least two dozen jobs at its new facility at the MicaPlex.

"We met them last year in Farnborough and worked collaboratively with Embry-Riddle, along with the CEO Business Alliance, Volusia County and the Daytona Regional Chamber (of Commerce) to secure the project," Norden said.

Rick Karl, director of Daytona Beach International Airport, said he believes the time has finally come for the county to land a part of the growing space industry.

"Before, there were limited opportunities for us," he conceded. "But with Elon Musk and others commercializing (the space industry), the number of launches has dramatically increased as well as advances in technology.

"It's coming and we see it and it's much bigger than we can wrap our minds around," Karl said.

Karl hopes to finally fulfill his longtime dream of developing the nearly 300 acres at the airport's south end into an aviation/aerospace industrial park. That land also abuts Embry-Riddle.

"Once this thing really gets rolling there's going to be a need for large spaces," he said. "We are uniquely poised with all of our manufacturing capabilities, our workforce and our universities. It's our time."

READ: ERAU research park lures high-tech firm Arralis to Daytona Beach

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READ: ERAU's Butler: Sky's no limit for aerospace business in Volusia