After two years of negotiations, and four years after the last shuttle landing, the state of Florida is wrapping up a deal with NASA to take over the space shuttle's runway at the Kennedy Space Center. Image credit: Bill Ingalls/NASA

Jun 15, 2015 Florida closing deal to take over mothballed shuttle runway for commercial air and space port

Sen—A two-year effort to turn over the space shuttle’s runway to the state of Florida came to an end on Monday, clearing the way for a range of air-launched rockets and other commercial projects to set up shop at the Kennedy Space Center.

Space Florida, a state-backed economic development agency focusing on aerospace, approved an innovative, 30-year land use agreement at a special board of directors meeting.

The vote came almost two years after NASA selected Space Florida from among five bidders to take over the shuttle’s 4.572 kilometer long runway and related facilities at the Kennedy Space Center. The so-called Shuttle Landing Facility, or SLF, has been mostly idled following the end of the space shuttle program in July 2011.

“The transfer of the SLF is a difficult thing to do because it is a federal government property transfer under an agreement that gives us commercial development rights,” Space Florida president and chief executive Frank DiBello told Sen.

“In itself, that is a very hard thing for the government to work through, both from a legal context and a structure context. Commercial development rights are not easy to simply create. The terms of the lease have to be long enough to allow private companies to come there and still finance infrastructure, which might be 30 years, 40 years, 50 years. Most normal standard agreements are pretty rigid … This had to be created out of whole cloth,” DiBello said.

Details of the agreement have not yet been disclosed, but documents posted on NASA’s procurement website show that turning the SLF over to a commercial operator will save the agency more than $2 million a year in operations and maintenance costs.

Space Florida’s budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1 is still pending. A summary of the SLF project presented to the Space Florida board of directors last month shows the agency anticipates spending about $200,000 a month over the first two years to develop and operate the runway and facility.

DiBello said Space Florida already has 12 potential tenants lined up. Among those previously expressing interest in using the runway are: Sierra Nevada Corp, which is developing a spaceplane called Dream Chaser that launches aboard a traditional rocket and lands on a runway; XCOR Aerospace, which is building a two-person suborbital spaceplane called Lynx; and Stratolaunch Systems, a Paul Allen-backed company developing an air-launched orbital transportation system.

The shuttle’s runway—one of the longest in the world—is currently used by heavy transport aircraft, military cargo planes, T-38, Gulfstream G-2 and F-104 aircraft, and helicopters. The landing facility also includes a 50,000-square-foot hangar that Space Florida already owns. A commercial flight services company, Starfighters Aerospace, presently operates there.

“We’re going to operate this just the way we would a special purpose airport,” DiBello said, adding that income would be generated by user fees and lease agreements.

The renamed and rebranded SLF could begin operations this summer, DiBello said.

In addition to space companies, Space Florida is attempting to lure some aircraft operators and drone systems to the property.

“There is a community of people we have been talking too that want to come to the SLF and operate on it,” DiBello said.

Space Florida plans to pursue dual licenses from the Florida Department of Transportation for aviation purposes and from the Federal Aviation Administration’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation for space launches.

NASA has been paring down its facilities at Kennedy Space Center and elsewhere following the retirment of the space shuttles. Space Florida already has taken over all three of the shuttle processing hangars and subleased them to Boeing. One is being used for the CST-100 program, an effort to develop a commercial space taxi to fly crews to the International Space Station. The other two hangars are being used for the Air Force’s X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle program, which is managed by Boeing.

NASA also signed a lease with Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX, to take over one of the shuttle’s two launch pads. SpaceX plans to begin using the refurbished pad late this year or early 2016 with the debut flight of its Falcon Heavy rocket.

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The shuttle's 4.6 km (3 miles) long runway at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida is about to be turned over to the state of Florida. Image credit: NASA