When astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken launched from Kennedy Space Center last month, NASA and SpaceX made history. It was the first human launch from the U.S. since the end of the Space Shuttle program in 2011 — and the public-private partnership did it in the middle of a global pandemic.
Coronavirus has hit Florida’s economy hard. The region’s tourist industry appears to have taken the biggest hit, but on the space coast rockets continue to launch and aerospace businesses have by and large kept their doors open.
“For the most part, the space industry has done a pretty good job of responding and adapting to COVID,” said Space Florida’s Dale Ketcham. NASA and SpaceX took extra precautions to keep Hurley, Behnken and all the employees working to launch the duo safe in an age of social distancing, deep cleaning and looming concerns over coronavirus.
The mission is part of NASA’s Commercial Crew program — a $6 billion partnership with commercial companies SpaceX and Boeing to launch astronauts to the station, ending a nearly decade-long reliance on the Russian space agency for rides to the station.
The launch happened as the pandemic shuttered businesses across the country. In Florida, the shutdowns have decimated the state’s lucrative tourism industry. Statewide more than 2 million people have applied for unemployment benefits.
But for the Space Coast, the impact of the economic shutdown has been relatively low compared to other counties. In Brevard County, about 14 percent of the workforce filed for unemployment. Compare that to neighboring Osceola, on the doorstep of the theme parks, and that number nearly doubles to over 30 percent of its workforce.
“The Space Coast has outperformed for a number of reasons,” said economic analyst Hank Fishkind. “First because of the space program, but secondly with a lower level of infections, the Space Coast was able to open up more of his businesses at a little faster rate.”
But the Space Coast hasn’t been immune to economic strife. Budding internet satellite operator One Web, which has a manufacturing plant near Kennedy Space Center, filed for bankruptcy in part due to “market turbulence from COVID-19.”
Consumers have taken the brunt of this economic downturn but businesses and the government continue to spend.
“The customer base has cash,” said Chad Anderson, CEO of aerospace venture capital firm Space Angels. “The government is not pulling back. Throughout the pandemic it’s actually been spending more on services and things. That’s been a big boon.”
Remote working, which stemmed from coronavirus concerns, is also contributing to more investment in the space sector. Companies are now relying on satellites for supply chain intelligence and remote sensing as workforces are spread out. Commercial space companies are providing the space-based imaging technology needed to keep an eye on resources from orbit.
“Businesses are still spending and are actually starting to see the value in a lot of these satellite services,” said Anderson. “If you think about space as just rockets and satellites, that’s a very limited view of the value of space technology.”
The pandemic is also changing the way some industry leaders think about manufacturing. “I didn’t foresee the pandemic being one of the things that made 3D printing an advantage, but it turned out that that was the case for us,” said Tim Ellis, CEO of Relativity Space, which 3D prints rockets using autonomous robots.
Relativity Space’s workforce is based out of California, Mississippi and Florida. The company has weathered the downturn with no layoffs and his company is on track for its first launch from Cape Canaveral at the end of 2021. Historically, aerospace companies are better off at the end of economic turmoil than other industries and Ellis is optimistic his company will continue to thrive.
“We think there’s going to be an increase in the amount of potential launch and satellite contracts coming down the pipeline,” said Ellis. “That’s really how the government can best serve. It’s not direct money to companies but really procuring services from commercial companies.”
The pandemic has exposed some companies to supply chain vulnerabilities — unable to get critical parts needed for manufacturing — but many are using this experience as a way to build a more robust network of supplies.
“They just weren’t as evident as they probably should have been to the business managers and the people responsible for execution and operations,” said Space Florida’s Dale Ketcham. “I think that’s a big part of what [this industry] has been engaged in now is identifying those vulnerabilities and putting themselves in a position to better mitigate and have plan B’s for those vulnerabilities.”
Despite the supply hiccup, economist are calling for a bright future for the space industry and Florida’s Space Coast in a post-coronavirus world.
“It absolutely is going to recover faster and stronger,” said economic analyst Hank Fishkind. “The reason is because it’s not so dependent upon travel and tourism,and it can expand appropriately with the necessary social distancing. The prospects for the aerospace industry are one of the brightest of all sectors.”