By Robert Block and Aaron Deslatte
Sentinel Staff Writers
February 15, 2009
Hopes for the agency were as big as space itself. It promised to bring new commercial-launch opportunities to a state already jittery at the upcoming retirement of the space shuttle and the thousands of job losses that will go with it.
Now, nearly three years and $50 million later, the agency is becoming known more for generating controversy and critics than jobs and new business.
A review of thousands of documents and e-mails obtained by the Orlando Sentinel shows that, in recent months, Space Florida was accused by a local university of giving a competitor the school's idea for a training facility for space tourists. Another company accused Space Florida of stiffing it for $250,000 in a publicity deal. A contract to use airplane flights that mimic the microgravity of space to help teachers prepare lessons about space flew just 92 teachers — at a cost of $1 million.
Among the agency's biggest detractors is Elon Musk, the dot-com millionaire founder of SpaceX, the company making a new rocket to take cargo from Cape Canaveral to the international space station.
Space Florida played a role in convincing the Air Force to lease SpaceX a launchpad at the Cape. But despite the helping hand, Musk says the agency is slow, bureaucratic and painful to deal with.
"I don't see any point to the organization," Musk said in an interview, accusing the agency of introducing red tape into everything it touches.
Adding to the agency's woes: The Governor's Office is investigating one of its groundbreaking deals — a space-tourist training program called "Project Odyssey" — after the Sentinel disclosed that a state employee who worked on the contract resigned his job to go to work for the clinic that won it, a potential violation of Florida's "revolving door" ethics laws. The agency also was stung last month by a legislative report questioning its planning for construction of a key multimillion-dollar spaceport.
Jobs created: Unknown
The criticisms come at a crucial time. With NASA planning to mothball the shuttle fleet and shed as many as 6,400 jobs next year, Florida desperately needs space work to offset the losses.
Space Florida says it has taken big steps to lure space business to the state. It says it is talking to 50 companies about potential spaceflight deals, though it can't disclose the names. It lists among its achievements the passage of space-business-friendly legislation in Tallahassee, striking a deal with the Air Force to lease a launchpad to the state and funding projects such as an experiment that could lead to a salmonella vaccine.
But those moves, like most of Space Florida's efforts, have done little to attract significant investment or create jobs.
Space Florida President Steve Kohler, an economic-development expert from Pennsylvania hired by former Gov. Jeb Bush 28 months ago, said he doesn't know how many jobs his agency may have helped create, adding that it is not required to track job creation.
"Our responsibility is to create an environment that entices business and drives new business opportunities for the state," he said in a written statement.
But leading aerospace executives and politicians question whether Space Florida is even meeting those goals. Among its biggest critics are some of the very people it is supposed to be helping: space entrepreneurs.
Peter Diamandis is a major figure in the emerging personal-spaceflight industry. In addition to running Zero G, an airline specializing in flights simulating the weightlessness of space, he is founder and chairman of the X Prize Foundation, which promotes "revolution through competition" by offering a $10 million prize for breakthroughs in, among other areas, spaceflight.
In 2007, Space Florida signed two contracts worth $1 million for Zero G to create a Microgravity Education and Research Center, ultimately intended to work with 8,000 teachers and 80,000 students a year. Besides microgravity flights and workshops, the program was supposed to create online materials and professional development programs.
The deal was considered a coup for Florida and was kicked off with a flight from Kennedy Space Center that allowed world-famous physicist Stephen Hawking — who uses a wheelchair because of a neurological disorder — to experience weightlessness. Zero G and Space Florida launched the "The Stephen Hawking Microgravity Education and Research Center," which began with a Web site.
Zero G also developed a training program and curriculum. But according to Sonya Montgomery, a former Space Florida vice president and until recently a paid consultant to the agency, it had neither the staff nor ability to ensure Zero G's program made it into classrooms.
"Space Florida never executed the Zero G plan. We never identified people who would turn the idea into action, and we never adopted or began to implement the program across the state," Montgomery said.
As the cost of the contract began to attract scrutiny, Space Florida demanded changes from Zero G, like flying experiments instead of teachers. Space Florida refused to agree to a teacher flight schedule with Zero G until a new deal was struck.
"Space Florida wanted Zero G to correct the mistakes that [Space Florida] had made," Montgomery said.
Last year, Zero G appealed to the state Office of Tourism, Trade and Economic Development, the economic-development arm that oversees Space Florida.
"We have fulfilled all of our obligations, and the next steps are clearly in the hands of SF," Diamandis wrote in an e-mail to OTTED Director Dale Brill. "Is it SF's intention to fulfill the contract in 2008?"
Last Sunday, Zero G flew its last flight for Space Florida, closing out the company's relationship with Space Florida. According to the agency, a total of 92 teachers flew — "impacting more than 2,760 students in 36 counties."
Space Florida spokeswoman Deb Spicer, in an e-mail summarizing what the $1 million contract accomplished, added, "Hopefully, as the economy improves, we will be able to fund more microgravity flights ... with a greater focus on providing research opportunities for teachers, students and university faculty."
Idea given away?
Others say Space Florida has ignored them or, worse, appropriated their ideas.
Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University — headquartered in Daytona Beach — presented Kohler in November 2006 with an idea to start a facility that would prepare so-called "space tourists" willing to pay for rocket flights that would take them to the edge of space.
Nothing happened for a year, until Kohler toured an upscale sports-medicine facility near Pensacola. In an interview, Kohler said he thought immediately that its wealthy clients would be "a perfect fit" for a space-tourism program — and tailored a $500,000 grant from the state to the Andrews Orthopedic and Sports Medicine Center.
Embry-Riddle was not pleased.
"We were dismayed to find out that Space Florida funded 'Project Odyssey' as a noncompeted grant to begin work in an area in which many universities and organizations in Florida have expertise and interest," Christina Recascino, the university's vice president for research, wrote last July.
Kohler responded by saying that "there is no record of correspondence or any meetings with Embry-Riddle" about a space-tourism project. Embry-Riddle, however, showed the Orlando Sentinel the PowerPoint presentation it made to Kohler in 2006, proposing the idea.
Rick Svetkoff, president of Starfighters Inc., also had pitched Space Florida on using his KSC-based fleet of F-104 Starfighter jets as part of a space-tourism training program. He also sought money for his company's acrobatic demonstration team to promote Space Florida at air shows in Europe.
In the end, he said he thought the agency had agreed to pay $250,000 for Starfighters to display Space Florida's logo on the company's jets — only to be told after coming back from a flight-show tour last summer that the agency wasn't going to pay.
E-mails between the company and Space Florida show that the agency had sent its logo to Svetkoff to make decals for the jets before the tour. Space Florida spokeswoman Deb Spicer would not discuss the issue, saying it was being reviewed by the agency's lawyers.
Legislators take notice
The complaints have caught the ears of key legislators, including Rep. Dean Cannon, R- Winter Park, who is slated to become House speaker next year, and Sen. Mike Haridopolos, the Indialantic Republican designated to lead the Senate.
"When you hear complaints from a small company, and a big company like Space X, and a world leader like Embry-Riddle, it gives me great concern," Cannon said. "I think those concerns should be investigated to make sure the taxpayers are getting the best value for their dollars."
Now Cannon and Haridopolos have suggested the agency needs management changes, or it could see itself mothballed in the current austere budget environment.
"If they can't make those structural changes, we need to find a better way," Haridopolos said. "This cannot afford to lay. Commercial space is our future."
Robert Block, who reported from Cape Canaveral, can be reached at email@example.com or 321-639-0522. Aaron Deslatte, who reported from Tallahassee, can be reached at 850-222-5564 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Find more on Elon Musk's efforts with SpaceX in Florida, and the controversies dogging Space Florida: OrlandoSentinel.com/ spaceflorida