CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla., Feb. 22 (UPI) -- Firefly Aerospace announced Friday it will open a rocket-manufacturing facility on Florida's Space Coast on Cape Canaveral, adding momentum to a new commercial space race.
Gov. Ron Desantis made the official announcement Friday morning at Cape Canaveral, with a small crowd seated atop the launch platform the company will refurbish.
"It's good for the economy. It's also good for space exploration," DeSantis said. "I think with our space mission, we got good mojo back."
Firefly will make smaller orbital launch rockets in a new factory just outside Kennedy Space Center, across the street from OneWeb's new satellite plant.
And it will offer launches for small satellites at much cheaper rates than SpaceX or United Launch Alliance's bigger rockets. Company officials said Friday they have 1.3 billion in launch business lined up.
"If you can get a rocket into space these days, you're going to have clients," Firefly CEO Tom Markusic said.
A ride on a Firefly Alpha rocket would cost $15 million, Markusic and acting CFO Mark Watt said Friday. A Falcon 9 launch is set at $62 million, according to SpaceX. The cost of a SpaceX launch is sometimes split among clients.
Markusic once worked for SpaceX. He said Friday he considers Firefly to be one of the second-generation companies in the "new space" era.
Watt said Firefly's plant in Florida would initially be capable of producing 24 smaller Firefly rockets, the Alpha version, per year. But it will be built so that an expansion could enable it to churn out 100 such rockets annually.
Desantis drew a round of applause when he said he had formally requested that plans to restart a military space command be located at Cape Canaveral.
The governor also mentioned that he wants students at local colleges to get apprenticeships with companies like Firefly.
Watt told UPI after the event that Firefly has an apprenticeship program running in Texas, called Firefly Academy -- with a cost of $1 million -- and plans to start a similar program in Florida.
The company previously told the state's marketing agency for space, Space Florida, that it plans to invest $52 million into its plant and new launchpad facilities.
Space Florida's board voted in November to negotiate for $18.9 million in state funding for the project, which is expected to support 239 jobs with anticipated annual pay average of $70,000. Space Florida endorsed the project under the code-name Project Maricopa.
The company would be providing an alternative to the Pegasus rocket developed in the 1990s by Orbital ATK, said Ray Lugo, director of the Florida Space Institute at the University of Central Florida.
"Firefly is going to the low end of the market. We are kind of saturated in the large class with rockets being developed by NASA, SpaceX and Blue Origin," Lugo said. "This niche has been filled by the Pegasus, and those are getting more expensive to acquire."
Coming to Florida is only logical for a launch provider, Lugo said.
"We have people who know the business who are available to work on these systems," Lugo said. "There's a reason NASA chose this location geographically, to launch over the ocean and so on."
Adding another rocket manufacturer, with high-paying jobs, boosts Florida's space industry, which in the past was only used as a launch location.
Lugo said he'd like to see more manufacturing of satellites in Florida, as OneWeb is doing.
"We need more satellite and payload manufacturers. Building satellites is more regular business and employment, which can get you past the slow times if there's no launches for a while," he said.
Rocket manufacturers also provide opportunities for Florida aerospace students, said Jaydeep Mukherjee, director of the NASA Florida Space Grant Consortium.
"I would like to see students intern at these companies," Mukherjee said. "These companies will also be hiring from the local talent pool and that is very lucrative for the students."
He said the presence of rocket companies opens possibilities for university experiments, especially on smaller rockets like Firefly's.
Firefly is developing rockets it calls Alpha and Beta. The company says they will provide the space industry with access to frequent launches at the lowest cost per kilogram, "enabling ambitious commercial and exploration missions from Low Earth Orbit to the Moon."
The firm, based near Austin, Texas, is funded by Noosphere Ventures, the strategic venture arm of Noosphere Global. A leading investor in Noosphere is Ukrainian technologist and investor Max Polyakov. The board of Firefly includes John Isella, who has been senior technical adviser for NASA at Kennedy Space Center . Noosphere is a term coined by philosophers and scientists in 1920s Paris, referring to the sphere of human thought and consciousness that encircles the globe and impacts the evolution of life on the planet.
Firefly has been gearing up to begin commercial launches. In December it signed a launch and mission services contract with Spaceflight. That will allow it to arrange dedicated "ride-share" launch opportunities on the Alpha launch vehicle, for various companies.
Firefly intends to tap into a mushrooming market for small satellites. Multiple companies, including SpaceX and OneWeb, are positioning to launch constellations of new satellites, creating a web of satellites around the globe, in the coming years. Such new networks would provide high-speed Internet service to every corner of the world, including developing nations where such access has been difficult or impossible.
Les Kovacs, Firefly vice president of business development, said in a previous announcement that the advanced capabilities offered by the next generation of small satellites will allow novel applications of space-based capabilities.
He said the launches would ensure that "heritage aerospace companies and new space entrepreneurs have access to the shared resource of low-earth orbit and the launch capability required to successfully execute their business plans."