MERRITT ISLAND, Fla., March 21 (UPI) -- In the shiny white laboratory that is OneWeb Satellites' new Florida manufacturing plant, a historic first happened this week: The first few mass-produced satellites ever to be built in Florida started coming together.
Workers in lab coats and hairnets pushed solar panels into cabinets where bright lights checked for fractures. Satellite frames covered in gold-colored film, about the size of a washing machine, neared the final radio-frequency test chambers.
"There are about 40 people working here now, and we're hiring another 30 this month," said John Start, resident expert engineer at OneWeb Satellites plant near Kennedy Space Center.
Starting in August, the space firm intends to hire another 50 workers for a total of more than 120. The goal is to crank out two small satellites a day. Many will be launched from Florida; some will be carried on rockets made across the street by Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin.
Hiring so many people to work in such advanced high-tech manufacturing for the space industry hasn't happened before in Florida. The state has aerospace companies like Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin, but they've mostly been focused on defense contracting.
"Having once been just a launch site, it is deeply encouraging to see Florida now building capsules, rockets, commercial lunar landers, and today, as the home of the most advanced satellite production facilities on the planet," said Dale Ketcham, vice president of government and external relations for the state's space agency, Space Florida. "We are eager to see this endeavor succeed. Not just to perform, but to grow."
OneWeb is a communication startup backed by deep pockets: France's Airbus, Virgin Galactic's Richard Branson and Japan's SoftBank, which owns Sprint. Its sister company, OneWeb Satellites, is a technically a joint venture between Airbus and OneWeb.
The startup plans to launch hundreds of satellites over the next few years to provide new high-speed Internet and wireless service around the globe. OneWeb launched its first six satellites Feb. 27 on a Russian-made Soyuz rocket from South America. The company says the small satellites are functioning as planned.
Since that launch, OneWeb announced it raised another $1.25 billion for expansion.
Back in Florida, Start is handling hiring and setting up the manufacturing process. He's considered a black belt in the ultra-efficient manufacturing process known as Lean Six Sigma, which trains staff to eliminate waste and defects.
Start said the plant in Florida only has inventory on hand for about two months' of production at any time. The framework for its satellites comes from another European-based company, RUAG Space, which has set up a new plant and is hiring just across the Indian River, about 10 miles away from OneWeb Satellites.
In the past, satellites and rockets were made elsewhere, such as Colorado or Washington, and shipped for launch at Cape Canaveral.
OneWeb, RUAG and several other companies have formed the Space Coast Consortium Apprenticeship Program to work jointly on developing a workforce, among other goals. The apprenticeships are focused on skilled labor positions -- mechanics and technicians to operate or repair high-tech equipment like computer network controls tools.
In the first year, 19 apprenticeships will be offered. They start with a paid two-week summer orientation trial in June. Students will receive part-time paid jobs while they attend a two-year degree program at Eastern Florida State College for degrees in engineering and aerospace.
Once that's done, they could be offered a full-time position at OneWeb Satellites, RUAG Space, Knight's Armament, Matrix Composites, Rocket Crafters, Discovery Aviation or Precision Shapes.
To kick things off, the group will hosting a town hall meeting and tour of OneWeb Satellites' high-tech facility this week from 5 to 7 p.m. Wednesday starting at Space Florida's headquarters, 505 Odyssey Way, Merritt Island. It's in in Exploration Park near the space center. Registering on EventBrite is required.