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Space Florida is Riding on Orion

Orion, NASA's deep-space exploration spacecraft, remained on the launch pad Thursday as a series of delays pushed its scheduled maiden flight to Friday.

But the vessel sitting atop the massive Delta 4 rocket is expected to one day push man to the Moon, asteroids and Mars, and Florida's aerospace leaders believe the state will remain at the forefront of those efforts.

"We still are the premier launch site in the world," state Sen. Thad Altman, chairman of the Senate Military and Veterans Affairs, Space and Domestic Security Committee, said recently. "The fact that Orion is launching from the Space Coast is an example of that. We have a very vibrant space industry."

Altman said he's optimistic for the future of NASA and the aerospace industry in Florida.

He needs to be. Florida has a lot riding on the program.

NASA hasn't launched an American into orbit since the shuttle program was retired in July 2011 and may still be seven years away as backers of Orion search for missions, having to confront ever-present political uncertainty to land needed funding.

"We continue to be highly invested in the success of the Orion program, as a series of solid demonstration launches will ensure NASA's next-generation space program continues to call Florida its home base for launch operations," Tina Lange, spokeswoman for Space Florida, said in an email. "This further positions Florida as a leader in the global space marketplace and assists us in continuing to attract and expand other space and aerospace-related businesses that want to benefit from that booming sector."

Space Florida, the quasi-government agency created to grow the space industry, tossed $35 million into renovating the Apollo-era Operations and Checkout facility at Kennedy Space Center to ensure the Lockheed Martin capsule would be manufactured in Florida in 2006.

Four years from now, Orion is expected to take an initial test flight atop the huge Space Launch System rocket that NASA is developing. That flight will take place from Space Florida's refurbished Launch Complex 46 at Cape Canaveral.

The pressure to reintroduce manned flights comes as Florida competes on a global stage to launch vehicles into space.

Space Exploration Technologies Corp., better known as SpaceX, continues to use Cape Canaveral Air Force Station Space Launch Complex 40 for its Falcon 9 launches, which ferry supplies to the International Space Station. But billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk, who heads the company, is setting up the world's first private launch facility in Texas.

Altman said Florida's role is to be the launching pad for human exploration.

"We know the Cape isn't large enough to launch virtually every rocket in the world, even every rocket in this country, but we have a role to play, and our special role is launching human beings into space and exploration," Altman said. "Those very large vehicles that are required to get to other planets, and what is important to us is that human space flight continues to be pre-eminent."'

The Legislature allocated $17.5 million toward Space Florida in the current year, including up to $2.5 million to assist with the commercialization of the former Shuttle Landing Facility at Kennedy and $1.5 million for space tourism marketing.

And Gov. Rick Scott, as part of his re-election platform, promised to expand Florida's space industry.

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