KSC's new bridge could be a sign of what's to come for NASA and the Space Force
A coalition of organizations continues to push forward with the replacement of Kennedy Space Center's aging drawbridge, a project that offers a glimpse into a possible future when NASA and the Space Force merge their Space Coast facilities to focus more on their core missions.
According to permitting documents recently filed by the Florida Department of Transportation and NASA, construction of a new bridge that extends State Road 405 in south Titusville to the spaceport is still slated to begin in early 2022. The existing structure is referred to as NASA Causeway West or the Indian River Bridge.
An FDOT spokesperson confirmed the replacement will span 4,025 feet and have a minimum clearance of 65 feet, eliminating the need for a drawbridge that often backs up traffic when tall boats need to pass underneath. The current bridge runs 3,000 feet and only has a 28-foot vertical clearance.
The project, FDOT's Jessica Ottaviano said, "will replace the aging infrastructure and provide a safer and more efficient way to move people, transport space freight and launch materials."
FDOT estimates the total cost at $126 million, but NASA will only have to foot $13.5 million of the bill – $90 million comes from a U.S. Department of Transportation grant while the rest will be covered by Space Florida, the state's spaceport authority.
The new structure will include two separate bridges with two lanes each. Crews will first build the eastbound lanes to the south of the existing drawbridge, then transition all traffic there. In 2024, the old structure will be removed and westbound lanes put in its place.
Built in 1964, the current NASA-owned bridge was designed to connect Titusville to Merritt Island. Over the decades, it's carried countless spacecraft, employees, visitors, tourists, and other hardware like pad infrastructure and building materials.
These days, it's not just KSC that needs the artery. It also leads to Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, and Blue Origin's massive New Glenn rocket factory at Exploration Park.
For some companies like Lockheed Martin's Astrotech Space Operations in Titusville, it's the only way to get processed spacecraft across the river and to their respective rockets at KSC or the Air Force station. The company is also renovating a facility near the causeway for heat shield work related to NASA's Orion crew capsule, adding yet another bridge dependent.
No longer NASA property
NASA's aging drawbridge over the Indian River Lagoon, in critical need of replacement, was built in 1964 to connect Titusville to Merritt Island. The Florida Department of Transportation is spearheading the construction of a new $126 million bridge slated to begin in 2022.
A 2017 NASA engineering study determined the existing drawbridge was approaching the brink of what could be considered safe for transporting heavy equipment, though passenger vehicles were not an immediate concern.
NASA officials knew at the time a replacement would cost north of $100 million, a steep figure for the agency focused on its Space Launch System rocket and transitioning KSC to a spaceport with more commercial tenants. But FDOT analyses showed maintaining the current bridge for 10 more years and then replacing it would cost even more: about $156 million.
Space Florida last year applied for the U.S. DOT's Infrastructure for Rebuilding America grant program and secured more than two-thirds of the amount needed to replace the 56-year-old NASA structure. The grant also included money for expanding Space Commerce Way, which leads to the visitor complex and Blue Origin's factory.
With Space Florida assuming responsibility for the project's execution and funding a majority of the remaining $36 million, NASA agreed to state ownership of the new bridge.
The transition alleviates some of NASA's need to focus on projects that aren't intimately tied to space, science, and aeronautics. Looking to the future, it could be the beginning of even more shifting responsibilities.
Merging KSC and the Cape?
A long exposure photograph of the Vehicle Assembly Building, against the backdrop of a bright blue sky, at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
The Space Force, which oversees the Eastern Range and other space-related facilities across the country, is exploring the possibility of merging Cape Canaveral Air Force Station and KSC to streamline operations.
Like the bridge ownership change, the idea is similar: allow the Department of Defense to focus on its core missions of national defense and launch support through new efficiencies and shifting peripheral projects off its books.
The proposal puts increased responsibilities on the DOT, Federal Aviation Administration, commercial companies, and other organizations like Space Florida to manage future space operations. The new nationwide authority would help establish a strategy for spaceport management and take over launch-scheduling work.
Ultimately, the plan positions NASA and the DOD as tenants to the independent authority.
The proposal's timing is critical, especially as U.S. launch cadence speeds up: with SpaceX and United Launch Alliance slated to fly about 30 missions this year, concerns are growing over who gets to launch what, when, and how resource-intensive it will be for the Space Force. The schedule will only get more congested as other vehicles from NASA, Blue Origin, Relativity Space, and Firefly start coming online.
Because the Space Force is responsible for supporting current launches – national defense or not – the branch finds itself involved in some entirely commercial missions. Compared to just a few years ago, these are absorbing more resources and money, Maj. Gen. DeAnna Burt said during a September meeting of the FAA's commercial space advisory committee.
The circulating "Range of the Future" concept would see more oversight and input from organizations like the Department of Transportation and commercial companies.
"We are not fully funded to cover everything that's out there on both ranges," Burt said, the latter referring to Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. "We're trying to look at both working with the FAA and our civil-commercial partners on how best to do that."
The idea doesn't mean the Space Force stops supporting commercial missions, but instead allows for a more even spread of responsibilities. The branch actually wants to become more agile and help foster significantly more launches per year.
"Day-to-day, if you go right here in the Colorado Springs area, we have a military airport co-located with a commercial airport," Burt said. "How do we get to those same kinds of constructs in the space domain?"
Dale Ketcham, Space Florida’s vice president of government and external relations, said the "national spaceport authority" concept is critical fostering growth in commercial space and protecting public safety.
"The Air Force has been struggling for some time now to address a better governance model for spaceports," he said during the FAA meeting. "They're spending a lot of time, money, and bandwidth focusing on roads, commodes, commodities, leases, and things of that nature.
"This is an initial effort to explore better governance models for the future," he said.