By CHABELI HERRERA| ORLANDO SENTINEL |JUL 22, 2019 | 5:27 PM
Three years and two months ago, OneWeb founder and chairman Greg Wyler stood on an empty plot of dirt just outside the gates of Kennedy Space Center with then-Florida Gov. Rick Scott. They were talking about building a factory.
OneWeb was seeking to bring digital connectivity to schools even in the most remote areas, but to do it, it needed to manufacture satellites at a lower cost. So it did it itself: OneWeb partnered with Airbus to create the satellite arm of the company, OneWeb Satellites.
“What we had to do was design a satellite system that was so cost efficient that it would literally be a no-brainer to buy,” Wyler said. “It was so cost efficient that everyone would use it.”
And those cost efficient satellites were coming to Florida in a big way. Their manufacturing facility, Wyler decided in 2016, would be on the Space Coast, a major win for a region desperately trying to become more than just a launch site.
That desolate area Wyler toured is now home to a 105,500 square foot production facility, about the size of two football fields. Wyler, now-U.S. Sen. Scott and state and federal officials, including Federal Communications Commission chairman Ajit Pai, were at the facility Monday for the grand opening of the $85 million factory.
The sleek white building, across from another new tenant, the rocket factory for Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, features two production lines inside. That allows OneWeb to build two 330-pound satellites, about the size of a mini fridge, a day. The company says it can build them for a 50th of the cost of a traditional manufacturer, about $1 million or less each.
Right now, the factory employs about 80 people, but expects to ramp up to 250 by the end of the year. Through its supply chain, it’s estimated the facility will bring 3,000 indirect jobs to the state.
Tony Gingiss, OneWeb Satellite’s CEO, put their mission this way: “We are going to pioneer serial satellite production.”
FCC Chairman Pai, went further, saying OneWeb is “doing for the satellite industry what Henry Ford did for cars.”
That’s still to be seen.
The company launched its first six satellites into orbit in late February on a Russian Soyuz rocket from French Guiana and plans to launch another 34 in December. Then, it’ll start sending up about 30 satellites on a monthly basis to reach about 650 satellites over the next two years.
It plans to launch from Kazakhstan’s Baikonur Cosmodrome and the Vostochny Cosmodrome in Russia’s Far East but hopes to launch from Kennedy Space Center in the future.
In the meantime, it’s also looking for other commercial and military customers. OneWeb Satellites already has a $2.9 million contract with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.
And Florida is a direct benefactor of that growth.
“Every time we bring a Blue Origin or a OneWeb, because of the need to have an integrated factory concept in order to be really competitive, we’ve been working hard with them to try to bring their supply chain here,” said Frank DiBello, CEO of Space Florida, the state’s spaceport authority. “So for every one, you get 10.”
Since Space Florida brokered a deal to bring OneWeb in 2016 with $20 million in state incentives, it’s been able to snag other companies like supplier RUAG Space USA in Titusville and composites manufacturer Matrix Composites in Rockledge. Space Florida owns the OneWeb Satellites building at Exploration Park, the state-run area near KSC, and leases it to the company.
Lynda Weatherman, president and CEO of the Economic Development Commission of Florida’s Space Coast, said OneWeb “will help transform the space industry industrial base for Brevard County and the Space Coast.”
“To have OneWeb, that was so competitive, what community wouldn’t want this here?” she said. “To choose this place means we have what it takes to have the companies now and the companies in the future.”
Weatherman likened it to dating: “You [put] your best face forward” to attract the company.
“Well, now we’re married,” she said. “So now we really have to make this work.”SpaceX plans to enter internet business with a suite of 60 satellites »
These days, OneWeb has competition. SpaceX sent its initial batch of 60 Starlink satellites into orbit in May, an effort, like OneWeb’s, to blanket the globe with affordable Internet service. Amazon, too, wants to set up a massive constellation of 3,236 Internet satellites.
But it’s been difficult, so much so that SpaceX CEO Elon Musk called the Starlink project “one of the hardest engineering projects” he’s ever seen.
“People are finding that it’s a lot harder to do this than they thought,” Wyler said Monday. “We’re over the hump. …That ability to have functioning satellites, a supply chain, all the launches set up, puts OneWeb in an incredible position to deliver on its mission.”
Chabeli Herrera covers the space industry, economic development and general business news for the Orlando Sentinel. She is a former business reporter for the Miami Herald and graduated from the University of Florida. Chabeli was born in Cuba and grew up in Miami.