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(FloridaToday.com) - Texas might have won a piece of SpaceX's business, but that company and others will continue to grow in Florida, too, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio said Wednesday after meetings with local space leaders.

"Other states are going to want a piece of the action," Rubio told reporters at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex. "But as far as Cape Canaveral and the Kennedy Space Center are concerned, I still anticipate that Florida will be the central location and the hub of space activity for this country."

His visit came two days after SpaceX announced a partnership with Texas to build a private complex on the Gulf Coast there for launches of up to 12 commercial satellites a year.

The company will continue to operate two launch pads at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station and Kennedy Space Center, but state leaders had hoped to offer a third site that would keep those commercial missions from moving to another state.

"Obviously, we wish (SpaceX) had chosen Florida," said Rubio. "I would not exaggerate its impact, in the sense that I know that SpaceX is going to continue to have a very robust and growing presence in our state."

Rubio's optimism was similar to that expressed by his fellow senator, Democrat Bill Nelson, on Tuesday.

Rubio expressed support for Space Florida's proposed Shiloh launch complex at the northern edge of KSC and the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, which is now undergoing an environmental review.

He acknowledged environmental concerns but said he hopes they can be worked out.

"I think that's critical to making Florida a friendlier place for commercial launch operations," he said.

Beyond the Shiloh proposal, he said he would support "anything we can do to spur NASA and the Air Force and others to move a little bit quicker on opening up and making it a more friendly environment for commercial space to pick Florida over Texas or anywhere else."

Rubio on Wednesday visited Patrick Air Force Base, met with local aerospace executives at Port Canaveral and then toured KSC, including seeing NASA's Orion capsule being prepared for a first test flight to space in December.

Rubio believes that flight will help spur excitement about the space program, which could in turn generate support for increasing NASA's $17.6 billion budget.

"When people see that capsule exit the Earth's atmosphere and reenter once again, they'll remember what we used to do in the 70s and 60s during the Apollo program, and they'll be motivated to tackle that again in a new frontier, a new challenge for our country, and that is placing boots on the ground in Mars," he said.

Several independent groups recently, including the NASA Advisory Council and the National Research Council, have concluded that NASA's goal of a mission to orbit Mars by the 2030s is not feasible as currently funded.

Rubio agreed that was a concern, but said the agency's budget reflected a disconnect with the public about what the space program is doing, exacerbated in recent years by the shuttle's retirement and lack of a clear goal for a while.

"I think the way address it is by getting people excited and engaged and committed to a space program that's vibrant," he said.

Paying homage to President Kennedy's leadeship and the Apollo era, the Florida Republican said it was essential for the U.S. to lead the world in space exploration.

"Great nations do great things," he said. "Space provides the opportunity to do that."

Rubio cited NASA's imminent award of contracts to companies that will resume U.S. flights of astronauts to the International Space Station, and the upcoming Orion test flight, as indications that "we've found our footing."

The roundtable meeting included representatives from large and small companies including Boeing, Lockheed Martin, United Launch Alliance and SpaceX.

"It's obvious that he gets it, and he listened, he took notes, and he cares," said Carol Craig, CEO of Craig Technologies.

Rubio's No. 1 takeaway from Wednesday's visit: "There's really a need for a vision for this 21st Century space program, and to motivate our people behind that vision, so we can have the sort of consistency and funding that allows us to move these things forward," he said.

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