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In South Texas, Hopes Rocket Site Will Launch the Local Economy

Private aerospace company SpaceX has received a preliminary green light from the FAA for a launch site in the southern tip of Texas. Some in Brownsville are over the moon about the economic windfall it could bring.

NASA administrator Charles Bolden, right, shows off the Dragon spacecraft as SpaceX CEO Elon Musk, left, listens in McGregor, TX on June 13, 2012.

Texas got one step closer to the edge of the universe last week when a federal agency gave private aerospace company SpaceX preliminary approval for a 56.5-acre rocket launch site in Brownsville.

While many business and community leaders in the border town on Texas' southernmost tip are over the moon about the economic prospects, environmental protection advocates worry the noisy, fiery operation could endanger local wildlife.

“With SpaceX, we’re getting the world at our fingertips," said Brownsville Economic Development Council Executive Vice President Gilbert Salinas. 

The Federal Aviation Agency, in a report released Thursday, determined that the Texas spaceport east of Brownsville and three miles north of the U.S.-Mexico border is unlikely to threaten the surrounding wildlife.

The report was good news not just for the multibillion-dollar aerospace company but also for officials in South Texas and Cameron County, who have been courting SpaceX for three years.

Although NASA has been headquartered in Houston since 1963, when the Johnson Space Center first opened as the Manned Spacecraft Center, every U.S. rocket launch has taken place in Florida — mostly from Cape Canaveral. 

SpaceX for Brownsville could be what NASA was for Cape Canaveral, Salinas said. Every launch brought about 40,000 visitors to the East Florida city. 

But before SpaceX makes a final decision on the launch site, spokesman John Taylor said in a statement, “there would be several other criteria that will need to be met.”

The company was also considering locations in Florida and Puerto Rico, but according to the 392-page FAA report, SpaceX has eliminated both.

If the FAA decides to issue a launch permit to SpaceX, the company will still have to acquire approval from other federal and local agencies for operating logistics. For instance, the aerospace company will have to get permits from the Texas Department of Transportation to move utility lines.

“While the timing of some of these critical steps is not within SpaceX's control, we are hopeful that these will be complete in the near future,” Taylor said.

In the meantime, the prospect of an aerospace center in Texas has roused local enthusiasm. Brownsville has been preparing for the potential rocket site since March 2011, when the secretary of state called to notify the city of SpaceX's interest.

“We knew nothing of the space industry back then,” said Salinas, whose organization has worked with state and local entities to recruit the aerospace company. “But today, people are no longer just talking about it. They’re asking when it’s coming, and they say, ‘We want it and we need it.’” 

Salinas said the new launch site would create about 500 jobs, including positions for engineers, along with ancillary jobs. Salinas and others in the border community are hopeful that SpaceX could hire local college graduates, which would address the “local brain drain issue.”

One local property owner is already planning the development of a retail plaza near the designated launch site. Dean Gutierrez, the owner of Rio Mobile Home and RV Park on Boca Chica Boulevard, is planning to develop a strip center and hotel as soon as SpaceX finalizes Brownsville as its launch site. He already has a name in mind: Space aXe Plaza. 

"SpaceX would certainly put a lot of money in the Valley," Gutierrez said. "As a businessman, I'm excited, but the whole community will benefit."

Not everyone is as positive about the development. Luke Metzger of Environment Texas, an environmental advocacy organization, said that although the FAA report suggests SpaceX should be wary of the launch site's impact on wildlife, he is skeptical that the company will take local habitat into consideration.

Noise pollution and contamination from the chemicals sprayed during rocket launches are among the issues to consider, Metzger said. Ocelots, a threatened leopard species, face the greatest risks, he said. The animals are already vulnerable to being run over by cars, and the heavy traffic of site construction would pose an even greater threat to the spotted felines. 

“An area surrounded by state parks is not appropriate for industrial activity,” Metzger said. “When Texas has such little public land — less than 5 percent is publicly protected as state parks — we need to be taking the best care of the parks we do have.”

The proposed site is immediately south of Brazos State Park and is also close to Boca Chica State Park, the South Bay Coastal Preserve and Isla Blanca Park. Some of the parks would be temporarily closed during site construction and rocket launches. 

SpaceX has already agreed to some actions that are meant to minimize harmful consequences for the environment, such as containing waste materials from the construction and enforcing a speed limit in the control center area. SpaceX has also agreed to coordinate with TxDOT to put up signs that warn drivers to look out for the ocelets. 

Following the FAA report Thursday, the federal agency has 30 days to make an official decision on the launch site. After the FAA grants approval, SpaceX will make its final decision. 

“There’s 1,000 pieces to this puzzle, and we’re down to the last three,” Salinas said. 

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