In Texas, a New Kind of Space Race Emerges

The 100-acre SpaceX launch site at Boca Chica Beach on Sept. 22, 2014
The 100-acre SpaceX launch site at Boca Chica Beach on Sept. 22, 2014

Someday capsules sent aloft from a New Mexico desert will whisk celebrity passengers on flights into suborbital space.

And someday rockets taking off from a sandy beach in Texas will carry colonists to Mars.

What is the point of space, after all, if it cannot be filled with grandiose dreams?

At least that is what city, county and Texas officials were betting on when they offered millions of dollars in incentives to lure SpaceX to Brownsville.

The space exploration company, founded by the billionaire investor Elon Musk, announced earlier this year that it would open a private orbital launch facility on Boca Chica Beach near Brownsville. The very first human who steps foot on Mars, Musk told a crowd on groundbreaking day, could be launched from the beach.

 

Musk and his Gulf Coast launchpad may be the state’s answer to Richard Branson and New Mexico’s Spaceport America, where Virgin Galactic is working to open space travel for tourists.

Musk has upped the space-race ante, offering humankind a way to hedge its bet against extinction on Earth.

“The thing that’s going to fundamentally affect humanity’s future is, are we a multiplanet species or are we a single-planet species?” Musk said at his groundbreaking. “A single-planet species is much more vulnerable than a multi planet species, because if some calamity were to happen to one planet, it could destroy civilization, maybe bring an end to humanity.”

News that SpaceX was coming to Brownsville was met with fanfare. Not only would SpaceX put the city on the global map for space exploration, said officials who used millions  to woo the company, but it would also be a huge economic boon.

It is the kind of promise a city like Brownsville, where more than 30 percent of the population lives below the poverty level, sees as a game-changer.

“It’s going to take us to a whole different level in the state of Texas,” said Gilberto Salinas, the executive vice president of the Brownsville Economic Development Council. “SpaceX will be one of several companies that’s going to make Texas the leader in the space industry, except now it’s going to be in the commercial side. We’re excited to be a part of that.”

SpaceX is among a growing group of companies competing in a new kind of space race — an effort to monetize manned spaceflights. Several of the competitors have operations in Texas. While private companies are running the race, public dollars are often fueling it.

In addition to SpaceX, XCOR Aerospace plans to use Midland’s airport to launch commercial spaceflights; Blue Origin, a company backed by the Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos, has a launchpad in West Texas; and Firefly, a small satellite launch company recently announced the opening of an office in Cedar Park. Blue Origin is exploring cheaper options for human spaceflight, but few details of its work have been made public. A spokesperson for the company declined to comment.

 

Keith Graf, the director of the Texas Office of Aerospace, Aviation and Defense, says the state’s wide-open skies and areas of low population are attracting companies that see profits in private spaceflight.

“One of the first private rockets ever launched was actually launched from Texas, Matagorda Bay, almost 30 years ago in 1982 — it’s continuing on that legacy,” Graf said.

Musk’s vision for SpaceX is to make spaceflight more accessible, and ultimately to colonize Mars. It is a vision that many public officials in Texas have embraced, and that Musk considers essential.

But Musk is not in Brownsville because he wanted to go to Texas. He is there because state officials have been more than willing to roll out the red carpet for SpaceX and other space companies.

During the last legislative session in 2013, state lawmakers passed legislation to make launches from beaches possible. And more than $40 million from the Texas Enterprise Fund has gone to aerospace corporate expansion, according to an August report from the governor’s office.

There are, of course, no guarantees that all will end well. Critics point to New Mexico, where the government invested more than $200 million in Spaceport America. Though it was pitched as a hub for space tourism for the rich and famous, Virgin Galactic has yet to launch a manned flight into space from the facility

The recent fatal crash of a test vehicle in California has further slowed Virgin Galactic’s plans.

Paul Gessing, president of the Rio Grande Foundation, a conservative research group in New Mexico, says no one knows when the private space industry will become viable

“Someday it’ll probably be viable, but what’s that someday?” Gessing said. “Fifty, 100 years? You’ve got to talk about the time value of money, and whether taxpayers should be really footing the bill for this kind of thing.”

Gessing said he did not think it wise for public money to be invested in the spaceward dreams of billionaires.

“I just don’t see the market for this kind of facility out there, in terms of demand. In New Mexico’s case, it was an extremely misguided decision,” he said, adding that even more public money would be spent in the future on maintenance. “That’s kind of the rub for us, not just that they put all their eggs in one basket, but that they spent so much money.”

Graf acknowledged that spaceflights were risky, but said the investments Texas had made were smart.

“The industry itself is risky, but so is getting on an airplane or driving to work every day,” he said. “There are inherent risks. But we’re placing our money wisely, and it is going into infrastructure to help grow the industry. And in Texas, primarily, it’s the private industry that’s making the capital investments.”

When asked about the risks, both safety and financial, Salinas brushed them off, saying the SpaceX facility in Brownsville was different than the New Mexico site.

“That’s why they call it rocket science — it’s not easy to get spacecraft into outer space,” Salinas said. “Do we have full faith in the project? Yes, because it’s Elon Musk. When you are able to say this is a person that reminds us of what Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and, to a certain extent, what Henry Ford and Thomas Edison have done, then it’s very easy to believe and see his vision.”

Paul Baffes, who calls himself a “NewSpace consultant” and is a member of the Greater Austin Space Economy Working Group, said turning over the reins of space exploration and development to private industry would encourage innovation.

“When you open this up to thousands of people, that’s when you really will see innovation happen in space,” Baffes said. “We’re opening this up to as many innovators as we can find out there, and that’s when we’re really going to see the space program cash in on the promise we’ve all wanted it to do, for so many years.”

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