A lot more people will know the name “SpaceX” by the end of this month, after the Southern California-based rocket builder becomes the first private company to launch a rocket on a mission to dock with the International Space Station.
It’s an unmanned resupply mission, but it’s one more big step for a company that’s quickly becoming the big fish in the private spaceflight movement, charging past a handful of other well-funded rocket startups, and even aerospace giants like Boeing. The decade-old industry represents not just the promise of a cheaper space shuttle replacement, but of indulging new ideas about why we go to space: zero-gravity science, space tourism and mineral production in space. (As early as next Tuesday, we might learn that Ross Perot Jr. is getting into asteroid mining.)
As with privatization in other arenas, much of this is about really rich folks hoping to become fantastically wealthy. (SpaceX is run by PayPal co-founder Elon Musk. Other big NewSpace entrepreneurs include Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, video game mogul John Carmack and Sir Richard Branson.) But even that’s a healthier driving force than the international arms races that have fueled NASA so far.
Managing the space program has also been about which states get the jobs, and Texas has been pretty lucky on that count. Earlier this week, we found out SpaceX might be throwing a little more work Texas’ way: They’re looking at building a commercial spaceport a few miles from Brownsville, where they could launch up to 12 times a year.
The FAA is beginning an environmental impact study on the Brownsville launch site, which could take a few years. While Cameron County has beaten out other Texas spots hoping for the company’s business, it’s still just one of three locations SpaceX is considering, along with Florida and Puerto Rico.
So local boosters hoping to seal the deal want to see Texas make a strong play for the company’s affections—both at the local level, where some homeowners feel blindsided by SpaceX’s plans, and in the governor’s economic development office.
Gilbert Salinas, executive vice president of the Brownsville Economic Development Council, says it was the governor’s office that first tipped him off to SpaceX’s interest in launching out of Cameron County, about a year ago. He says they’ve been busy getting to know the private space industry since then.
“We’re newcomers when it comes to the aerospace industry. We had never worked these kinds of projects,” Salinas says. “Brownsville and Matamoros, we’re a manufacturing hub, traditionally. … Once we found out what the project was and what they’re trying to do, it made perfect sense.”Half a century ago, Brownsville was in the running to be NASA’s main launch site, before Cape Canaveral got the nod.
“Life kind of came back full circle—here we are a little over 50 years later, looking at the possibility of another launch site again,” he says. “We are living in extremely exciting times at the moment, and this project is what we call a game-changer. It could totally change the face of our community.”
SpaceX, which already has a test facility 20 miles outside Waco, would launch suborbital missions from the Brownsville site, and Salinas says it would be the country’s first private commercial launch site.
The FAA could still pull the plug on the Cameron County plans—Salinas says he knows protecting the local sea turtle population could be a concern, though launch sites on Florida have dealt with those concerns before too—but barring environmental concerns, the decision will come down to where SpaceX wants to launch.
“We are in stiff competition” with the two remaining finalists, Salinas says. “Florida being Florida, they won’t want to let this one go, because this is what they do—and they don’t want to lose this to Texas.”
That’s why Texas has to sweeten the deal for SpaceX, says Rick Tumlinson, a long-time evangelist for private spaceflight, and founder of the Texas Space Alliance.
Tumlinson says too much political energy is spent on protecting Texas’ old space interests, more focused on securing more jobs and federal contracts than on science and exploration. He says lawmakers see space startups as a threat to their short-sighted goals.
“Commercial spaceflight activities are happening in Texas in spite of the actions of officials at the state and our representatives in Washington,” he says. “The congressional delegation from Texas are still fighting for the rights of blacksmiths in the period of the automobile.”
The governor’s office won’t comment on pending negotiations, but Tumlinson says the state hasn’t made a priority of competing for space business, and you can tell because just one person in the economic development office is tasked with recruiting space business. He says it’s tough to compete when Florida funds a multimillion-dollar entity to grow that state’s space community. Virginia just committed state funding to a private spaceport.
“There needs to be an anteing up. We put together packages to try and expand airport packages, other sorts of economic or transport sorts of hubs. It only makes sense that we do that for what will be the future transportation hub. You’ve got to look big here, and to me it’s sort of ironic that Texas isn’t doing that here.”