Published December 31, 2012
BROWNSVILLE, Texas – Texas space aficionados hope rockets will someday be launched into orbit from a beachside site near the U.S.-Mexico border, but a tight state budget and a previously frustrated attempt to land such a spaceport could complicate efforts.
Backers of a proposal to build a launch site at Boca Chica Beach, about 25 miles east of Brownsville, concede finding more money to lure California-based SpaceX to the state's southernmost tip will be a challenge.
An underfunded education system and health care reform are just a sample of the issues facing lawmakers in the upcoming session. With the University of Texas Board of Regents also pushing to accelerate creation of a medical school in the Rio Grande Valley, the proposed spaceport will not even be the biggest local economic development cause.
Still, some officials think the state's ability to offer a blank canvas for a dedicated commercial spaceport in the same state where SpaceX already tests its rocket engines could prove attractive, even if Texas cannot match the money being waved by some competitors.
"There is a point that we're not going to be able to reach and I don't know that we'll ever be able to be as financially competitive as either one of those, Florida or Puerto Rico," said state Rep. Rene Oliveira, D-Brownsville. "I'm also sensitive to the fact that these are taxpayer dollars that we should still be reasonable with how much we offer."
Oliveira recently attended a meeting with staff to discuss creating a fund to promote aerospace businesses picking Texas. He said the state had pledged $3.2 million toward enticing SpaceX. Texas' economic development arm, contained within the governor's office, does not comment on its negotiations. The local economic development council is expected to put up about another $3 million. But Oliveira's heard talk of Florida offering upward of $10 million. A spokesperson with Space Florida, the state's dedicated space agency, did not return a call seeking comment.
"I've told everybody who's asking for money that they're in line with school children, universities, the mentally ill, health care, everybody is in line wanting to get their fair share so it's not going to be easy," Oliveira said. "But we'll do the best we can."
Texas' potential also hinges on an environmental review underway for the Federal Aviation Administration. Preliminary results are expected early next year. And SpaceX is in the early stages of the review process, said spokeswoman Katherine Nelson, adding that Georgia is also in the running.
The company, run by PayPal co-founder Elon Musk, currently launches most of its rockets from Florida's Cape Canaveral, but plans to begin some from California's Vandenberg Air Force Base next year. Still, it's looking for additional launch capacity, and not having to compete with the government for launch windows would be an advantage.
"For companies, like SpaceX, who are looking for a place to base operations, Texas holds a strategic advantage over other states by being able to provide commercial payload launch space without over-flight issues or competing with NASA and the Air Force for launch times," said Josh Havens, spokesman for Gov. Rick Perry.
Blue Origin, a company founded by Amazon.com CEO Jeff Bezos, already operates a private spaceport on a sprawling private ranch in West Texas where it is testing a vertical takeoff and landing ship.
Next door, New Mexico officials are wringing their hands as they near completion of a $209 million commercial spaceport that is so far not seeing the traffic and economic development boom they anticipated from their partner Virgin Galactic.
The SpaceX project be an estimated $80 million capital investment and create some 600 jobs, according to Gilberto Salinas, executive vice president at the Brownsville Economic Development Council. He said the rule of thumb would call for putting together an incentive package of grants, in-kind services, workforce training and other carrots totaling about 10 percent of that total.
A decade ago, the Legislature allocated money to a Spaceport Trust Fund, and about $500,000 was distributed in early 2002 to each of three spaceport efforts around the state. But within months staff was recommending the state abolish the Texas Aerospace Commission because the "commercial space industry has declined significantly in recent years." Eventually those responsibilities were folded into the economic development wing of Perry's office.
Oliveira and State Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr., D-Brownsville said resurrecting that fund or one like it is one option.
"Issues of statewide significance will be probably easier to address than those that are district only or regional only," Lucio said. "So I think that we'll be able to convince our colleagues that this will be a good thing for all of Texas."
The shadow of the previous effort could loom over current talks. Rick Tumlinson, a founder and chairman of the private Texas Space Alliance, which promotes space industry development, said the earlier spaceport effort was premature.
"They set up for the game too early and it's unfortunate because now it makes it a harder sell when it's really happening," Tumlinson said.
Tumlinson said he expects SpaceX's demand for launch capacity to grow dramatically in the next few years. The company has told the FAA it would hold 12 launches per year at the site. Earlier this year, it was the first private company to send a cargo vehicle to resupply the space station.
"We're going to regret it forever if they put that spaceport in another state," Tumlinson said.