Two weeks ago, SpaceX announced it will build a rocket launch facility at Boca Chica Beach outside Brownsville, just five hours south of San Antonio. For both the space industry and Texas, this is stellar.
This will be the first commercial launch site dedicated to orbital missions and will include a launch site, a control command center, and a ground tracking station. NASA, which retired the Space Shuttle after the Columbia disaster, is now transitioning to using SpaceX for its resupply and crewed missions to the International Space Station (ISS). The less palatable alternative in the meantime is to rely on the Russian Suyez spacecraft.
(Rivard Report stargazers can click here to calculate the Space Station flight path for a night spotting.)
SpaceX has already launched cargo missions to the ISS by leasing space on NASA's launch pad at Cape Canaveral, but the new facility will offer the company autonomy and flexibility. Much of the electricity for the facility will be provided from one of founder Elon Musk's other ventures, SolarCity.
Economically, this is colossal. Construction is estimated to take 18-24 months, and capital investment is expected to exceed $100 million. $15 million of that is coming from different incentives from the Space Port Trust Fund, the Greater Brownsville Incentives Corp, the Texas Enterprise Fund, and Cameron County. SpaceX will front the other $85 million. But that's not all.
They're planning for more than 500 primary jobs over 10 years, paying annual wages above $55,000. SpaceX and Brownsville expect that will mean $51 million in direct wages alone. For Brownsville, a border city with a population of 200,000 and significant economic development challenges, that will mean huge things. Brownsville Economic Development Council's (BEDC) Executive Vice President Gil Salinas has said that a "$51 million increase in annual salaries means 400-500 indirect jobs from suppliers."
"Our unique geographic location and proximity to both the Equator and the Gulf of Mexico gave Brownsville an advantage over the other locations being considered by SpaceX. However, the facilitation of doing business in Texas, the backing from many local entities, and the community-wide support was a huge factor in the decision-making process of SpaceX locating in Brownsville," said Jason Hilts, BEDC President & CEO.
Brownsville is experiencing a rebirth of sorts in industry, with the growing automotive sector, the area's proximity to shale natural gas and deep-water oil reserves, its position for renewable energy and international logistics at the Port of Brownsville. With the new space initiative, Brownsville is poised to add innovation and entrepreneurship opportunities to what is becoming a more diversified and global economy.
Lately, headlines about Brownsville have been about its status as a border town. A significant number of the undocumented Central American children who have crossed into the Texas from Mexico are there.
Others know Brownsville and the surrounding environs for the region's unique wildlife reserves. Endangered ocelots and jaguarundis still survive the threatened river corridor and in protected areas bordering SpaceX's planned launch site. The Texas Nature Conservancy manages a major reserve not too far away and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has several tracts in the same vicinity, including the Laguna Atascosa Refuge.
"If you've been to Cape Kennedy in Florida, you'll know that Merritt Island is a wonderfully fecund and birdy reserve with ospreys nesting, manatees in the channel, etc.," said Sally Antrobus, a writer, land manager, and authority on the Texas coastal environment. "The wildlife seemed to feel little pain even during the Shuttle heyday when there were half a dozen launches per year. Structures were limited in spatial extent, and noisy explosive launch madness was only a brief punctuation of the calm."
Launching spacecraft and habitat conservation seem compatible, at least compared to alternative land uses. Federal authorities have reached the same conclusions in their environmental impact studies.
What about San Antonio? As the closest large metropolitan area to Brownsville, will there be any impact here? Probably not for the tourism industry.
For every unmanned launch, 40,000 visitors arrive in Cape Canaveral. and SpaceX plans for a launch every month with an estimated 15,000 visitors. A new airport capable of handling the influx of visitors is being built on South Padre Island.
More importantly, however, the spaceport will mean jobs.
Sam Ximenes, a space architect based in San Antonio who predicted SpaceX's choice at his lauded TedXSanAntonio talk last year, told me, "This city is at the crossroads for space in Texas." Besides the Brownsville launch site, SpaceX's testing space is in McGregor, XCOR has a space research and development facility in Midland, and Sierra Nevada is working with NASA on a low-orbit spaceport in Houston. We're right in the middle of it all.
In the Apollo mission days, San Antonio was home to the School of Aerospace Medicine at Brooks Air Force Base, which researched effects of space travel on the human body. We've had a high-caliber aerospace workforce for a while, with Port San Antonio and with the Southwest Research Institute assembling satellites and space instruments and the Air Force training thousands of flight trainers here.
SpaceX needs to be close to the Equator because the earth only spins in one direction, and it bulges around the middle close to the Equator where it spins the fastest. In our hemisphere, this is because further south is where the momentum is. Can you feel it?
"San Antonio shouldn't sit back," Ximenes said. "We have the opportunity to be a part of its development, and I think we'll take advantage of that opportunity."
*Featured/top image: Falcon 9 and Ses 8 launch from SpaceX launch pad at Cape Canaveral. Photo courtesy of SpaceX.