SpaceX picks South Texas site for commercial launch facility

SpaceX’s Elon Musk and Gov. Rick Perry said Monday that the space exploration company has decided to build the world’s first commercial Cape Canaveral in South Texas.

The decision — three years in the making — reaffirms Texas’ role as a space state as the industry evolves from a government-only enterprise to a promising frontier for the private sector.

“SpaceX is excited to expand our work in Texas with the world’s first commercial launch complex designed specifically for orbital missions,” Musk said. “In addition to creating hundreds of high-tech jobs for the Texas workforce, this site will inspire students, expand the supplier base and attract tourists to the South Texas area.”

Since 2003, SpaceX has tested rockets at McGregor, near Waco, with a current workforce of more than 250. The new launch site, which is planned for Boca Chica, a remote beach 20 miles east of Brownsville, is expected initially to add 300 SpaceX employees in Texas and $85 million in capital investment, Perry said.

SpaceX plans to create 500 jobs over 10 years with more than $51 million annually in salaries, according to estimates by the Brownsville Economic Development Corp.

The state is giving SpaceX a $2.3 million grant from the Texas Enterprise Fund and $13 million to help the Cameron County Spaceport Development Corp. build infrastructure. One of the challenges will be extending utilities to the remote site, which is surrounded by a federal wildlife area and a state park.

Monday’s announcement is contingent on the approval of local incentives — at least $6.3 million — and permits, which local officials said is not expected to be a problem.

“We will ensure that SpaceX has everything they need in order to be successful in the greater Brownsville Borderplex,” said Brownsville Mayor Tony Martinez.

As federal spending on space has been cut, the private sector has stepped forward, trying to make space commerce both profitable and reliable.

SpaceX was the first private company to ferry cargo to and from the International Space Station, and it is competing to be the winning bidder to carry astronauts.

It will continue to launch its U.S. government missions from Cape Canaveral, Fla. The company has another launch site in Vandenburg, Calif.

At Boca Chica, SpaceX will launch rockets for its commercial clients and foreign governments as early as 2016, according to Brownsville officials.

Last year, the Legislature changed the law to allow SpaceX to close Boca Chica beach at least once a month to launch rockets. It also helped the company with noise and liability issues.

Brownsville beat out Georgia, Florida and Puerto Rico, as well as other sites in Texas, to be SpaceX’s next launch site.

The company’s choice of Boca Chica comes six decades after the South Texas beach was a finalist before the U.S. space program chose Cape Canaveral for its launch site.

Besides helping one of the state’s poorer regions, Monday’s announcement is a boost for the state’s nascent commercial space industry.

Houston, the home of NASA’s Johnson Space Center, is trying to convert Ellington Field — an airport 15 miles from downtown Houston — into a commercial spaceport.

Likewise, Midland has earmarked $10 million to get in the space tourism business. It has recruited Xcor Aerospace, which will fly its winged Lynx rocket from the Midland airport, and Orbital Outfitters, which makes spacesuits.

In Van Horn, in far West Texas, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos is testing rockets built by his company, Blue Origin.

Austin might get in the act.

A California startup, Firefly Space Systems, is considering moving to the Austin area, where a company official says it wants to design, build and test smaller rockets that would launch the next generation of satellites.

The Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce also is studying whether Central Texas can leverage its strengths in mobile computing, clean energy, digital security surveillance and aerospace research to become a part of the emerging space economy.

Michael Rollins, the Austin chamber’s president, welcomed SpaceX’s announcement.

“It shows Texas can be a player,” he said Monday. “It will clearly be a signal to vendors and suppliers, and we think we can play in that arena.”

Austinite Rich Phillips is a public relations executive and consultant whose clients include NASA. He said the space economy is the “next Internet economy” in which there will be a need for applications and services that Austin’s tech economy could provide.

On Monday, Phillips warned that Texas is not alone in pursuing a larger footprint in the new space economy and that it can’t rest on its laurels.

“We can’t just have a ‘build-it-and-they-will-come’ mindset,” he said.

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