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Blue Origin is one of several NewSpace companies that are, or will soon, be launching or testing vehicles from sites in Texas. (credit: Blue Origin)

Space in the Lone Star State

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Every few years, whether I need it or not, I attend a space commercialization conference to learn about the wonderful future awaiting us while indulging in some of the best visualizations around. And what a difference since my last conference, 2010 Space Economic Leadership Conference. Seven successful SpaceX and Antares launches later, commercialization of launching to low Earth orbit (LEO) has clearly arrived. So now what?

If all goes well—and it will not because failure occurs routinely in “normal” as well as high-tech businesses and technologies—Texas will host three spaceports tied to three firms.

The October 2 Texas Space Commercialization Workshop, organized by the Texas A&M University Space Engineering Research Center, attempted to answer that question. Unsurprisingly, the workshop had a distinctly Texas perspective. Surprisingly, speakers and attendees viewed the future not from the perspective of NASA’s Johnson Space Center (JSC) but from spaceports and new firms distributed across the state.

The dominant attitude was that space commercialization is at an inflection point with the trend on the hockey stick about to point up. The major questions concerned not whether a commercial space industry can exist, but whether Texas can capitalize on this budding LEO market, how the state can best position itself against rival states, and what (and a more optimistic sense of when, not if) the beyond-LEO commercial world will be.

Is there a Texas space community? Obviously, yes, with JSC (underrepresented due to the government-wide shutdown during the meeting), Boeing, and Lockheed all receiving mentions, not unkindly. They are all seen as legacies, albeit legacies that still constitute the largest space employers in the state. But the workshop primarily focused on new generation space companies.

If all goes well—and it will not because failure occurs routinely in “normal” as well as high-tech businesses and technologies—Texas will host three spaceports tied to three firms: XCOR Aerospace using the existing airport in Midland, SpaceX in Brownsville, and Blue Origin outside the West Texas town of Van Horn.

The actual launching of these commercial systems requires very few people. One challenge will be to attract other parts of the space technology creation-to-completion chain and their companies and workers. Midland and Brownsville have other economic bases that they can build on, but Van Horn is truly in the middle of nowhere. It is difficult to imagine Van Horn developing into a major facility beyond launches. But with a population under 3,000, the sky may indeed be the limit.

While private investment drives these space firms, the state of Texas, eager like every other state to attract business, has offered incentives. An unspoken concern involved the role of the state in a capitalist economy. How can state and the federal governments reduce the risks of firms, the consequences of failures, and protect the environment? Can this be done without privileging one firm over another or subsidizing decisions companies would have done anyway?

Will companies play states and possibly counties against each other? Will the desire for spaceports by the states of Texas, New Mexico, California, Virginia, and Florida benefit taxpayers through growth of a major industry, or harm them through subsidizing firms that generate impressive visual spectacles but few jobs?

Currently no significant coordination exists among states promoting space development. Politically, one roadblock to cooperation among state governments is the lack of Texas involvement in the Aerospace States Association, whose members are the lieutenant governors of each state. In Texas, the Aerospace & Aviation Office sits in the governor’s office. Shifting that to the lieutenant governor would mean the governor voluntarily giving up some of his power. Don’t expect that to be resolved soon.

The skeptic (or historian) might note that we have been here before. The technology worked, but the economics did not.

Geography is an important consideration for firms, but so are skilled employees. Less glamorous than subsidies and more important for the long-term support of space commercialization is better education. Perhaps the most interesting attendee was David Gardner, Deputy Commissioner for Academic Planning and Policy/Chief Academic Officer for the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board. Emerging from the workshop discussions was the sense that these next-generation companies want flexible engineers willing to act with short deadlines, work in a multidisciplinary environment, and think outside the box, while still internalizing a safety mindset.

Although Texans like to disparage California, the Silicon Valley Space Center offers a non-legacy, non-government model for a subset of a space economy in Texas. The center publicizes, promotes, and develops entrepreneurial space ventures. Austin, Houston, and Dallas—but not Midland and Brownsville, however—are the obvious homes for such an “Internet 2.0” business platform.

Another sign of durable, successful commercialization is NanoRacks, which supplies opportunities to launch CubeSats from the ISS. NanoRacks’ ITAR-free rules, and, especially appealing for academic and commercial researchers, short lead time (less than nine months) to launch have attracted hundreds of contracts.

What is really remarkable is the short time between signing a contract and launching to the ISS. The spacecraft that service the ISS today may not be the low-cost space truck NASA promised last century with the Space Shuttle, but it’s the best situation for space researchers in a while. Reliable, comparatively low-cost delivery is another sign that space is becoming an easier place to do business. Unmentioned at the conference, but indicative of the lowered cost to reach orbit, is crowdsourced funding of CubeSats.

True optimists or pioneers were promoting Deep Space Industries’ asteroid exploitation, Shackleton Energy Company’s lunar ice mining, and Golden Spike’s $1.5-billion trip to the Moon for two. Less imaginary was the proposal by Space Services Holdings Inc. to create a space weather network with NOAA. The service will provide SSHI some income, but the firm expects its profit from selling sponsorships, memorial flights, Internet ads, and other services people will buy. After all, if people pay hundreds of dollars to display the logos of their favorite teams, why not offer similar opportunities for space ventures? That monetized entertainment may make the difference between a commercially successful launch and a loss.

The skeptic (or historian) might note that we have been here before. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, three counties in Texas—Fort Stockton, Willacy, and Brazoria—also worked with budding commercial rocket firms to build spaceports. SSHI made history in 1982 by launching the Conestoga 1, the first American commercial rocket from Matagorda Island in Texas. The technology worked, but the economics did not.

How realistic are the economic forecasts? If massive protests in Brazil began over a 10-cent transit increase as a symbol for burgeoning and wasteful public spending (e.g. hosting an Olympics and corruption), what sort of reaction might occur if a government announced it will spend $20–30 million for a visit to a Bigelow space station or $750 million to send a well-connected person to the Moon?

These optimistic proposals, however, are expanding the vision, redefining what is considered the norm. There may indeed be a Lunar Hilton in the future.

When I attend my next conference in 2015, we’ll see if space tourism really took off or flopped (key question: if space sickness proves common, will people really want to pay $200,000 for the chance to throw up?) and if the Google Lunar X PRIZE is claimed. The immediate future, however, looks promising and far brighter than in 2010.