Energy and Environment Reporting for Texas

The Private Space Industry Has Eyes For Texas, But Not Everyone’s On Board

Photo by Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images

Elon Musk introduces SpaceX's Falcon Heavy rocket which could complete missions to the International Space Station and Moon at a news conference on April 5, 2011 in Washington, DC.

Maybe you’ve heard of Space X, the private space exploration company that recently docked their first spacecraft at the International Space Station. Now they’re looking to expand their operation in Texas.

Space X is undergoing the permit process with the Federal Aviation Administration for a launch pad outside of Brownsville, at the southern tip of the state.

A new Space X launch pad could be economically beneficial for the city. Gilberto Salinas of the Brownsville Economic Development Council says Space X could “change the game” in town.  “The jobs that it would bring with it,” Salinas says, “it would bring about 600 [direct] jobs paying extremely well.  It could drop our unemployment by one full percentage point.”

But not everyone is happy about the site Space X has chosen.

Photo by BRUCE WEAVER/AFP/GettyImages

SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket early May 22, 2012 as it heads for space carrying the company's Dragon spacecraft from pad 40 at Cape Canaveral, Florida.

The plot of land is surrounded by Boca Chica State Park – the home of several endangered species, including sea turtles, ocelots, jaguarundi, and piping plovers. Some are worried the launch pad would have a negative impact on the animals in the area.

The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, in response to a request for data from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), said they are concerned about the endangered species known to be in the area nearby. The letter also cites several laws, like the federal Endangered Species Act, that must be considered in the approval of the proposal.

Environment Texas, an environmental group, is readying a petition to send to Elon Musk, the head of Space X (as well as the CEO of Tesla Motors, an electric car company, and also a co-founder of PayPal), asking him to look for other land in Texas. The group says they’re all for a space program, just one that isn’t so close to sensitive wildlife. “If they build this space port in the middle of this wildlife refuge we’ll have million pound rockets launched a dozen times a year,” Luke Metzger, the head of Environment Texas, told StateImpact Texas, “causing heat, noise, vibrations, that could scare creatures from miles around and severally impact the survival of these species.”

Photo by Roberto Gonzalez/Getty Images

SpaceX's Dragon spacecraft atop rocket Falcon 9 lifts off from Pad 40 of the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Titusville, Florida on May 22, 2012. The launch made SpaceX the first commercial company to send a spacecraft to the International Space Station.

For Space X, Brownsville is an appealing location because of its proximity to the Johnson Space Center and a company testing facility already in operation in McGregor, Texas. “We do a lot of critical work there,” says Kirstin Grantham, spokesperson for Space X. “Every engine that powers the Falcon 9 rocket is tested in McGregor.” Space X needs a location that’s secluded and close to the equator for the strongest possible push into orbit.

“We’re working not just to manufacture rockets and spacecraft the way it’s always been done,” Grantham says, “but to we’re looking to advance the boundaries of what is possible. We’re looking to advance the technology of spaceflight.”

But Metzger of Environment Texas says that beyond environmental concerns, the effects of the launch pad would also reverberate in Brownsville’s tourist economy. Brownsville is one of the most popular destinations for birdwatchers in the nation – birds that may leave after the space pad is built. Metzger pointed to a study by Texas A&M that found that birdwatching tourism provides over $344 million annually and over 4,400 jobs to the lower Rio Grande Region. “According to the study, the lower Rio Grande Valley is the number 2 most visited birdwatching site in North America,” he says. “It’s in the middle of a migratory pathway that brings people from all over the world.”

To insure the facility is environmentally sound, Space X’s proposal to the Federal Aviation Administration hinges on an Environmental Impact Statement. The Federal Aviation Administration declined to comment on the status of Space X’s proposal before the Environmental Review is complete.

Kelly Connelly is an intern with StateImpact Texas. 


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