BROWNSVILLE, Texas (Border Report) — SpaceX Founder and CEO Elon Musk might have expressed some embarrassment on Twitter on Tuesday morning after a faulty “wiring/connector issue” delayed for several hours a spacecraft test at his commercial spaceport facility in South Texas.
But by early evening, Musk was tweeting videos of the successful Starhopper test, in which the rocket ship went up above the South Texas Gulf Coast — where waves could be seen in the background — and landed on a sand-dune site nearby.
For a while, it appeared the test would not happen on Tuesday and it had been rescheduled for Wednesday. But SpaceX is the golden child of this competitive industry. And its mere presence here is helping to turn the economy in South Texas to gold, as well as spurring much educational interest in space fields down here.
Rick Jenet, associate professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, whose offices are in the same building — just one floor below SpaceX administrative offices at this spaceport — said the economic impact of commercial space by 2040 is going to reach $1 trillion.
“And that’s a conservative estimate,” said Jenet, as he drove with Border Report on a tour of the SpaceX facility, which can be seen off Texas Highway 4 just a mile from Boca Chica Beach, outside of Brownsville.
Leading the tour on Thursday was U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela, (D-Texas), whose Brownsville congressional district has been directly impacted by Musk and his team coming to town a few years ago.
Vela says touting SpaceX shows the positives of his South Texas community, which tend to be overshadowed by immigration issues and his burgeoning community and its residents.
Construction of the spaceport — the first privately run commercial spaceport in the country — began two years ago, or so, Vela says. Although he is the congressman for this district, Musk and his crew have not been forthcoming with a whole lot of information. Vela suspects that is because of this highly competitive space industry, where billions can be spent in a moment and secrecy can guard trade secrets worth fortunes.
Last month, Jenet and Brownsville city leaders officially launched the nonprofit organization Emerging Frontiers to help spur economic activity in space commercialization and exploration, to help create NewSpace Brownsville.
“We want to be prepared down in South Texas making the most of the markets that we have here, especially now that we have here one of the most successful commercial space companies that has made their home down in South Texas,” Jenet said. “How do we best leverage these opportunities? That’s what we’re developing — basically fostering the ecosystem.”
Vela explained that growing up in South Texas he went to South Padre Island and Boca Chica Beach for recreation. “South Padre got developed. Boca Chica didn’t. But that’s probably a good thing because if it had we might not have SpaceX here,” he said.
On Thursday, the Starhopper could be seen from Hwy. 4, gleaming in the bright South Texas sun, as construction crews cleared the land with large equipment, and crews used cranes to work high atop the nose of the spacecraft. The spaceport is about a mile from Boca Chica Beach, which is a spit of beach where Highway 4 ends and the Gulf of Mexico begins.
Beachgoers park on the side of the highway. There are no restaurants, gas stations or retail on this desolate strip of beach. Only sand dunes, sea turtles, gulls and all of the life that is teeming within the Gulf of Mexico.
Border wall plans crossed SpaceX camp
Vela said that initial federal government plans from Washington, D.C., were to build the border wall “straight through SpaceX.”
But an exemption has been given to SpaceX, along with several other areas in the Rio Grande Valley, like Santa Ana Wildlife Refuge, Bentsen State Park and the National Butterfly Center in Hidalgo County, to the west.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection has published maps in local newspapers soliciting comments for its proposal to build 19 miles of border wall in Cameron County, which is home to SpaceX. The commenting period ended on Monday.
With millions of dollars in space technology sitting relatively out in the open, it is unclear how close to the SpaceX facility a border wall could be built.
Impact on science education
The addition of SpaceX to South Texas has not only added revenue to the local coffers, in terms of highly skilled and high-paid workers, but it also has sparked interest among local schools and universities in science and technology.
Last weekend, more than 200 students visited Brownsville to compete in a Space Settlement Design Tournament held at Veterans High School. Spearheaded by retired NASA engineers and Brownsville Independent School District, the three-day program had students in groups of 50 respond to a request for proposal from a fake company with a space settlement design. The City of Brownsville, BISD and Jenet’s Expanding Frontiers helped to fund the competition and was seen as a way to recruit students into engineering, physics and other programs at UTRGV.
Standing on the sand dunes of Boca Chica Beach, smiling and looking at the Starhopper that was being readied for launch last Thursday, Vela nodded and said there is much the world can learn about his community. Much of it that doesn’t have to do with immigration.
Sandra Sanchez can be reached at [email protected].