COVER: SpaceX chief executive officer Elon Musk speaks to media on Sept. 22 at the groundbreaking of the company’s orbital launch facility near Boca Chica Beach outside of Brownsville. TEXAS TRIBUNE PHOTO by BOB DAEMMRICH
by BOBBY BLANCHARD
BROWNSVILLE — Calling South Texas the new frontier of space, Gov. Rick Perry, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk and other Texas officials broke ground Monday morning at the site of a future private commercial orbital launch facility expected to boost Brownsville’s economy and start launching rockets in 2016.
Under a tent near Boca Chica Beach outside of Brownsville, Musk said the facility, which will be SpaceX’s first private facility, may be used someday to put the first humans on Mars.
“It very well could be the first person to go to another planet could launch from this location,” Musk said. “This is really going to be a new kind of spaceport that is optimized for commercial operations. Cape Canaveral and Cape Vandenberg are great launch sites, but they are military launch sites. … What’s important for the future of space exploration is to have a truly commercial launch site, just as we have commercial airports.”
Musk, who has said it is his personal goal to land a human on Mars, said humanity’s survival will be tied in part to being a multi-planetary species. Construction has already started at the launch control center, and Musk told reporters the first space launch is expected in late 2016. Earlier this summer, SpaceX, which is based in California, announced it had selected South Texas as the future home of the facility, for which Texas put up $15.3 million. The facility is expected to create 300 jobs and bring $85 million in capital investment to the Rio Grande Valley.
“The economic benefit that SpaceX will bring to this region is something many of us would have never dreamed of,” U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela, D-Brownsville, said at the groundbreaking.
At the event, Perry announced that students from the new University of Texas-Rio Grande Valley, which is expected to enroll its first class in 2015, will work on projects at the SpaceX facility under a new partnership funded by the Texas Emerging Technology Fund and the UT System. The fund will front $4.4 million for the partnership, and the UT System will give $4.6 million. UT System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa first proposed the research center, called STARGATE, a year ago when Brownsville was courting SpaceX. Through the center, students and faculty researchers will be able to use the SpaceX facilities for training, scientific research and technology development.
“We anticipate that the University of Texas-Rio Grande Valley will be a gateway for the Americas. But now with STARGATE, in partnership with SpaceX, the university will also become a gateway to the stars,” Cigarroa said at a reception after the groundbreaking. “The planets are absolutely aligned.”
Perry, who continues to tout Texas’ business-friendly environment as he eyes another presidential run, called the commitment to the Valley “unparalleled” in Texas history.
“The future of South Texas takes off right behind me,” Perry said at the groundbreaking. “This is just another one of those signals to the rest of the world that this is a state that is making a difference — and is making a difference in a powerful way.”
State Rep. René Oliveira, D-Brownsville, one of the lawmakers who played a role in passing legislation in 2013 that made Brownsville a feasible option for SpaceX, praised Musk.
“If he says we’re going to Mars and that rocket may very well launch out of Cameron County, Texas,” Oliveira said at the reception, “you can take that to the bank.”
BOBBY BLANCHARD reports for The Texas Tribune where this story was originally published. It is made available here through a news partnership between the Texas Tribune and the San Marcos Mercury.