The Lone Star State is known for its wealth, pumped from the ground. But entrepreneurs here have been looking up to make their money, putting Texas on the forefront of the movement to move spaceflight industry from government hands. The state hosts the burgeoning private space industry from the Panhandle to the Mexican border. “Texas is a hotbed for space technology,” said Matt Leonard, a board member for the Texas Space Alliance and president and CEO of Texas Space Technologies, Applications and Research. “We need to make sure we are the preeminent state going forward in the space business.” Here are eight cities in Texas to watch as they look for opportunities in the skies above.
1) Van Horn
This small town is the home of the privately-owned launchpad of Blue Origin, owned by Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos. The company is building reusable rockets that can transport people and equipment into space. Blue Origin developed its rocket system in secret, and in 2011 crashed one during a flight test to the chagrin of locals. These days, Bezos' engineers are launching and landing their rockets in a string of successful tests. The craft has not reached space, but that feat is coming soon.
This unassuming town between Waco and Dallas was the launch site for a college graduation project in outer space. A team at Texas A&M won the 2016 Texas Instrument Innovation Challenge for their 2016 project by providing a communications platform for a small satellite in low-earth orbit. The hardware launched on a high altitude balloon from Hillsboro in April and beamed information to a ground station in College Station. The communications board the students created will be used by systems operated by Texas Space Technologies, Applications and Research, said CEO Leonard. Not bad for a class project.
3) Brownsville/Boca Chica Beach
Ground has broken and dirt is (finally) moving at Boca Chica Beach, where Elon Musk’s Space Exploration Technologies Corporation is building the SpaceX South Texas Launch Site. This will be the world’s first commercial orbital launch facility, just east of Brownsville. The first launches from the facility are expected to take place no earlier than 2018. SpaceX currently launches missions for the government and satellite companies from federally-owned facilities in Florida and California. Musk says that this site would launch humans to Mars — including himself.
Aside from the Johnson Space Center and other NASA facilities, Houston now also has committed to building a spaceport and research facilities at the Ellington Airport. In 2015, the company announced that the Sierra Nevada spaceplane, Dreamchaser, could land in Houston. Developers hope to see the Houston Spaceport serving vehicles by as early as 2018.
The SpaceX rocket motor testing site here in Central Texas has generated some friction with the locals, who recently passed an ordinance they probably never thought they’d see enter the books: The Rocket Motor Testing Zone. The ordinance regulates the times of day the tests can be done and decibel level they’re allowed to reach — with a fee scale for permits on extra loud testing events. On the positive side, the engines developed here have changed the space launch industry by helping to make launches cheaper.
Once there was a little airport with a big dream. Midland International Air and Space Port seemed to be in play when the startup Xcor decided to launch and land its spaceplane, the Lynx, from the location. This year Sierra Nevada Space Systems mothballed the spacecraft, but the locals don't see this as a death knell. Space industry companies such as Orbital Outfitters, which makes space suits, and the Midland Altitude Chamber Complex, a test facility that mimics the trip to space so vendors can test hardware, are also located at the airport.
7) Cedar Park
Austin wants desperately to be the hub of Texas space travel, with an initiative it started last year. While Houston is not likely to give up that title, there is hope for a close second place. The private aerospace company Firefly Space Systems, named one of the Austin area’s hottest new businesses by the chamber of commerce, is developing launch vehicles for launches to orbit. It recently began building an engine test and manufacturing facility north of Austin. The company was formed in January 2014 in California by, among others, Dr. Tom Markusic, a former manager at the SpaceX Texas Rocket Test Facility in Central Texas.
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Kubos is a software company that has high ambitions in the space industry. Satellites are getting smaller, and that means a big opportunity for the Denton-based company. Cube sats are small boxes that are preferred because they are small and lightweight, meaning they are cheaper to launch. Kubos provides software and operating systems for these cube sats. Even cooler, they use an open-source code that enables wide involvement.