Nine days, 7 hours and 58 minutes.
From the launch to splashdown, it was the first chapter of what will be the commercialization of space transportation, otherwise known as space history.
And the Brownsville Borderplex is eagerly hopeful and optimistic the next chapter will be written here.
“In economic development, this is a project called a community changer,” said Sandra Lopez Langley, chair of the Greater Brownsville Incentives Corporation, which is working with the Brownsville EDC in maintaining a competitive edge as Brownsville is one of three areas in contention for a rocket launch site and launch command center.
“In my time living in South Texas, never have I seen an opportunity come our way such as SpaceX. We hope this project is the beginning of an aerospace cluster and hope to one day be referred as the next ‘Space City USA,’” she said in regards to the nicknames of Houston and Titusville, Florida.
In economic development, two types of projects are handled by cities, those that are generated from the current industries that are the genetic makeup of a certain community or region. Such as the case for Brownsville, it would be in traditional manufacturing, where a company hires hundreds to design, engineer, manage and manufacture from start to finish a certain product.
Best put, Brownsville makes things. The other type of project is one that's outside of the box, or outside of the norm.
Such would be the case of the relationship between SpaceX and Brownsville, having no presence of a space industry in the region but with hopes this company will be the catalyst for the sparking the aerospace cluster. The process starts with one company, which could be the case for Brownsville vying for a rocket launch site. And SpaceX, the commercial space industry’s most successful start-up, has proven to the world that a young entrepreneur with a childhood dream, can in fact launch a rocket to space, connect a capsule to the International Space Station, deliver cargo, and return to Earth, both successfully and profitably. He also did it by way of naming the Falcon 9 rocket after the famed ‘fastest ship’ the Millennium Falcon, a spaceship from one of his favorite films as a child – Star Wars.
“Welcome home baby,” SpaceX Founder, CEO and Chief Designer Elon Musk said in a post-flight briefing after the Dragon capsule returned to earth by splashing into the Pacific Ocean. “It’s like seeing your kid come home.”
The Dragon was named after the fictional “Puff the Magic Dragon,” from the hit song by music group Peter, Paul and Mary. Musk said he used the name because many critics considered his goals impossible when he founded SpaceX in 2002.
Today, SpaceX holds a $1.6 billion contract with NASA to make 12 robotic supply missions to the space station. This flight, though, was a demonstration flight and not part of the 12. It also was SpaceX’s second demonstration flight under the 2006 COTS (Commercial Orbital Transportation Services) program with NASA.
SpaceX is headquartered in Hawthorne, California, in a former facility used to assemble fuselages for Boeing 747s in the outskirts of Los Angeles. He also has a research and rocket test center in McGregor, Texas, just west of Waco, a launch site at Cape Canaveral, and is building a second launch site at Vandenberg, California.
Cape Canaveral was the site where the Falcon 9 launched the Dragon capsule and forever carved it into the chronicles of space history.
When asked for his initial thoughts on Dragon’s capture and move into the history books, Musk stated “just awesome.”
Two words that clearly define the culture of SpaceX.
Launching the Falcon 9: A towering white rocket, with SpaceX etched in blue on its side along with the U.S. flag and the emblem of the Dragon, the nose cone covering the Dragon capsule and the countdown begins at around 20 seconds.
Hardly being able to contain the excitement, the last five seconds are the longest. A split of a second before the countdown, the launch begins with a slight flash of the 9 Merlin rocket engines nestled at the base of the 180-foot space-bound vehicle.
In just another half-second, the pitch black night sky lights up and its jet-like noise reverberates through the dense brush and shallow flats.
“The streak from the rocket just lit up the night sky,” said Jason Hilts, BEDC President & CEO, who was on hand with SpaceX for the historic launch.
Off is the Falcon 9 Rocket carrying the Dragon capsule into space. A few minutes later, it’s safely and strategically orbiting the planet we call home – Earth.
Now, imagine it in Brownsville, Texas, says Hilts.
SpaceX, short for Space Exploration Technologies Corp., made space history on May 22 by becoming the first private enterprise to launch a spacecraft and connect an unmanned capsule to the International Space Station.
The launch occurred shortly after 3:44 a.m., EST, from Cape Canaveral, Florida.
“Today marks the beginning of a new era in exploration,” said Charles Bolden, NASA Administrator, after the liftoff at the Cape.
“And while there is a lot of work ahead to successfully complete this mission, we certainly are off to a good start,” he added.
Good start indeed. The dragon was successfully maneuvered and put in a position for the ISS astronauts to “grab it” with the mechanical arm.
Musk said the Dragon performed very well, exceeding expectations on some fronts, including solar panels that produced more power than expected. There were a few problems during the mission, starting with an aborted first launch attempt as the Falcon 9’s rocket engines were starting. A problem with the Dragon’s laser range-finding device that caused some unplanned maneuvers during the approach to the station was also fixed, according to Musk.
Days later, the Dragon was emptied of its contents, repacked with materials coming back to earth, detached and on its way back to the Pacific Ocean for splashdown.
On June 13, the capsule was on exhibit at SpaceX’s testing and research center in McGregor. The capsule served as the backdrop for a press conference hosted by Musk and joined by Bolden to deem the mission a success.
The Dragon: With the success of the demonstration mission, SpaceX now needs the official confirmation from NASA and then it will begin fulfilling cargo resupply missions to the ISS later this year. SpaceX plans another launch from the Cape in September.
The company has a contract for 12 cargo missions while it continues to develop the manned version of Dragon for flying astronauts to the ISS and elsewhere in low Earth orbit.
While the Dragon was attached to the Space Station, astronauts unloaded 1,146 pounds of cargo, including food and other crew provisions, student experiments and a laptop that Dragon had delivered from Cape Canaveral. That, among other checklist items crossed off, helped prove to NASA that its plan to turn over such tasks to private companies could be successful and may ultimately allow the space agency to save the money it pays Russians for transportation.
The Dragon is the only spacecraft capable of returning a significant amount of cargo from the space station. Other cargo vehicles serving the space station, those from Russia, Japan and the European Space Agency, can carry cargo, however, all vehicles are destroyed after leaving the station.
Intelsat signs contract: Shortly after the successful launch, Intelsat, the world's leading provider of satellite services, and SpaceX announced the first commercial contract for the Falcon Heavy rocket.
“SpaceX is very proud to have the confidence of Intelsat, a leader in the satellite communication services industry,” Musk stated in a press release.
“The Falcon Heavy has more than twice the power of the next largest rocket in the world. With this new vehicle, SpaceX launch systems now cover the entire spectrum of the launch needs for commercial, civil and national security customers,” he added.
If developed in Brownsville, the Falcon Heavy would be flying twice from the proposed launch site at Boca Chica beach.
This is also the first commercial contract for SpaceX's Falcon Heavy launch vehicle. Under the agreement, an Intelsat satellite will be launched into geosynchronous transfer orbit (GTO). “Timely access to space is an essential element of our commercial supply chain,” said Thierry Guillemin, Intelsat CTO.
“As a global leader in the satellite sector, our support of successful new entrants to the commercial launch industry reduces risk in our business model. Intelsat has exacting technical standards and requirements for proven flight heritage for our satellite launches. We will work closely with SpaceX as the Falcon Heavy completes rigorous flight tests prior to our future launch requirements,” Thierry said.
The Falcon Heavy: Falcon Heavy is the most powerful rocket in the world and historically is second only to the Apollo-era Saturn V moon rocket. Capable of lifting 53 metric tons (117,000 pounds) to low Earth orbit and more than 12 metric tons (26,000 pounds) to GTO, Falcon Heavy will provide more than twice the performance to low Earth orbit of any other launch vehicle.
This will allow SpaceX to launch the largest satellites ever flown and will enable new missions.
Building on the reliable flight proven architecture of the Falcon 9 vehicle, Falcon Heavy is also designed for exceptional reliability, meeting both NASA human rating standards as well as the stringent U.S. Air Force requirements for the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program, making it an attractive solution for commercial, civil and military customers.
New commercial-only launch site: In April, the site selection of a proposed launch site for SpaceX became public after a notice of a public scoping hearing in Brownsville was posted with the U.S. Federal Register. The Notice of Intent to conduct an Environmental Impact Statement was filed by the Federal Aviation Administration’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation.
Since, Brownsville has received considerable national attention and is being monitored closely by its competitors for the project – Puerto Rico and Florida.
The notice states the site would support up to 12 commercial launches per year, including two Falcon Heavy launches and ten Falcon 9 launches.
It also states that “before anything could be done on the project, an environmental impact statement, a public scoping period and a public scoping meeting would need to be held.”
The EIS process could take at minimum through the end of this year.
The company plans to make an announcement in regards to a site location after the FAA’s decision on the EIS.
The first public scoping meeting was May 15 at the ITEC Campus where more than 550 showed at the event and many of which personally met the SpaceX delegation of six which were on hand for questions about the project.
Of the 550, about 75 signed up to speak, of which 73 spoke in favor of the project, one neutral and one negative.
The project is at the hands of the FAA as it continues to collect data from federal public agencies in regards to risks which would need to be mitigated in order to build a launch site near Boca Chica beach.
The proposed site is a private tract of land, just south of Highway 4 about a quarter-of-a-mile before the Gulf of Mexico. The site is three miles north of the Rio Grande and five miles south of South Padre Island.
The long stretch of baron land before getting to Boca Chica beach is extremely similar to the long stretches of protected wildlife property at Cape Canaveral, an environmentally sensitive area which has flourished due to the presence of the launch sites there. The drive out to Vandenberg from Lompoc, three hours northwest of Los Angeles, also is long and desolate, however, with mountains.
The difference between a site in Brownsville and the current SpaceX launch sites in Florida and California is accessibility.
“It would be a purely commercial launch site, whereas Cape Canaveral and Vandenberg are actually Air Force bases – in the case of Cape Canaveral, it’s sort of a joint NASA-Air Force activity,” Musk recently told MSNBC.
“So it makes sense to have NASA and Defense Department launches occur from Cape Canaveral and Vandenberg, but then probably shift most of our commercial launches to a purely commercial launch site that’s really aimed at being the best customer for a commercial provider,” he said. “Just as there are Air Force bases and commercial airports … there’s some logic to separation.”
Economic Impact: Casually decked out in jeans and a short-sleeve shirt, Musk hosted a press conference at his McGregor facility to showcase the charred Dragon capsule.
A few hours later, a personal twitter message from Gov. Rick Perry shows a photo him and a suited Musk together at the Texas Capitol where they discussed SpaceX’s proposed commercial launch site for the Brownsville area.
“Great meeting with SpaceX’s Elon Musk, a true space pioneer,” stated the Governor in his twitter shortly after them getting together.
In the meeting, it was noted that South Texas is the leading candidate for a launch site for the company.
The two met in regards to potential incentives and other issues for the project.
Earlier in June, Perry wrote to Musk “Please be assured that as you seek to expand the capabilities of SpaceX to launch spacecraft, whether unmanned or manned, the State of Texas stands ready to support you and the work of your talented employees who are blazing a new trail into space.”
Texas, however, is facing stiff competition from Florida and Puerto Rico.
As the newspaper The Orlando Sentinel recently reported: The ongoing rivalry only has intensified I the weeks since SpaceX became the first; None of the rivals have made public the incentives each is offering; And the stakes are high – hundreds of good paying jobs at SpaceX, the supporting companies that would pop up around its operation, as well as the prestige.
Space Florida, the economic development entity courting SpaceX, has publicly said it intends to be aggressively competitive by way of financial incentives. Florida also plans to offer converting a pad formerly used by the space shuttle at Kennedy Space Center into a facility for SpaceX, recently reported by The Sentinel.
In addition to significant financial incentives and tax breaks, Puerto Rico’s economic and commerce department is selling its geographic location for the project, being that it’s closest to the equator than Brownsville for Cape Canaveral.
A key for the launch site is being close to the equator, in a remote and unpopulated area, and next to a major body of water where a rocket can launch in an easterly direction.
“Brownsville and the Governor’s Office have collaborated in the past for major projects. Our city and state is well known for being assertive in corporate recruitment and now is the time to aggressively go after a project, such as SpaceX,” said Mayor Tony Martinez, who since day one, has been instrumental in directing different public and private entities to support the project in the Greater Brownsville Borderplex.
The company plans to invest $80 million in a launch site and launch command center on a footprint no larger than 5 acres of land. Once fully operational, SpaceX would create upward of 600 direct jobs with a direct economic impact of more than $51 million annually.
SpaceX, which employs about 1,800, first started with 10 employees in 2002. Of those 10 was Steve Davis, the project leader for the Brownsville site.
“It is really important to go to a place that wants us to be there and to know both the positive impacts and the negative impacts and really judge that,” Davis told The Brownsville Herald during an interview at the May 15 public scoping hearing.
“That is kind of the stage we are in right now. It has been very, very positive, which has been great.”