Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Deep in the Heart of Texas

Click the arrow to watch excerpts of the speeches at the groundbreaking. Video source: UTBrownsville YouTube channel.

Click the arrow to watch media coverage of the groundbreaking event. Video source: Brownsville Herald YouTube channel.

There is some young student in the sixth grade in an elementary school who never in his or her life thought that they would be part of the space program. But because of the vision of these men and women in this audience, they have the potential not just to change their lives, but to change the world that they live in.

— Texas Governor Rick Perry

Why is it Rick Perry saying this and not Florida Governor Rick Scott?

That's the question Space Coast leaders should be asking themselves today after SpaceX founder Elon Musk and south Texas officials participated Monday in the groundbreaking ceremony for the company's new commercial spaceport at Boca Chica Beach, Texas, near Brownsville and Harlingen.

In sports parlance, Brevard County blew the home field advantage.

Fingers can be pointed in many directions.

Some locals will give their typical knee-jerk reflex and blame President Barack Obama. I've heard locals spin bizarre conspiracy theories, such as the President or one of his staff secretly owns SpaceX stock, or their alternative favorite, “Obama hates the space program.”

But in the reality-based world, it boils down to the entitlement attitude inbred to the local culture that believes it has some sort of divine right to a monopoly stranglehold on U.S. space launches.

This was typified by a bizarre March 11, 2010 Florida Today editorial which demanded that Obama should mandate that commercial companies could only launch from the Space Coast. “The president should make KSC the commercial hub and mandate it in his policy.”

Imagine the national outrage if a President tried to dictate that automobiles could only be manufactured in Detroit.

Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Air Force Stations are government operations run by people who for decades have run their facilities like personal fiefdoms. An example can be found in this September 21, 2014 Houston Chronicle article about SpaceX leasing KSC's Pad 39A:

This spring at Kennedy Space Center in Florida NASA and SpaceX staged a ceremony as the company took control of the historic launch pad from which Apollo 11 rocketed to the moon. SpaceX plans to launch its Falcon 9 Heavy, which could compete with NASA’s own big rocket, from here. Officials made nice during the ceremony, but behind the scene tensions bubbled up.

The new guys, according to NASA workers, acted like they owned the place. They were “rude, arrogant egotistical smart asses,” one NASA old timer said. “I don’t mind young people, which they all were. But they just acted like they had it all figured out, like they just have the world by the tail.”

SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell flashes “V” for Victory at the lease ceremony April 14, 2014 at KSC's Pad 39A. Image source: Houston Chronicle.

The bureaucracy-laden obstinance that pervades both facilities has hindered SpaceX's ability to attract commercial satellite launches.

On the Cape side, AsiaSat executives were restricted from accessing their own commercial satellites earlier this year because of “lots of restrictions and regulations” — security clearances and permissions for non-U.S. citizens to work or visit the site, and regulations that limit how long people can be at certain locations, according to this September 15 Space News report.

Commenting on SpaceX plans for Boca Chica, AsiaSat CEO William Wade told Space News:

“It’s unfortunate for the Cape,” Wade said. “[SpaceX] will have government missions [in Florida], but the commercial side of their business is going to continue to grow. I think it’s a shame that they aren’t in a position to feel comfortable that they would get the support here that they need to use facilities. It’s unfortunate, but they have to do what they feel is right for their business.”

Space Florida, a state agency charged with bringing commercial launch companies to the Space Coast, proposed a new commercial spaceport at Shiloh, an abandoned farm community north of Launch Complex 39 in undeveloped Kennedy Space Center land near the Volusia County line.

The idea was to have a facility that could be leased by SpaceX and other commercial companies not subject to the government's regulatory burdens. The problem, though, was convincing NASA to give up the land to the State of Florida; so long as the land is owned by the federal government, it's subject to federal government regulations.

KSC officials responded with their own 20-year master plan that shows proposed new pads 39C and 39D for commercial users — but nothing at Shiloh.

Local environmentalists have protested Shiloh with unsubstantiated claims of “total devastation of an already endangered estuarine environment.” NASA's proposed 39C and 39D appear intended to appease the organized environmental opposition, which indicated it would not object to a site south of State Route 402 — but still controlled by the federal government.

Space Florida theoretically is led by Governor Rick Scott who heads its Board of Directors, but in reality daily operations are run by widely respected President and CEO Frank DiBello.

March 8, 2013 ... Texas Governor Rick Perry meets with SpaceX founder Elon Musk. Image source: Flickr.

To my knowledge, Scott and Musk have never met. But Rick Perry stepped up last year to personally court Musk — not just SpaceX, but also Tesla Motors, another Musk-owned company. On March 8, 2013, Musk addressed the Texas Legislature and met with Perry.

At Monday's groundbreaking, Perry announced the State of Texas would invest $9 million in a new facility called STARGATE at the planned University of Texas - Rio Grande Valley planned to open in the fall of 2015.

To quote from the University of Texas press release:

The STARGATE facility will be a radio frequency technology park located adjacent to the SpaceX launch site command center. SpaceX will assemble and launch their signature advanced rockets and spacecraft, with launches every month at the Boca Chica Beach site. When not being used for launches, SpaceX facilities will be used by student and faculty researchers at STARGATE for training, scientific research and technology development.

“This is more than a once-in-a-generation or once-in-a-lifetime moment; this is history in the making,” said UT System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa, M.D. “The research partnerships we are establishing hold the promise to catapult the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley to the leading edge in the study of astrophysics. Our students and faculty will be assisting with space launches and exploration — that is a matchless experience that offers incredible possibilities for research.”

STARGATE evokes memories of how Humble Oil Co. and Rice University sold the land for the Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston to NASA in 1962 for $30. Today, it's known as Johnson Space Center, and the Rice Space Institute has contributed decades of scientists and engineers to JSC.

Artists' concepts of the SpaceX commercial launch facility at Boca Chica. Images source: NASASpaceflight.com.

The bottom line is that Texas stepped up and outbid Florida.

It will happen again if state, county and local leaders don't get their act together — starting with an end to the entitlement attitude.

The Space Coast's elected federal representatives — Bill Nelson, Marco Rubio and Bill Posey — need to prioritize legislation that commercializes parts of KSC and CCAFS. Just as the FAA certifies joint-use military/civilian airports, the same must happen with the Cape. There will be opposition — not just from local fiefdoms, but also other states such as Texas who don't want Florida to get back into the game.

Florida's 8th District Democratic congressional candidate Gabriel Rothblatt proposes a commercial spaceport authority for the Cape. Video source: Gabriel Rothblatt YouTube channel.

Posey's opponent in the November election, Gabriel Rothblatt, has already proposed formation of a commercial spaceport authority at the Cape.

Rick Scott, or Charlie Crist if he wins in November, must take a firm leadership role at Space Florida and work with the state's federal representatives to make the commercial spaceport authority a reality. The governor should establish feeder programs with local educational institutions so that potential commercial tenants aren't left to interview only laid off United Space Alliance employees in their fifties with unrealistic compensation expectations after decades of generous federal wage standards enforced by union locals. I'm all for unions, but unions need to understand when they need to help employers remain competitive.

There's lots of empty land left around Boca Chica. If Florida doesn't learn to be competitive, plenty more NewSpace companies will bolt for deep in the heart of Texas.

UPDATE september 24, 2014The Valley Morning Star reports that SpaceX is already looking at transferring some launches from the Cape to Boca Chica.

SpaceX’s intent is to develop and activate the commercial launch site at Boca Chica in Cameron County expeditiously in order to meet an expectedly growing manifest.

Commercial launch missions to geosynchronous transfer orbit (GTO) and beyond would be transferred to the new launch complex also.

“Our preference is to try to move — particularly the commercial GTO missions — to the Boca Chica launch site as soon as we can,” SpaceX’s founder Elon Musk said Monday.

Musk noted that “there is a significant benefit” in that the Boca Chica site is south of Cape Canaveral, Florida, “and that should help for GTO missions.”

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