Who’s the mystery Texas spaceport customer?

A decade ago the Texas spaceport scene was relatively active. No fewer than three spaceports had been proposed by various local entities to attract RLVs and other commercial launch vehicles. One was the Gulf Coast Regional Spaceport, located in Brazoria County, south of Houston; the second was the West Texas Spaceport, near Fort Stockton; and the third was the Willacy County Spaceport, located on the Gulf coast north of Brownsville. (A summary of the status of those spaceports at the time can be found in the 2002 edition of the FAA’s “Commercial Space Transportation Developments and Concepts” report.) However, as the RLV boom went bust, these spaceport plans either went dormant or, in the case of the Gulf Coast Regional Spaceport, were cancelled.

Now, through, one of those proposed spaceports may have found new life. A recent article in the McAllen (Tx.) Monitor (which is actually a reprint of one last week in the Valley Morning Star in the Rio Grande Valley) reports that Willacy County officials have found a new tenant for their proposed spaceport. According to the county judge John F. Gonzales Jr., an unnamed aerospace company is planning to lease 50 acres spread across two sites; it would invest up to $50 million for its facilities and hire 100 to 200 people. At least one site would be on the coast, apparently to be used for launches over the Gulf into orbit.

Judge Gonzales, though, declined to disclose the name of the interested company, saying that he was bound by a confidentiality agreement. He did say that the company did test its rockets in December and it “recovered a reusable container similar to 1960s-type space capsules”, according to the article. “They’re the first private company to have successfully launched a low-altitude space flight and successfully recovered it,” Gonzales said. All those comments make the company in question sound like SpaceX: it launched a Falcon 9 in December from Cape Canaveral, placing the Dragon capsule in orbit. That capsule returned to Earth later the same day, making SpaceX the first non-government entity to recover a spacecraft from orbit. However, it’s not clear why SpaceX would have any interest in the Texas site, given its investment in developing its Cape Canaveral site.

Some have suggested that the company in question could be Blue Origin, which already has a test site in west Texas, north of the town of Van Horn. As RLV and Space Transport News pointed out earlier this year, Blue Origin has a patent for a “Sea Landing of Space Launch Vehicles and Associated Systems and Methods”, which covered the powered landing of a booster stage on a barge or other ship in the ocean after launch from a coastal launch site. However, what we know of Blue Origin’s activities don’t seem to match what Gonzales said in the article, but then, there’s a lot about Blue Origin we don’t know about.

12 comments to Who’s the mystery Texas spaceport customer?

  • Kendall

    The Texas location and the shroud of secrecy would seem to make Blue Origin the most likely customer. I was surprised to hear about the New Shepard propulsion module test flight on May 6th. Did they recover a capsule on that flight? I have absolutely no inside knowledge, but my guess is Blue Origin is making plans to become operational.

    • Kendall

      The customer is almost certainly SpaceX after reading some recent news reports. They are looking for a commercial-only launch site not owned and operated by NASA or DOD.

  • Robert Horning

    It still could be SpaceX, as an outside possibility. They were incredibly frustrated with their experience at Vandenberg, particularly trying to get a slot in between other launcher companies also using the facility. Their experience on Kwajalein was much easier, as they really didn’t have to fight for flight spots or deal with all of the other stuff that happens in and around KSC.

    More than once even the Falcon 9 launch was postponed or rescheduled due to things like the Space Shuttle launch getting scrubbed or dealing with Air Force payloads for other companies. By having a “reserve” site in Texas, they at least can guarantee something more resembling “airline” service to orbit… something that the Falcon 9 may be much more suited to be tasked to do. If you have a payload that absolutely needs to be launched in the next 3-4 weeks, SpaceX may be able to offer some service along those lines.

    As a pure business decision, it would make sense in terms of making sure that your “competition” couldn’t shut you down simply because you don’t have an opening on the launch schedule or that somebody can make a political decision to shut down your launch activities. Even if it is just a “backup site”, I could see some benefits for SpaceX to be on the Texas Gulf Coast in some capacity.

    KSC won’t be shut down by SpaceX, because they have customers or potential customers who are based in the area and need or demand having access in the area for launches. For example, the manned missions to the ISS would seem likely to all come from KSC. While they may launch from Vandenberg in the future, I would expect that to be mainly Air Force payloads or stuff that requires polar orbits for some reason, but be something that overwhelms their Kwaj facilities (like a Falcon Heavy). Adding a Texas space port into the mix that is intended for commercial customers who have a short launch schedule might just be a good niche.

    No, I don’t have any inside track here, I’m just thinking a “what if I were CEO of SpaceX, what would I do here?” I wouldn’t completely rule out SpaceX being a potential tenant even if this other company is somebody else.

  • [...] Dormant spaceport project comes back to life [...]

  • Gary C Hudson

    A correction: it is a patent *application*, not an issued patent. And Claim 1 is totally invalidated by prior art, for example Bob Truax’s proposal under the NRL SELARS program of the early 1990s to do recovery of his first stage on a barge.

  • Bob Carver

    Transportation of the rocket is another consideration for SpaceX. The Falcons undergo testing at MacGregor, TX, before being shipped to the launch site. South Texas is a lot closer than south Florida.

  • DocM

    What if their plans there include building & testing large diameter stages there then loading them on barges for shiplent to KSC LC-39B?

    Anything larger than F9 can’t really be shipped over the interstate highways as oversize loads are limited to 16 feet, then you have to deal with overhead clearance and F9 is close to maxing that already.

    Bottom line is that the coastal production of large diameter is virtually a necessity. AIUI that’s's why shuttle tanks were made at Michoud, LA.

  • ken anthony

    For SpaceX it would not be a ‘backup’ site. Consider the number of launches they have on their manifest they will need more than just one additional site.

  • Jim Howard

    I have heard rumors that Paul Allen may be doing something in the New Space space.

  • SpaceX will “neither confirm nor deny” but the primary reason why a site off the Cape would make sense is that they can — as pointed out above — set their own launch dates without having to worry about everyone else’s calendar.

  • [...] run.” He said they would be interested in launching from a coastal spaceport in Texas, like the one that been in some reports earlier this summer; “we’ve even talked about launching from the Gulf [of Mexico], if we can’t find a [...]

  • [...] summer there was a flurry of speculation about an unnamed company interested in a spaceport in south Texas, on the coast of the Gulf of Mexico. That speculation later focused on SpaceX, which hinted it was [...]

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