SpaceX to Build World’s First Commercial Space Launch Complex in South Texas

Artist's concept of SpaceX's Boca Chica commercial launch site in Brownsville, Texas. Image Credit: SpaceX

Artist’s concept of SpaceX’s Boca Chica commercial launch site in Brownsville, Texas. Image Credit: SpaceX

Though the news comes as no surprise, it has now been made official: SpaceX will build their commercial space launch site at Boca Chica Beach in Brownsville, Texas. The deal, which came via a press release from Texas Governor Rick Perry’s office on Aug. 4, is contingent upon final approval of local agreements and receipt of additional required permits, but those issues aside south Texas can now look forward to watching Falcons fly to space from their shores, bringing 300 new long-term jobs to the area with them.

Texas has been on the forefront of our nation’s space exploration efforts for decades, so it is fitting that SpaceX has chosen our state as they expand the frontiers of commercial space flight,” said Gov. Perry. “In addition to growing the aerospace industry in Texas, SpaceX’s facility will provide a myriad opportunities for STEM education in South Texas, and inspire a new generation of Texas engineers and innovators.”

A SpaceX Falcon-9 rocket launching the company's third commercial mission of 2014, AsiaSat-8, from Cape Canaveral on Aug. 5, 2014. The company is now moving forward with plans to build the world's first commercial launch site in Brownsville, Texas, as Boca Chica Beach. Photo Credit: John Studwell / AmericaSpace

A SpaceX Falcon-9 rocket launching the company’s third commercial mission of 2014, AsiaSat-8, from Cape Canaveral on Aug. 5, 2014. Photo Credit: John Studwell / AmericaSpace

Just last night SpaceX launched their third commercial mission of 2014 to deliver the AsiaSat-8 satellite to orbit from Cape Canaveral, Fla. The company expects to launch 12 missions a year through 2025 from the new 100-acre seaside launch site in Texas, which lies 17 miles east-northeast of the Brownsville/South Padre Island International Airport and approximately five miles south of South Padre Island. SpaceX will fly both their Falcon-9 v1.1 and Falcon Heavy rockets from Boca Chica Beach for commercial missions, but the company has also emphasized previously that they could launch NASA or government missions from there as well (SpaceX already has a $1.6 billion contract with NASA for 12 ISS resupply missions and is in the process of earning Air Force certification to bid on launch contracts for U.S. government missions).

SpaceX is excited to expand our work in Texas with the world’s first commercial launch complex designed specifically for orbital missions. We appreciate the support of Gov. Perry and numerous other federal, state and local officials who have partnered with us to make this vision a reality,” said SpaceX CEO Elon Musk. “In addition to creating hundreds of high tech jobs for the Texas workforce, this site will inspire students, expand the supplier base and attract tourists to the south Texas area.”

The state has offered SpaceX $2.3 million from the Texas Enterprise Fund (TEF), which is one of the state’s most competitive tools to recruit and bolster business, to bring SpaceX’s new commercial rocket launch facility to Brownsville. The facility, once operational, is expected to pump $85 million in capital investment into the local economy. Texas has also offered $13 million from the Spaceport Trust Fund to the Cameron County Spaceport Development Corp. to support the development of infrastructure necessary for establishing the new launch site.

SpaceX plans to invest $73.6 million into making the new launch site a reality.

What a historical moment for the greater Brownsville region and the State of Texas. It’s the culmination of a dream and a vision that began more than three years ago,” said Brownsville Mayor Tony Martinez. “We will ensure that SpaceX has everything they need in order to be successful in the Greater Brownsville Borderplex. The team effort would have never succeeded but for the immense support of the people of Brownsville, all of its surrounding neighbors and the state – to all of you ‘mil gracias’ and watch us soar.”

Artist's concept of SpaceX's Boca Chica Beach commercial launch facility in south Texas. Image Credit: SpaceX

Artist’s concept of SpaceX’s Boca Chica Beach commercial launch facility in south Texas. Image Credit: SpaceX

The news comes a week after SpaceX’s Dogleg Park LLC submitted an application for a permit to install small solar panels off-grid in the vicinity of the proposed launch control center at Boca Chica Beach, with the contractor for the job being one of Elon Musk’s other companies, Solar City. The Brownsville Economic Development Council also recently submitted an application for a commercial permit to construct a 12,000-square-foot tracking center in connection with the BEDC-SpaceX-University of Texas at Brownsville’s Spacecraft Tracking and Astronomical Research into Giga-Hertz Astrophysical Transient Emission project, also known as STARGATE. The complex would be used to develop, test, and utilize radio frequency technologies for both scientific and commercial purposes, and to track spacecraft.

According to the FAA’s final environmental impact statement for the Texas launch site: “All launch trajectories would be to the east over the Gulf of Mexico. The majority of launches would be conducted between the hours of 7:00 a.m. and 7:00 p.m. However, there could be one nighttime launch per year. The FAA would likely issue launch specific licenses for the first few years of operation of the exclusive launch site. SpaceX may then apply for a launch operator license, which lasts for five years and covers the same family of vehicles.”

Facility and infrastructure construction at the control center area, which will be located two miles west of the launch site, would include the following:

  • Two launch control center buildings
  • Two payload processing facilities
  • Launch vehicle processing hangar
  • Two radio frequency transmitter/receivers
  • Generators and diesel storage facilities
  • Roads, parking areas, fencing, security, lighting, and utilities
  • A satellite fuels storage facility

Local law enforcement and the U.S. Coast Guard will work with SpaceX to carry out unmanned aerial surveillance, manned aerial surveillance, beach sweeps via ATVs and SUVs, and boat patrols offshore to ensure that any unauthorized persons, vessels, trains, aircraft, or other vehicles are not within the hazard area on launch days.

SpaceX expects to conduct their first launch from Boca Chica Beach, Texas, in 2016.

 

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26 comments to SpaceX to Build World’s First Commercial Space Launch Complex in South Texas

  • Tracy the Troll

    Mike,

    “The company expects to launch 12 missions a year through 2025”

    What I do not understand is that with the expected transformation to a reuseable launch system won’t the demand exceed 12 launches a year pretty quickly? Or can they launch as frequently as required?

    • Joe

      Tracy,

      One reason for the limited number of launches may the down range situation, not only land, but a number of very expensive Oil Rigs.

      http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/2/21/Gulf_Coast_Platforms.jpg

      Those combined will likely limit the orbital inclinations to which launch may be attempted from that site.

      It may be that (re-usability or not) that the number of payloads requiring those limited inclinations will limit the number of flights regardless of SpaceX hypothetical capabilities.

      Actually 12 missions/year sounds rather high.

      • Tracy the Troll

        Joe,
        If they are limited in launches and they are moving to reuseable launch system with the launch revenue being significantly lower… won’t Spacx’s cash flow and profit margin take a hit? I thought the whole point was to increase the number of launches to make up the lower profit margins with volume or launch frequency…

        • Joe

          Tracy,

          Accepting the premise that SpaceX will have re-usable (really super re-usable) rockets, the rest of your assumptions and questions are valid and interesting.

          Unfortunately I cannot answer the questions. Even though I am from Texas and the state can always use new business, the Brownsville launch site never made sense to me.

          Maybe Musk has some hidden plan that makes it all make sense, but I do not know what it is.

          We will just have to wait and see.

          • ken anthony

            The lower cost and price of a reusable has nothing to do with revenue which could go up or down.

            • Joe

              The net revenue (payment to launch – cost of launch) is very much dependent on launch cost.

              If SpaceX is not counting on re-usability dramatically lowering their launch costs, why are they emphasizing it?

  • Mark P

    They’re not abandoning Canaveral and Vandenburg. They’ll have 2 sites in Florida, 1 in Texas and one in Cali. Theoretically, they could more than triple their launch rate…

    • Joe

      Actually that would be one in Florida (Canaveral), one in California (Vandenberg) and one in Texas (Brownsville), but even increasing their flight rate to 36/year (assuming they can do that) would not begin to make re-usability cost effective.

      • Mark P

        39a and 40 in Florida.

        • Joe

          Yes, I overlooked that they now have control of the old Apollo/Shuttle pad.

          The second point still holds. The flight rare would have to go well beyond 36 or even 48 flight/year for re-usability to begin to give them significant cost savings.

          That is presumably why Musk talks about 100s (even 1,000s) of flights/year.

  • Mark P

    I tend to agree, although no one really knows what the actual cost of refurbishing a Falcon core will be vs building a new one.

    • Joe

      I am basing my statement on the estimates made for the Delta Clipper program from the 1980s/1990s. It was of course to be an SSTO and (just as one example) they had developed a non-hypergolic attitude control system (to avoid dealing with the toxic/caustic propellants).

      Their estimate (based in part on experience flying the DC-X) was that it would take a crew of 50 a week to turn a vehicle around and fly it again. Based on the points above, it is hard to believe that a multi stage vehicle (using hypergolic propellants in its attitude control system)like the Falcon 9 would take less effort to re-use.

      The estimated breakeven point for the Delta Clipper was 100 flights/year. So it seems reasonable to assume that would be a minimum breakeven point for a re-usable Falcon 9.

      • Tracy the Troll

        I also assumed a projected ramp up to 100s or 1000s of flights per year..like an airline. Also I heard somewhere that SpaceX plans to “automate” launch prep that will reduce the number of humans required to operate the Texas facility. It just seems that they are putting a lot of money into the site to develop it for only 12 launches per year…Or maybe reuseability isn’t really going to happen and it just a PR stunt…

  • libs0n

    A reusable SSTO has a high development cost that must be amortized, Musk’s vehicle, which builds off of their expendable two stage rocket design, is less expensive in development cost and would require less amortization.

    It is also only a partially reusable vehicle in the near term. The benefits of reusing booster cores requires less flights than a full up RLV. Heavy flights are also users of 3 booster cores at a time.

    Their reusability plans are a step by step process. Reusing boosters is the first step that can be made viable before taking the next step.

    I think I’ve seen it stated a year or two ago that Musk’s goal in the near future is 10 Falcon flights and 10 Falcon Heavy flights a year, which is ambitious in its own right. If they end up having demand for more that maxes out their current pad plans then they can expand their launch sites or build more.

    Anyways, this is part of the reason I support a non-HLV based exploration paradigm where NASA uses many existing smaller launches for the cumulative mass needs of exploring. It adds new launches to the total launch market available and thus makes RLV efforts more viable, as opposed to bottling up that segment of launch demand away from the launch market.

    • Tracy the Troll

      I have heard that by just reusing the 1st stage SpaceX can lower its launch cost by 60% for a F9 which I think is $55M+/- so that brings it down to $22M+/…Won’t that create huge demand? What about the second stage another $10M+/ off…???

    • Joe

      I do not think it will get us anywhere to start trying to guess where the total development cost should be amortized, as we do not even have clear numbers on what the development costs are and how much goes to the expendable version, how much is for re-usability and how much is being picked up by the government anyway.

      The real point is the cost of re-use vs. building a new equivalent. The Delta Clipper research indicated that short of 100 flights/year that the re-use cost was simply not worth the effort.

      SSTO vs. multistage will by definition require more effort even if SpaceX were to achieve the level of automation and other effort reducing advantages assumed for the Delta Clipper in reality. That would still indicate a breakeven point well beyond 100 flights/year.

      The problem then becomes (again assuming the whole re-use thing actually works at all) where do you find a market for 100+ flights at the higher prices required until the supposed re-use savings kick in.

      The SSTO Program was part of the overall Strategic Defense Initiative that would have required an estimated 300 flights/year. So the “anchor tenant” was built in (until SDI was cancelled).

      • Tracy the Troll

        Joe,
        If I am customer and am recieving the launch services of a RLV…I would not pay full price would I….?

        • Joe

          Tracy,

          It really depends on how the vehicle development was financed.

          In the SSTO Program development cost were to be covered entirely by the government. Therefore in their non-government business the customer would have been charged a percentage of their total operating costs assessed by the Cost Accountants to the flight (plus, of course, some additional amount for profit). The specific number would be the result of negotiations.

          For the current “commercial” companies (like SpaceX) the government is paying a substantial portion of the development cost and in SpaceX case it appears that whatever additional expenses are involved are being covered by Musk’s substantial resources. Therefore the method of establishing the customer cost would be very similar.

          For any truly commercial company (one paying the entire development cost) there would have to be further charges to cover repaying loans (plus interest) etc.

          I hope that answers your question because I am an engineer not a cost accountant. If we try to discuss this in any more detail we will have reached the point where I know “just about enough to be dangerous”.

          • Tracy the Troll

            Joe,
            Would there be a return to the government for the development costs that they forwarded to SpaceX? Or do you think that NASA would get a percentage of the “profits” generated for a certain time?

            On another note when a launch is scrubbed do you have any idea what the costs involved are? Could it be in the millions of dollars??? I am thinking that scrubbed mission costs would be an potentially devaasting to an RLV system…

            • Joe

              Tracy,

              I know that for the SSTO Program it was the Strategic Defense Initiative Organization (SDIO) intent not to try to recoup the development investment. The idea was that the additional flights would benefit the government by further reducing launch costs. I have no idea what the arrangement is with the current “commercial” projects, including SpaceX.

              Scrub costs would depend on specific designs, so trying to determine them for SpaceX would depend on having a lot more information than SpaceX makes available. Keep in mind that launch delays also have costs to the customer.

            • Tracy,

              ULA scrubs cost ULA approximately $1 million per scrub (doesn’t matter if it’s Atlas or Delta,including the labor, propellants, & the costs for the many systems that are required to be operated to support a launch.

              Similar costs for shuttle,which cost NASA / USA roughly $1 million per scrub, & that was a completely different launch system all together.

              Repeated inquiries to SpaceX for their scrub costs have been ignored thus far. Considering they’re launching CRS with our tax dollars you would think that kind of information should be available to the public…

              • Joe

                Interesting, that the different designs (Shuttle and EELV) scrub costs are roughly the same.

                Thanks, Mike.

              • Tracy the Troll

                Musk has said that his RLV system is consistent with the airline model…Launch, land, refuel and launch again “on the same day” That means that the entire system must be completely tested which would require lots of launches to perfect because at a $1M per scrub that would drastically eat into profit margins..I am thinking that considering that SpaceX had 10 or so scrubs on their previous to last launch setup, this clearly shows a RLV program has a long way to go before it becomes operational with a reduced launch cost benefit….. While the launch vehicle itself will mature won’t there still be scrubs? So how does SpaceX reduce the Scrub Costs numbers? Automation? Can the life/ safety teams be automated or robotic?

                • Good questions as always Tracy, unfortunately SpaceX is not exactly very outspoken about such details, even after repeated inquiries from many in the media.

    • Joe

      I certainly had not heard about it.

      Very interesting, it will be interesting to see what (if anything) comes of this.