Brownsville doesn’t get much national attention, and when it does, it can be an unflattering reference to drug smuggling or illegal immigration. But soon, this Texas city across the Rio Grande from Mexico hopes it will be regarded more positively as a gateway to the stars.
SpaceX, the space-transport company founded by entrepreneur Elon Musk, plans to build the world’s first exclusively commercial orbital launch pad just northeast of Brownsville along the Gulf of Mexico, Texas officials and SpaceX announced on Monday.
Texas helped sweeten the deal to land the launch pad with $2.3 million in incentives from the Texas Enterprise Fund, a pool the state uses to recruit and retain businesses. It is also providing an additional $13 million from a separate space-projects fund to help finance project infrastructure.
“SpaceX is excited to expand our work in Texas with the world’s first commercial launch complex designed specifically for orbital missions,” Mr. Musk said in a statement released by the office of Texas Gov. Rick Perry.
The project would still require final approval from the federal government, but the prospect has buoyed public leaders and citizens in Brownsville, a largely Hispanic city of 180,000, where more than a third of residents live below the federal poverty line.
“We would become a portal to outer space. How cool is that?” said Gilbert Salinas, an economic-development coordinator for Brownsville.
Mr. Salinas estimates that construction and operation of the launch site could create 500 jobs over a 10-year period and generate more than $50 million annually in new salaries alone. The stimulus could be greater, he said, if companies decide to set up shop in the area to provide ancillary services to the launch complex.
SpaceX, according to company filings with the Federal Aviation Administration, proposes as many as 12 unmanned rocket launches a year, carrying satellites and other cargo into orbit for business customers, as well as other suborbital launches of reusable space vehicles. Earlier this month, the FAA gave environmental approval to SpaceX’s proposal to launch rockets from a beachfront about 17 miles northeast of Brownsville.
There has been no indication that SpaceX will do space tourism, at least in the near future. SpaceX also does launches from Florida for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, carrying cargo to the International Space Station, and has overseen commercial launches in Florida.
The mayor of Brownsville, Tony Martinez, has an “Occupy Mars” beach towel hanging in his office, a gift from an employee of SpaceX, whose founder has long dreamed of sending manned missions to the red planet. T-shirts worn by local boosters proclaim “Launch Brownsville” on the front and “Transforming Destiny” on the back.
Considered one of the country’s leading innovators, Mr. Musk, 43 years old, helped create the online-payment system PayPal before co-founding electric-car maker Tesla Motors Inc., as well as SpaceX.
Support for the space pad has been strong in Brownsville, drowning out concerns over possible negative impacts such as noise from the booms at takeoff. At two public hearings hosted by the FAA in 2012 and 2013, supporters included children dressed in space suits and a group of students with a seven-foot rocket, according to people in attendance.
After attending one hearing, “I wanted to go to Brownsville,” said Dale Ketcham, Chief of Strategic Alliances at Space Florida, one of the other sites that competed for the launch pad. “The enthusiasm with which this town greeted this opportunity was positively infectious.”
In testimony last year to Texas lawmakers about the proposed Brownsville site, Mr. Musk said that it would be “logical” for SpaceX to one day manufacture rockets at a facility near its commercial spaceport, wherever it is ultimately located.
Micah Walter-Range, research director at the Space Foundation, a Colorado Springs-based nonprofit, said the Brownsville site also would help position Texas as a leader in the growing commercial-space industry, which last year generated about $240 billion in revenue globally.
He cautioned, however, that it could take years before the Texas site reaps dividends. “Doing things in space is difficult,” he said. “There could be delays and glitches setting up the infrastructure for a launch site.”
Although the economic payoff remains uncertain, many residents believe an affiliation with SpaceX could provide a significant image makeover for the city.
Anthony Knopp, a board member of the Brownsville Convention & Visitors Bureau who is also a history professor at the University of Texas at Brownsville, said he has learned of people who were reluctant to move or even visit Brownsville because they feared spillover violence from the drug cartels in Mexico.
The launch pad “would be a dramatic development for a community having a tough time,” he said, adding, “It’s more than just SpaceX. It’s the idea that Elon Musk, this visionary entrepreneur, would want to be associated with Brownsville.”