SpaceX seek­ing up to $5M more from state

Com­pany has yet to spend mil­lions al­ready set aside for project.

Austin American-Statesman - - FRONT PAGE - By Bob Sech­ler bsech­ler@states­

SpaceX is seek­ing new state funding to build a com­mer­cial space­port in Texas, even though the high-pro­file project that it be­gan near Brownsville in 2014 is be­hind schedule and mil­lions in state tax dol­lars al­ready set aside for it have yet to be spent.

Hawthorne, Calif.-based SpaceX — founded by bil­lion­aire en­tre­pre­neur Elon Musk with the aim of re­duc­ing the cost of space travel and one day fa­cil­i­tat­ing the col­o­niza­tion of Mars — is seek­ing up to $5 mil­lion more from the state to help build in­fra­struc­ture re­lated to the launch fa­cil­ity at Boca Chica beach out­side Brownsville, a Cameron County of­fi­cial has con­firmed.

Mean­while, McLen­nan County — which en­com­passes Waco — also has ap­plied for some of the same state space­port funds through an en­tity it has cre­ated to de­velop a space­port.

Kris Collins, an of­fi­cial with the Greater Waco Cham­ber of Com­merce, de­clined to re­veal the name of the aerospace com­pany that McLen­nan County has been work­ing with on a po­ten­tial space­port project. How­ever, SpaceX al­ready has a ma­jor rocket de­sign and test­ing fa­cil­ity in McGre­gor, near Waco, and the com­pany has been awarded lo­cal in­cen­tives for eco­nomic devel­op­ment.

A SpaceX spokesman said com­pany ex­ec­u­tives weren’t im­me­di­ately avail­able to com­ment on their Texas space­port plans.

About $15.3 mil­lion in state funding al­ready has been set aside for SpaceX’s planned Boca Chica space­port, but only about $3 mil­lion has been dis­bursed — and SpaceX re­turned a small por­tion be­cause it fell short of hir­ing goals as the project failed to keep pace with its orig­i­nal timetable.

Boca Chica is in Cameron County, about 20 miles east of Brownsville at the south­ern­most tip of the state, where Texas 4 dead-ends into the Gulf of Mex­ico. Musk ini­tially said SpaceX would in­vest $100 mil­lion at the site, and he pre­dicted it could send up rock­ets by late 2016, although that date has been pushed to late 2018 at the ear­li­est.

New state money for the project would come from a spe­cific state eco­nomic devel­op­ment fund, called the Space­port Trust Fund.

No more un­en­cum­bered money had been left in the fund un­til the Texas Leg­is­la­ture qui­etly added $5 mil­lion last spring dur­ing fi­nal ne­go­ti­a­tions on the state bud­get.

In 2016, a SpaceX ex­ec­u­tive ad­vo­cated dur­ing a joint leg­isla­tive com­mit­tee hear­ing that more money be put into the fund, say­ing that SpaceX planned to push law­mak­ers for an in­fu­sion dur­ing the 2017 leg­isla­tive ses­sion.

Cameron County Judge Ed­die Tre­viño Jr. said the Cameron County Space­port Devel­op­ment Corp. re­cently ap­plied for the new state money at the re­quest of SpaceX. He said he didn’t have ad­di­tional de­tails, and Nick Ser­afy, who chairs the county’s space­port devel­op­ment cor­po­ra­tion, de­clined to com­ment.

McLen­nan County ap­plied for the money through its own space­port devel­op­ment cor­po­ra­tion. Collins de­clined to pro­vide de­tails of McLen­nan County’s po­ten­tial project.

Un­der el­i­gi­bil­ity re­quire­ments to re­ceive funding from the Space­port Trust Fund, lo­cal gov­ern­ments must form space­port devel­op­ment cor­po­ra­tions and must be work­ing with “a vi­able busi­ness en­tity” that has “the fi­nan­cial, man­age­rial and tech­ni­cal ex­per­tise and ca­pa­bil­ity nec­es­sary to launch and land a reusable launch vehicle or space­craft.”

The money is in­tended to help pay for “in­fra­struc­ture nec­es­sary or use­ful for es­tab­lish­ing a space­port.”

Only three Texas coun­ties have formed space­port devel­op­ment cor­po­ra­tions — Cameron, McLen­nan and Mid­land — mean­ing they’re the only coun­ties el­i­gi­ble for the funding.

Mid­land County was awarded about $2 mil­lion from the space­port trust fund in 2014, but the com­pany it ini­tially had been work­ing with — XCOR Aerospace — filed for bank­ruptcy last year, and Mid­land County hasn’t ap­plied for any of the new space­port funds now avail­able.

In Novem­ber, Gov. Greg Ab­bott’s eco­nomic devel­op­ment and tourism di­vi­sion is­sued a re­quest for pro­pos­als from county space­port devel­op­ment cor­po­ra­tions in­ter­ested in ap­ply­ing for the $5 mil­lion in new funding, with ap­pli­ca­tions due last month.

A spokes­woman for Ab­bott said the di­vi­sion merely acted at the be­hest of the Leg­is­la­ture in seek­ing the pro­pos­als — be­cause the money was ap­pro­pri­ated for the spe­cific pur­pose of a space­port — and is weigh­ing the ap­pli­ca­tions.

The funds were added in a con­fer­ence com­mit­tee last year as Se­nate and House ne­go­tia­tors hashed out dif­fer­ences on the state bud­get. The funding was part of a House bud­get rider, and a spokesper­son for state Rep. John Zer­was, R-Rich­mond — the House’s top bud­get writer — re­ferred ques­tions about it to state Rep. Rene Oliveira, D-Brownsville, who did not re­spond to re­quests for com­ment.

Two South Texas law­mak­ers who were mem­bers of the bud­get con­fer­ence com­mit­tee — state Rep. Os­car Lon­go­ria, D-Mis­sion, and state Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hi­no­josa, D-McAllen — also didn’t re­spond to re­quests for com­ment.

Caryn Sch­e­new­erk, SpaceX’s di­rec­tor of gov­ern­men­tal af­fairs, at­tended a 2016 leg­isla­tive com­mit­tee hear­ing at the cam­pus of UT Rio Grande Val­ley in Brownsville and urged law­mak­ers to re­plen­ish the Space­port Trust Fund.

“One of the things I want to high­light for you is that, un­for­tu­nately, the Space­port Trust Fund was not funded in the 84th Leg­is­la­ture, and we will cer­tainly be ad­vo­cat­ing for it to be con­sid­ered by the 85th (which took place in 2017) and for it to be part of the bud­get in the 85th Leg­is­la­ture,” Sch­e­new­erk said, ac­cord­ing to the Rio Grande Guardian.

“By con­trast, Florida con­sis­tently funds its space in­fra­struc­ture fund to a tune of $20 mil­lion a year. Those in­fra­struc­ture match­ing grants go to ex­actly the kind of ac­tiv­i­ties that we are un­der­tak­ing at Boca Chica. They are public-pri­vate part­ner­ships for in­vest­ing specif­i­cally in what is so costly an un­der­tak­ing — the in­fra­struc­ture.”

A to­tal of $13 mil­lion from the Space­port Trust Fund was ear­marked for SpaceX’s project at Boca Chica beach in 2014, but only $2.6 mil­lion of it has been spent. In ad­di­tion, SpaceX has been pledged $2.3 mil­lion from the state’s jobs-fo­cused Texas En­ter­prise Fund, but only $400,000 has been dis­trib­uted to it — and the com­pany has re­turned about $81,000 of that sum be­cause the project hasn’t kept pace with em­ploy­ment tar­gets.

The slower-than-ex­pected rate of devel­op­ment at the Boca Chica space­port is partly the re­sult of dif­fi­cul­ties build­ing on the beach af­ter the bedrock proved to be deeper than ex­pected and the wa­ter ta­ble turned out to be higher than ex­pected, prompt­ing SpaceX to bring in hun­dreds of thou­sands of cu­bic yards of new soil to sta­bi­lize the site to sup­port fu­ture struc­tures.

Other slow­downs have been caused by the com­pany’s fo­cus on more press­ing is­sues. One of its rock­ets ex­ploded in 2015 shortly af­ter liftoff from a leased launch pad at Florida’s Cape Canaveral Air Force Sta­tion, and another ex­ploded on the pad in 2016, tem­po­rar­ily ground­ing some of SpaceX’s com­mer­cial op­er­a­tions both times.

Musk — who started elec­tric car­maker Tesla, among other com­pa­nies, and is known for bold and fu­tur­is­tic pro­nounce­ments — said dur­ing the Boca Chica ground­break­ing in 2014 that rock­ets launched from the site would carry com­mer­cial satel­lites at first but that it even­tu­ally could be crit­i­cal to es­tab­lish­ing a hu­man pres­ence on Mars.

“It could very well be that the first per­son that de­parts for another planet will de­part from this lo­ca­tion,” Musk said.


SpaceX has some fa­cil­i­ties in place at its Boca Chica site. About $15.3 mil­lion in state money has been set aside for the planned space­port, but only about $3 mil­lion has been spent.



SpaceX’s slower-than-ex­pected rate of devel­op­ment at Boca Chica is partly the re­sult of dif­fi­cul­ties with bedrock and the wa­ter ta­ble at the site.

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