Space Commerce

Texas To Spend Big on Space with New Legislature Funding for Space Commission

By Elizabeth Howell
May 26, 2023
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Texas To Spend Big on Space with New Legislature Funding for Space Commission
The SpaceX Starship sits on the Starbase launch pad in Boca Chica, Texas prior to its first test flight.
Image credit: SpaceX.

The Texas legislature is deepening its commitment to space, having voted to form a new Texas Space Commission and an Aerospace Research and Space Economy Consortium this month.

The legislature voted to pass the bill supporting the state’s space industry on May 17. Texas Governor Greg Abbott had asked the legislature to provide $350 million to create and fund the commission in the next two years, arguing in February that this measure would allow the state to benefit from the rise of space exploration and activity on the back of increased private activity.

“Continued development of the space industry in the state will ensure Texas remains at the forefront not only in the United States, but the entire world,” Abbott stated in February, in his budget document for the 88th Legislature. “Further investment will cement Texas as the preeminent location for innovation and development in this rapidly growing industry. Due to increased competition from other states and internationally, further planning and coordination is needed to keep Texas at the cutting edge.”

The measure has received support from state entities such as Texas 2036, a non-partisan policy think tank, and workspace-development organization TexSpace, The Texan reported back in February. The cities of  Brownsville, San Antonio, Lubbock, and El Paso are especially expected to benefit from the measure, given their already existing aerospace and manufacturing services.

Texas has deep pockets available for space spending; Ars Technica reported the state would have a record $188.2 billion available for the budget in 2024-25 and a surplus of $32.7 billion. Inflation and oil prices (as Texas is an oil-heavy state) are some of the drivers behind the large growth.

There are headwinds, however: the state has been criticized in recent years for its strict anti-abortion laws and numerous bills affecting the rights of the LGBTQ+ community. These legal matters affect everything from workers’ rights to healthcare spending on those workers, and may stymie efforts to draw new talent to the state even as it launches the new space commission.

PricewaterhouseCoopers also gave Texas top marks for aerospace in its 2022 Aerospace Manufacturing Attractiveness Report. This is despite Florida, another big zone of aerospace activity, having spent considerable funds of their own to attract companies — including the $5.9 billion in economic impact that the aerospace industry has brought to Florida since 2007, according to the aerospace-focused commission Space Florida.

Texas’s rich history with the spaceflight industry

Texas has been a space state since almost the beginning of the Space Age. NASA’s economic impact on the state from the Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston alone is estimated to have a GDP of $4.7 billion and direct and indirect employment of more than 52,000 individuals, according to the Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts.

The founding of JSC itself in 1961 is the subject of a NASA book, “Suddenly, Tomorrow Came,” which outlines the prominent roles that Texas politicians (such as George R. Brown and Albert Thomas) played in the negotiations to bring the center there.

NASA chose Houston from among 23 sites tabled in response to then-NASA administrator James E. Webb’s request in 1961 to create a Manned Spaceflight Center (today’s JSC) for astronaut training and orbital operations, among other needs. Ultimately, Houston made the cut due to its commercial facilities (principally the San Jacinto Ordnance Depot) with potential to service NASA equipment, along with the ability of local universities Rice and Texas A&M to provide trained personnel, according to agency documentation.

As with many other fields, the decades of government spending in the area have created not only related services but also a suite of space companies — including big industry names like SpaceX, Blue Origin, and Firefly Aerospace that themselves generate big waves of economic opportunity.

Lately, SpaceX has transformed the Boca Chica area of South Texas into a hub of Starship operations. Cameron County has said SpaceX creates 1,600 jobs and “hundreds of contract positions” in the area, along with 6,185 jobs in support services. The company has brought an estimated $650 million to the county as of 2021.

Spaceflight woes in Texas

That said, SpaceX has been indefinitely grounded following the dramatic first space launch of Starship in April. The launch had to be terminated for safety reasons and launch activities caused numerous environmental issues such as dust and debris being spread out far beyond expectations, despite a Federal Aviation Administration environmental review with other agencies that took 18 months.

When Starship will fly again is not known, although CEO Elon Musk has said the company could be ready in July and SpaceX formally requested approval to launch Starship in the second half of 2023. Environmental groups have also sued the FAA for what they claim was an insufficient environmental review, and SpaceX has since filed to be listed as a codefendant in the suit.

Blue Origin was also grounded for an FAA review of an uncrewed launch on its New Shepard rocket last year that ended in failure, but the company expects to be launching space tourists again later in 2023. The company was also just selected by NASA last week to land humans on the moon in Blue Origin’s Blue Moon lander, starting with Artemis 5 in 2029.

Firefly Aerospace, meanwhile, launched its Alpha rocket into orbit six months ago and is targeting numerous other space projects such as moon missions. Firefly joined many other Texas space companies in praising the new legislation, saying on Twitter it would “expand and support the space industry in the great state of Texas.”

Business and science reporter, researcher and consultant.