BOCA CHICA BEACH, Texas (Border Report) — Less than a mile from this sandy and windy Gulf Coast beach, SpaceX plans to test and tweak its newest behemoth rocket in hopes that NASA will one day let it be part of upcoming missions to the moon.
The company that Elon Musk built is placing its bets on its signature spacecraft and Super Heavy rocket — known together as Starship — which SpaceX is developing and plans to test-launch from its private spaceport near South Texas’ border with Mexico. And South Texans are hoping to ride that space company’s success to help boost the local economy amidst this coronavirus recession.
Last week, NASA selected SpaceX and two other U.S. companies — Blue Origin of Kent, Wash., and Dynetics of Huntsville, Ala. — to take part in the space agency’s Artemis lunar exploration program. The companies will share a $967 million contract that is literally a 10-month race to see which company will ultimately get the nod to be part of upcoming expeditions to take humans to and from the moon.
NASA is committed to landing American astronauts, including the first woman and the next man, on the south pole of the moon by 2024 to “establish American leadership and a strategic presence on the Moon while expanding our U.S. global economic impact,” according to NASA’s website.
The moon also will be a “practice” point as NASA angles toward the red planet of Mars, a place to develop habitat and to get humans used to long space travel, NASA astronaut Serena Auñón-Chancellor said in a NASA video. “It’s an engineering battleground so we can go to Mars,” she said.
U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela, a Democrat who represents South Texas, announced Tuesday that SpaceX had received part of the three-way contract. Vela, who lives in Brownsville, which is 20 miles west of SpaceX’s Boca Chica testing site, said he is excited about what this news means for the local economy.
“NASA’s selection of SpaceX for the development of human landing systems is great news for the South Texas economy,” Vela said. “This program will create local jobs as well as increase educational opportunities for students, scientists and researchers. I am committed to supporting SpaceX and fellow community leaders as we move forward with this exciting and transformative project.”
Photos taken on Wednesday from outside the heavily-patrolled SpaceX launch facility near Boca Chica Beach, Texas. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report).
A year ago, SpaceX was among 11 companies selected as part of the Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships (NextSTEP) Appendix E contracts, which gave them six months to study and/or develop prototypes “that reduce schedule risk for the descent, transfer, and refueling elements of a potential human landing system.” That contract was for $45.5 million.
Now it appears SpaceX has made it to the next level, with the two other competing companies. And this time, they have 10 months to design and build a system with a much larger pot of funds — $967 million.
A test of the 160-foot-tall, 30-foot-wide Starship spacecraft is expected soon. Tests at SpaceX’s private launchpad — which is visible from the beach — close down the area to local traffic.
The SpaceX facility is located on Highway 4, also known as Boca Chica Boulevard, which literally ends a couple blocks away at the Gulf of Mexico. Aside from SpaceX and the nearby University of Texas Rio Grande Valley’s Stargate facility, the area is remote and undeveloped, without a gas station or convenience store for miles.
Not far from the facility, a historic marker noting where the Battle of Palmito Ranch, the last land engagement of the Civil War, took place May 12-13 1865. The battle happened 34 days after Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox. But news had not yet reached this part of the world.