WASHINGTON – Until not too long ago any American project that had to do with space exploration had to have the NASA logo on it. NASA was space. Therefore, it was inconceivable to think of any meaningful space project that could be successfully hatched without NASA’s direct involvement.
No need for NASA
Well, that era is over. While NASA looks for a new identity and mission in a much more fiscally constrained environment, (translation: there is no more money), here comes SpaceX, a private venture created years ago by South African-born entrepreneur Elon Musk.
Musk is known primarily as the creator of Tesla Motors, the first maker of all-electric vehicles in the USA. Tesla has the ambition to redefine the auto business. At the moment it makes only super expensive high performance electric cars in California. But it is planning to make cheaper models that will appeal to the average consumers.
Tesla and SpaceX
Well, just as Tesla Motors may soon transform the US (and global) automotive industry, SpaceX may soon displace all our assumptions about what it takes to have a serious and robust space program.
We used to believe that space was too risky, too complicated and too expensive for the private sector. Hence the essential role of NASA. Therefore, many prognostications now indicate that an underfunded, diminished NASA also means the end of American leadership in space exploration.
Space is also a business
Well, not necessarily. SpaceX is the result of Musk’s realization that, while space is still about adventure and open-ended exploration, it is also a money-making business. All sorts of companies around the world need to launch satellites into space, (think telecoms, weather services, and more). And so they need to rely on the services of those who have the rockets and the related launch capabilities. Well, SpaceX has already demonstrated that it can provide state of the art launch services in a cost-effective manner.
Launching rockets from Brownsville
And now Musk is looking at the next phase. SpaceX is planning to set a major new launch facility in Brownsville, a rather poor, mostly Hispanic Texas town sitting right at the border with Mexico. Needless to say, for Brownsville the coming of SpaceX is a golden opportunity to transform the local economy.
Now a backwater with the stigma of being a transit point for Mexican drugs into the USA, Brownsville can soon become a high-tech enclave. Assuming final approval for the construction of this SpaceX launch facility, beyond the new jobs directly tied to it, one can expect all sorts of subcontractors, vendors and suppliers to set up shop in the vicinity. Not to mention the tourism draw that such a brand new high-tech facility would create.
Others will follow
Sure enough, NASA was the US space program. But now it seems that daring entrepreneurs can take a lead role, even without US government backing. Elon Musk is clearly a trail blazer. But there is no doubt that if SpaceX does well by launching more and more satellites from its new Brownsville facility, many other private sector groups will follow.