Oil Boom? Try Sonic Boom: Private Space Company Set to Break Ground in Midland

This week the governor’s office announced a $2.3 million incentives package for Space X, a private space company looking to build a rocket launch site in Cameron County near Brownsville.

The president of another space company looking to move to Midland says Space X’s South Texas plan is good news for the industry as a whole.

California-based XCOR plans to launch space flights out of the Midland International Airport (MAF.) It’s expected to break ground on a research and development facility there within the next couple of weeks.

XCOR President Andrew Nelson says having other players in the industry in Texas could make life for his company easier.

“Anytime you have a successful company, typically their supply chain will make a decision to re-locate closer,” he says.

A company called Orbital Outfitters is already planning to follow XCOR to Midland to supply it with space suits, and Nelson says if more of what he calls “support companies” follow, the industry will grow faster.

“It broadens our ability to get faster turnaround on pieces and parts, as well as potentially new technology we can insert in our vehicles,” he says.

Nelson’s also welcoming the competition to Texas, in part because he essentially has to.

The airport was awarded $2 million in state funding from the Spaceport Trust Fund at the Governor’s Office, but part of the arrangement was that Space X would have to get the go-ahead from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) first.

That happened in July, and the ball’s now in Space X’s court to submit a launch license application for the Brownsville site.

A model of XCOR's Lynx space craft on display in Amsterdam in 2012 (Branko Collin via Flickr)

A model of XCOR’s Lynx space craft on display in Amsterdam in 2012 (Branko Collin via Flickr)

MAF’s Director of Airports Marv Esterly says it’s likely the airport will get its spaceport license approved soon – the FAA has to make a decision on that by September 15th, and Esterly it’s “probably 95-100%” likely that it will be approved. The spaceport’s also backed by millions of dollars from the Midland Development Corporation.

But the whole process might have been finished sooner if it wasn’t for a funky-looking bird called the Lesser Prairie Chicken.

Some of the increasingly-rare birds live near the airport, and when they were listed as threatened just a few months ago, the FAA had to go back and talk with U.S. Fish and Wildlife to make sure they wouldn’t be hurt by sonic booms from flights shooting into space.

Esterly says so far, there’s not much showing they would be.

“That sonic boom is projected on computer models to be about the sound of a thunderclap,” he says.

The Lesser Prairie Chicken, newly-listed as "threatened" under the Endangered Species Act (U.S. Department of Agriculture)

The Lesser Prairie Chicken, newly-listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act (U.S. Department of Agriculture)

Still, researchers plan to study XCOR’s first few flights to see if the birds are affected.

According to Esterly, if after five flights the birds don’t appear to be bothered, they’ll consider it case closed and move forward without any flight restrictions.

The airport could still decide to limit flights in the mornings during the bird’s mating season, but that would only keep flights grounded from sunrise to 10 am for April and May.

“We could’ve jumped on that restriction immediately,” Esterly says, but ultimately the airport and U.S. Fish and Wildlife agreed the concern didn’t warrant restricting the spaceport from the start.

XCOR won’t be actually flying into space for a while – the company’s still building its first space craft, known as Lnyx, but Esterly says he expects the company will have a visible presence at the airport by Spring of 2015.

Andrew Nelson says 10-12 years from now, he hopes to have as many as 20 space craft flying out of launch sites across the world.

Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that XCOR hopes to have as many as 20 space craft flying out of the Midland International Airport. XCOR in fact hopes to have that many craft launching from sites across the world.

About Travis Bubenik

Morning Edition Host & Reporter
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