SpaceX has canceled the smallest of its incentives agreements with the state that have provided taxpayer money to help it build a spaceport in South Texas, although company founder Elon Musk indicated recently that the launch site remains in his plans.
The company terminated a deal reached with the office of then-Gov. Rick Perry in late 2013 that earmarked $2.3 million from the Texas Enterprise Fund for the future spaceport at Boca Chica beach, which is near Brownsville. The project has experienced delays and SpaceX had received about $400,000 of the money, but it now has paid back all of it.
The deal mandated that, to receive the incentives dollars, the spaceport be operational by Sept. 30 this year and employ 180 people by the end of 2018. It appears SpaceX was unlikely to meet either target.
The company didn’t comment on its cancellation of the agreement.
However, Musk said last week that SpaceX could begin testing a next-generation rocket as early as next year if all goes well, and he named the Boca Chica site as a potential location. The billionaire entrepreneur, speaking at a news conference after SpaceX’s successful launch of its Falcon Heavy rocket in Florida, said the company is considering where to stage short “hopper” flights to test its next-generation rocket, which it has dubbed the BFR.
“We’ll either do that at our South Texas launch site near Brownsville or do ship-to-ship, we’re not sure yet,” Musk said in response to a question.
“But most likely it is going to happen at our Brownsville location, because we’ve got a lot of land with nobody around, so if it blows up it’s cool,” he said.
Boca Chica is in Cameron County, about 20 miles east of Brownsville at the southernmost tip of Texas, where Texas Highway 4 dead-ends at the Gulf of Mexico.
Even after terminating its Texas Enterprise Fund contract, SpaceX still has active agreements with the state and with some Brownsville-area communities for millions of dollars in taxpayer-funded incentives to help it build the Boca Chica spaceport.
Those include $13 million that is earmarked for the project through a state incentives fund, called the Spaceport Trust Fund, to pay for infrastructure related to it. SpaceX has been seeking to increase its $13 million allocation from the fund, although only about $2.6 million of the money has been spent so far.
State lawmakers added $5 million to the Spaceport Trust Fund last year, and the Cameron County Spaceport Development Corp. recently applied through the governor’s office for a portion of the new money at the request of SpaceX. The governor’s office hasn’t awarded any of the new money yet.
Nick Serafy, chairman of the Cameron County Spaceport Development Corp., declined to quantify the additional allocation requested by SpaceX or comment on it.
Under eligibility requirements to receive funding from the Spaceport Trust Fund, local governments must form spaceport development corporations and they 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.”
Musk — who also started electric car-maker Tesla and is known for bold and futuristic pronouncements — said during a 2014 ground-breaking ceremony for the Boca Chica spaceport that it could be sending up rockets by late 2016. SpaceX subsequently has pushed the date for the first blast off to late 2018 at the earliest.
The slower-than-expected progress at Boca Chica is partly the result of difficulties building on the beach after 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 after 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.
Still, the company has logged a number of high-profile successes, in addition to its Falcon Heavy launch last week. It made history in early 2017 by relaunching into orbit and then successfully landing a booster rocket that it had flown before, a milestone because SpaceX views reusable rockets as the key to lowering the cost of space flight.
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