Space Odyssey

Tom Moser wants to put Texas on the map as a commercial launch pad for cargo-carrying rockets

Texas has until September 8 to tender its offer to VentureStar. Since March, Moser and a team of consultants have been assessing the merits and drawbacks of 11 possible sites across the state: nine along the Gulf Coast and two in the Trans-Pecos region of West Texas. Three sites have emerged at the top of the list: Brazoria County, around Lake Jackson and Freeport in Southeast Texas; Pecos County, near Fort Stockton in West Texas; and Kenedy County, between Kingsville and Raymondville, along the coast in far South Texas. Moser's offer could include more than one site.

Narrowing down the possible spaceport locations in Texas is only his first hurdle. Things will get a lot tougher later, because at least 18 states are wooing VentureStar, which plans to select one or two spaceport locations by the end of 1999.

"I want Texas to be the leading aerospace state among all states," said Moser, who grew up in Houston. "And right now, we're not." That honor would fall to Florida or California, the states in which every notable U.S. space launch has taken place. Florida has the Kennedy Space Center and the Cape Canaveral Air Station. California has Vandenberg and Edwards Air Force bases. Each state is expected to offer to expand those facilities for VentureStar.

"The bad news for Texas is that Florida and California have existing launch facilities," Moser said. "The good news for Texas is that Florida and California have existing launch facilities. We can tailor our facility to the commercial space launch industry. The commercial industry doesn't like the bureaucracy and red tape involved in launching from a federal facility, and it's going to be these commercial customers that will make the decision on which state gets the spaceport."

Expanding an existing launch site is enticing for the commercial partners behind VentureStar, led by Lockheed, which hope to spend the smallest amount of money possible to get their $4 billion program off the ground. "Sure, we'd always like to have dictatorial control over what goes on at our spaceport," said Ron Williams, vice president of aerospace for Sverdrup Corporation, the VentureStar partner in charge of selecting and developing the spaceport location. "But it's a tradeoff between having that control and saving money by developing a site that can use existing infrastructure."

A technical evaluation of the strengths and weaknesses of each possible Texas site has revealed that none is perfect. The Gulf Coast sites are flawed, for example, because the area is subject to hurricanes. The West Texas sites sit in an earthquake zone. But the various technical defects of a Texas site will not be the biggest handicap in the state's bid for a spaceport. Economics will be. VentureStar wants bidders to offer money up front to help pay for the spaceport, which is expected to cost hundreds of millions of dollars, going as far as suggesting that the successful bidder may end up paying for all of it, with VentureStar acting only as a paying tenant.

Moser is proceeding on a postulate that the state of Texas will not spend any of its own money on a spaceport -- at least not yet. Even if the Legislature opted to contribute down the line, with the bid proposal due in one month -- four months before the Legislature convenes -- Moser has no choice but to make that presumption. The local communities vying for the spaceport do not have large wads of cash to contribute up front, so that leaves other incentives, such as breaks on taxes and utility fees that can reduce spaceport operating costs and private investment.

"Economics is what will sway the VentureStar folks," said Walter Cunningham, chairman of the Texas Aerospace Commission, a nine-member board that governs the agency. "It helps us, though, that a lot of people working on VentureStar are people who Tom has worked with before, both at NASA and outside of NASA. He can talk to these people on a first-name basis. But I don't want to mislead people. I think this is a long road. A long shot."

At Lockheed Martin's Skunk Works plant in Palmdale, California, a half-scale VentureStar prototype called X-33 is being assembled in a huge hangar. By the middle of next year, X-33 is to start a series of test voyages, blasting off from a 25-acre launching site at Edwards Air Force Base being built specially for this mission. The flights of X-33, which will neither carry payloads nor fly into orbit, are to assess whether VentureStar's hardware, software and support systems work well together. If X-33 test flights are successful, then all systems are go on VentureStar.

VentureStar, the Range Rover of the RLVs, can carry a 50,000-pound payload in its 15-foot-by-50-foot cargo bay. Big and strong enough to haul a Greyhound bus, VentureStar has a payload capacity and cargo bay dimensions similar to those of a space shuttle. But while the shuttle is sleek, VentureStar is squarish.

The biggest design difference between the two, however, is that the shuttle launches with two rocket boosters that break off the vehicle shortly after liftoff; VentureStar, in contrast, is a single-stage vehicle that needs only to refuel and reload before venturing again into space. The shuttle's rocket boosters are retrieved from the ocean and rebuilt, but an external tank carrying propellants breaks off in orbit and is lost forever. The expense of remanufacturing and reassembling disposable parts is behind the high cost of operating the space shuttle and other launch vehicles that shed pieces in flight.

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