Making Texas' new space race sustainable

Photo by NASA

Disruption is all around us. The world is changing, as it always does, with the emergence of new technology. The information technology revolution, for example, enabled a radical change in private transportation with apps like Uber and Lyft when creative entrepreneurs questioned the status quo. Similarly, Tesla Motors is challenging the accepted way of doing things in automotive technology and marketing. Of course, the status quo usually fights back, but if it can’t justify itself in a free market, that’s our opportunity to change and grow for the better.

Over the past decade, Texas has benefited from disruption in the commercial space industry, with companies basing their operations here due to the state’s wide-open skies and spaces, skilled workforce, and friendly economic and regulatory environment. This also drives growth in support industries, providing services and supplies and other economic benefits. The aerospace industry alone accounts for almost 10 percent of the state’s annual gross domestic product, with more than 1,600 companies employing more than 150,000 Texans.

I’m convinced that 2015 will be the year of Texas and space. SpaceX is building a private orbital launch facility on Boca Chica Beach near Brownsville while expanding operations in McGregor. XCOR Aerospace will test and fly commercial suborbital spaceplanes from Midland’s airport. Blue Origin is flying prototype vehicles from a launch pad in West Texas. Bigelow Aerospace, which has considered Texas in the past, is building habitat modules scheduled to fly on SpaceX boosters for use in orbit, on the moon and, eventually, to enable further human exploration. Elon Musk, the CEO of SpaceX, intends to put people on Mars within 10 years.

Commercial spaceflight is a truly exciting development, returning our nation to exploring new frontiers. Now that SpaceX and others have the technological capabilities once reserved for only a few countries, new wealth and benefits for all humanity can be achieved from space travel in orbit, to the moon, then to the asteroids, Mars and beyond. Government still has a vital role here: exploring new technologies, protecting lanes of commerce and providing for as safe an environment as possible. Think of the roles of the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard today and you can imagine America regaining its leadership role in space.

For Texas, it’s important that the industry be sustainable. As long as national government space efforts suffer from shifting budget priorities driven by shortsighted policy, reliance on U.S. government agencies, programs and their business alone is a mistake for both local and state governments and private companies. Witness the struggles of NASA workers at the Johnson Space Center after the Space Shuttle program ended. Texas must have a diversified space industry, and successful commercial space companies must have a diversified customer base.

While a skilled workforce is one of our strengths, training in an entirely new field is a critical issue. The commercial space companies all agree that education and training in areas relevant to space exploration — from grade school to trade school to college — is vital for their success, but they’ll also need a new workforce that can go off-world to build the ships, stations and bases of exploration. The question, then, is where and how they’ll train.

We have an answer: Fathom Academy.

We plan to build a technologically advanced, commercially accessible neutral-buoyancy pool and training facility in Central Texas to train the next generation of space workers in extravehicular activity (EVA), or “spacewalk,” skills required to build and support the orbital structures, vehicles and surface bases of a growing commercial space industrial infrastructure.

NASA has been unwilling to use its facilities in Houston for commercial astronaut training. Without such a facility, EVA training for commercial space crews would require traveling to Russia. Enough said there.

Current revenues don’t justify each commercial space company building its own EVA training facility like the one we propose. Yet those companies will need such a facility to achieve their goals. Our facility will be immediately profitable with established industries while serving the needs of developing commercial space partners.

It’s also not just for commercial space training. The facility can be used for training in swift-water rescue, oil and gas operations, deep-sea construction, pilot survival training, film and television production, sonar studies and emergency management. Austin and Central Texas-area emergency management alone offers an immediate and overwhelming customer base.

The project gained significant momentum when it won the endorsement of the governor’s Office of Aerospace, Aviation and Defense in September. Our first-of-its-kind program has a fully developed training curriculum, design and construction plan ready to go, with a wide range of aerospace companies and local governments eager to use the facility on opening day.

The future is bright for the space exploration industry in Texas. And while disruption is a good thing, it needs to be sustainable.

Disclosure: Uber and Tesla Motors are corporate sponsors of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

C. Barton Bollfrass

CEO of Fathom Academy