In a hotly contested race to host a third U.S. launch site for Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX), Texas appears to be the front-runner, says company founder and chief executive Elon Musk.
Speaking over the weekend at the popular South by Southwest (SXSW) conference in Austin, Texas, Musk said if all goes as planned he expects to make a decision this year about where to locate a commercial spaceport that would complement facilities currently located at U.S. Air Force bases in Florida and soon to open in California.
“It’s likely that we’ll have a launch site in Texas, which is really cool,” Musk said during a keynote speech at SXSW the afternoon of March 9 that was broadcast on the Internet.
“Right now Texas is arguably the leading candidate, but we need legislation passed that’s supportive of space launch. I don’t think it’s particularly controversial,” he added.
In additional to liability indemnification, the company needs to be able to close a public beach during launch attempts.
“We can’t launch if there’s someone right next to the rocket on the beach,” Musk said.
The company is considering a site on Boca Chica Beach, located about 37 kilometers east of Brownsville, Texas, in Cameron County five kilometers north of the Mexican border.
Other states vying to host SpaceX’s commercial launch site include Florida, Georgia, Hawaii and Puerto Rico. Construction on the new facility could begin in 2014, with the first launches following a year or two later, Musk said.
Musk, who briefed Texas legislators about the project March 8, also took advantage of the SXSW audience to unveil the results of a new reusable rocket test flight.
The company’s prototype 3-meter tall Grasshopper rocket blasted off from a test stand in McGregor, Texas, located about 700 kilometers north of the proposed Boca Chica launch site, and rose to an altitude of about 80 meters.
Grasshopper, which was making its fourth flight, hovered for 34 seconds then landed on its launch pad, doubling its previous altitude record.
“Reusability is extremely important,” Musk said, adding that the cost of Falcon 9 fuel and oxidizer is just 0.3 percent of the launcher’s price tag.
SpaceX’s website currently lists the price of a Falcon 9 at $54 million.
“If humanity is ever to expand beyond Earth and have a self-sustaining base on another planet, it’s critical that we solve this problem,” Musk said.
In September, Grasshopper flew to 2.5 meters; in November, it reached 5.4 meters; and in December, 40 meters, said SpaceX spokeswoman Christina Ra.
“Grasshopper touched down with its most accurate precision thus far on the centermost part of the launch pad. At touchdown, the thrust-to-weight ratio of the vehicle was greater than one, proving a key landing algorithm for Falcon 9,” she wrote in an email.
“With each successive test we want to go higher and farther, do transitions all the way through hypersonic and back,” Musk added.