HARLINGEN, RGV – While SpaceX has grabbed all the headlines over the past couple of years, the Rio Grande Valley’s involvement in the aerospace industry goes back decades thanks to the less well-known United Launch Alliance.

On Friday, in his State of the City address, Harlingen Mayor Chris Boswell said the arrival of SpaceX, which plans to build a commercial rocket launch facility at Boca Chica beach near Brownsville, has deservedly cast a “giant spotlight on the innovative work of ULA,” which has been assembling rocket parts in Harlingen for 25 years.

Boswell also quashed rumors that the company might leave the city, resulting in the loss of more than 200 jobs. The State of the City address was held at Casa de Amistad with The Rotary Club of Harlingen serving as hosts. Among those in attendance were Brownsville Mayor Tony Martinez, San Benito Mayor Celeste Sanchez, and Matamoros Mayor Leticia Salazar.

Harlingen Mayor Chris Boswell and Matamoros Mayor Leticia Salazar.
Harlingen Mayor Chris Boswell and Matamoros Mayor Leticia Salazar.

“As many of you know, and, unfortunately, as many do not know, United Launch Alliance was formed as a joint venture by Boeing and Lockheed Martin to provide turn-key rocket launch services to the United States Government. ULA manufactures rocket components including parts of the Atlas V rocket right here in Harlingen at Valley International Airport,” Boswell said.

“Since the Lockheed plant here became part of ULA in 2006, ULA has successfully delivered more than 85 satellites to orbit that provide critical capabilities for troops in the field, aid meteorologists in tracking severe weather, enable personal device-based GPS navigation, and facilitate other scientific study.”

Boswell pointed out that just this past December, NASA awarded contracts to both SpaceX and Boeing to build and launch space vehicles capable of delivering astronauts into orbit and to the International Space Station.

“Boeing’s manned space capsule will in turn rely on United Launch Alliance’s Atlas V rocket to send the capsule into space. So the chances are good that the next men and women launched into space from a U.S. launch pad will be riding on a rocket fabricated in part by our friends and neighbors here in Harlingen. That’s exciting news for ULA and our community,” Boswell said.

The mayor then focused on the negative rumors. “There has been discussion in some circles that Harlingen might lose the nearly 200 jobs out at the plant here in Harlingen. But I can confirm for you here and now that ULA is here to stay. We are at this moment working on a new five-year lease for ULA to continue its operations out at Valley International Airport. And, we intend to work with ULA and our state and federal leadership to expand ULA’s operational capabilities and bring even more exciting and noteworthy manufacturing processes to our plant in Harlingen.”

Boswell acknowledged Harlingen has “a ways to go” on creating that expansion but said the city commission, airport board and economic development corporation are “committed to this effort.” He thanked U.S. Sen. John Cornyn and U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela for their efforts in supporting ULA in Harlingen. And he said he knows that Governor Greg Abbott, state Sen. Eddie Lucio and state Rep. Eddie Lucio want to see ULA grow here in Texas as well.

As part of that effort, state legislators on the Rio Grande Valley Partnership’s Valley Legislative Tour visited ULA’s Harlingen assembly plant just over a week ago.

“Seeing the development of an aerospace cluster between ULA and Space-X in Cameron County is not a dream. It’s reality,” Boswell said. “And as both of these companies thrive in our region, we expect others to follow. Certainly, the educational and scientific partnerships with UT RGV and the opportunity this will bring for high wage jobs will be unprecedented.”

Boswell also gave a shout out to the “outstanding leadership” of Brownsville city officials for attracting SpaceX. He called it a “game changer” for the Valley and predicted the company would bring “a great economic and scientific engine” to the entire region.

Bert Alvarez, manager for quality, safety and mission success for ULA in Harlingen, spoke about the work ULA does in Harlingen at TSTC Harlingen’s University Center on Thursday. Alvarez was on a panel discussing the Valley’s chances of creating an aerospace cluster at a regional manufacturing summit hosted by the North American Advanced Manufacturing Research and Education Initiative (NAAMREI).

“We are the nation’s premier launch service. We certainly welcome the competition from SpaceX. We wish them the best. To use Elon Musk’s words, it is a very tricky business. Very, very, technical and very demanding,” Alvarez said.

The mission of ULA, Alvarez said, is to “save lives, to save the planet and connect the world.” He listed the ways his company saves lives.

“We support the troops in the field. We launched several communications satellites. We launched several – I don’t know how much I can say – special services CIA satellite launchers. Those support the missions like capturing Osama bin Laden, like spying where the terrorists are at, like supporting those unmanned drone vehicles, where they need satellite connections to get back to their headquarters what is going on,” Alvarez said.

“Those launches were from components assembled right here in Harlingen, right across the street over here. We support missions to Mars. We support weather satellites, NASA satellites. Here, soon, we will be supporting America’s human space flight exploration. Boeing and SpaceX are the two winners for a commercial crew launch. We expect to have a launch scheduled for late 2016, early 2017. That will be riding on Atlas components assembled right here across the street.”

Alvarez repeated that he wished SpaceX every success.

Bert H. Alvarez, a manager at United Launch Alliance, speaks at a NAAMREI summit in Harlingen.
Bert H. Alvarez, a manager at United Launch Alliance, speaks at a NAAMREI summit in Harlingen.

“It has been a long path to get to where we are now. We have been in the business for over 50 years – 100 successful launches without a single mishap. I say that not to be boastful because we are always open for opportunity to improve. That is what keeps us successful – continuous improvement and exploring new ideas on how we can be more efficient with our assembling process.”

Alvarez added that ULA is always open to new ideas for better assembling and manufacturing techniques. “Here in the very near future we will be looking to see if can produce some of the components that we traditionally purchase from West Coast suppliers. Basically, we are an assembling house right now. SpaceX coming on board, yes they are a direct competitor for several of the launches that we are currently producing. This past year we had 14 successful launches. This year we are on schedule for 13 and next year there are current plans for 16 and 17 for 2017. So, there is a lot to produce.”

Mike Willis, of Workforce Solutions and the South Texas Manufacturers Association, moderated the panel discussion on the possibility of the Valley creating an aerospace cluster. He said if one combines ULA with GE Aviation of McAllen, the Valley probably has 600 direct jobs in the aerospace industry. He said that when one combines this with a few smaller firms, the Valley likely supports 1,000 direct jobs in the aerospace industry.

“So, we have got a jet engine repairer (GE), we’ve got a rocket builder (ULA), and now we’ve got a rocket launcher (SpaceX). That is what I call the makings of a good, healthy, aerospace cluster,” Willis said.