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BROWNSVILLE, RGV – How does SpaceX and building an aerospace cluster in Brownsville align with United Brownsville’s agenda, Brownsville Economic Development Council Vice President Gilberto Salinas was asked.

His answer was blunt. “It doesn’t. Simply because when Imagine Brownsville (the precursor to United Brownsville) was initiated no one ever thought in their wildest dreams that we would be building rockets and launching them from Boca Chica beach. Jason, myself, we would have said such an idea is crazy. But, here we are,” Salinas said, in reference to SpaceX’s proposals.

Gilberto Salinas
Gilberto Salinas

Jason Hilts is president of Brownsville EDC and, like Salinas, gave a presentation to the United Brownsville board of directors. Hilts spoke about advanced manufacturing while Salinas focused on the SpaceX and STARGATE Complex. STARGATE is a spacecraft tracking and astronomical research initiative started by Dr. Fredrick Jenet at UT-Brownsville that is now being carried on by UT-Rio Grande Valley in association with SpaceX.

In his presentation, Salinas pointed out that the commercial space sector is currently worth $314 billion a year and growing. Just how much of that activity Brownsville and the Rio Grande Valley can capture will depend on the investment it makes, Salinas said. The region should be involved in some manufacturing for SpaceX, he explained.

“Final assembly of Falcon 9 rocket will be done in the Brownsville area at the SpaceX site. Full manufacturing of Falcon Heavy, a much bigger rocket, will have to be done in close proximity. That does not have to necessarily be in Brownsville but certainly somewhere here in South Texas. There is certainly work to be done if we want to get that portion of it,” Salinas said.

“As far as the supply chain logistics is concerned, SpaceX is 90 percent vertically integrated so there is about ten percent of opportunity for us. However, there are synergies with the automotive industry and that is the backbone of our manufacturing industry here.”

As for opportunities on the advanced manufacturing front, Salinas said:

“As Jason mentioned, on the advanced manufacturing side, with the space and aerospace industries, there will be shared suppliers. A case in point is Tesla Motors, they have a site adjacent to the SpaceX site in California, where some of their engineers go back and forth. However, the real opportunities for this region are with the service sector. It is very similar to the LNG plants. There is a huge capital investment for those projects. Over the lifetime of those projects, they are going to require maintenance. That is the same thing with SpaceX, with maintenance technicians going out there. There are opportunities with local entrepreneurs. Which begs the question, do we need a space incubator for the space industry?”

Salinas said Brownsville EDC staff met recently with high level executives with SpaceX. “We asked them, what can we be doing to prepare our local talent? They just said, ‘We need awesome engineers.’ That stuck with me. I do not know how better to explain it. They said, ‘We need these kids graduating from university, we need them able to build things.’ Dr. Janet told them: ‘We are training our students not necessarily to work for SpaceX. We are training them in the field of engineering, communication and leadership. We want them to be the presidents and CEOs of their companies.’ They are going to be doing business with SpaceX.”

Salinas predicted that the human pipeline for SpaceX and the aerospace industry in the Valley would be forged in institutions like UT-Rio Grande Valley, Texas Southmost College, South Texas College, and even Texas A&M University. “Now we have Texas A&M, who are building a campus in McAllen. They have been asking about SpaceX. It is no secret they want to come in and provide students for SpaceX. And, Brownsville ISD, with their robotics program, they now have a space camp.”

SpaceX is encouraged by these developments, Salinas said. “That is what SpaceX said, ‘We need to build excitement in our kids, early on’.”

In terms of branding, Salinas told the United Brownsville board of directors that Brownsville has a “huge” marketing advantage. “Pushing space and Brownsville. We want the Brownsville brand to be the space industry. To do that we must own it.”

That marketing effort will be helped by the fact that 15,000 visitors per month are projected to visit Brownsville each month to watch a SpaceX rocket being launched from Boca Chica beach. “What are we doing to capture those tourism dollars? Again, we have to build excitement early on,” Salinas said.

Salinas also revealed that Brownsville Airport is looking to develop a spaceport designation. Salinas said this makes sense since it is the closest airport to the SpaceX facility. Salinas said the Cameron County Spaceport Development Corporation could approach the state-run Spaceport Trust Fund for infrastructure funding.

Salinas concluded his remarks with a question.

“Ultimately, are we in a position to develop an innovation corridor?” Salinas asked. He said this will depend on how strong a collaboration is developed between industry, government and academia.

“We can just settle for having a launch site. We have done a great job as a community in attracting that project, and let it just grow from there. Or, we all come together and say this is our industry, shame on us if somebody grabs it and owns it.”

Editor’s Note: This is the first in a two-part series on Brownsville Economic Development Council’s presentations to United Brownsville. Part Two, focusing on advanced manufacturing, will be published later this week.

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