New Space City

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If Brownsville and the Rio Grande Valley want to take one giant leap into a trillion-dollar new space industry, the opportunity is there. All that needs to happen is the innovation.

With so many possible applications for NASA technology in the business world, it’s only a matter of figuring out how local entrepreneurs can become a part of the new space ecosystem — or attract such businesses to boost the Rio Grande Valley’s economy.

“What are some of the unique problems of the Brownsville area of the people you know that could be solved by space technologies?” asked Sean Casey, founder and director of the Silicon Valley Space Center. “There’s a whole wealth of opportunities and it’s incumbent upon individuals within the community to say how could I use space to solve problems?”

Casey was a panelist during the Vibrant Lecture Series: NewSpace Brownsville event, held July 11 at Texas Southmost College. The event included a number of NASA and new space innovators and addressed questions ranging from why Mars to the 50th anniversary of the moon landing to where Brownsville fell between the two — and beyond — as more commercial companies enter into the new space industry. The evening lecture followed a morning news conference for a ribbon-cutting ceremony for Expanding Frontiers, a nonprofit organization dedicated to developing the commercial space ecosystem and educational programs that will help foster local employment programs.

Tim Taliaferro, chief innovation officer for Texas Monthly, moderated the event. “Why are we talking about new space here?” he asked the panel — “here” meaning Brownsville.

“I have one answer that has to do with physics. It’s because of the latitude,” said Anita Gale, a retired Boeing engineer and founder of the Space Settlement Design Competition. “It’s a really good reason to look at Brownsville as a launch site.”

Another good reason for new space potential in Brownsville is the opportunity to have a fresh start, said David Cheuvront, a retired NASA engineer and founder of Space Settlement Entrepreneur.

“When we talk about new space, it’s really talking about new ways of doing something that we’ve been doing for a long time but with a completely different paradigm of commercial doing it instead of government doing it,” he said. “In Houston, we’ve had government doing this for decades. I see the people I work with in commercial space feeling like they have run into a little bit of resistance there.”

Sidney Nakahodo, cofounder and CEO of New York Space Alliance, agreed.

“You guys have the opportunity to start from scratch, do something new, something different. To experiment,” he said.

The jobs that are created by a viable spaceport aren’t all limited to engineers and astronauts. Support staff like janitors, cafeteria workers, and other positions are critical — especially if those individuals can get security clearance.

“You look at a spaceport and you look at an airport everything that happens at an airport has to happen at a spaceport and more,” she said. “So having a viable workforce to support all that economic activity is really important.”

NASA offers a license with no up-front costs for three years for the commercial use of patented technologies. Anyone can browse these — and apply to use them — at technology.nasa.gov. There are technologies for 15 industries, including manufacturing, IT and software, environment, and health, medicine, and biotechnology, among others.

“We were hoping someone would step up to take NASA technology and to create companies,” said Steven Gonzalez, NASA Johnson Space Center Office of Technology Transfer. “There is a spirit here in Brownsville that is willing and ready to take advantage of this trillion dollar economy. I think you’re at a cusp here with so much capability and so much enthusiasm and so much support from the community.”

For entrepreneurs who think they might be interested in taking part in the new space ecosystem, it’s important to seize the moment, Casey said. The future in this industry is now — not years from now.

“There may be so much other competition that you’re kind of crowded out of that space,” he said. “I believe today is the time to be asking that question.”

Read about the launch of the Expanding Frontiers project at rgvisionmagazine.com/galactic-growth/.