Monday, July 09, 2012

Is THIS the time for aerospace in West Texas?

A lot of space and time in the local news - and in discussion of said news - being devoted to a recently-concluded deal between a private aerospace firm, the Midland City Council and the Midland Development Corporation, to bring that firm's headquarters and research-and-development operations to the Tall City.

"Never before have humans flown into space from Texas and that's going to happen," Col. Richard Seafross, USAF (retired), chief test pilot for XCOR Aerospace said in a related article. "You're helping XCOR continue with our dream."

This isn't the first time that West Texas has been proposed as a location for aerospace research and operations, that a West Texas community has pursued that dream ... but according to promoters of this current deal, it could be the most successful. Detractors, of course, have another opinion. Me? I'd like to see it work out ... just as I did in Fort Stockton, back in the 90s, during one of the first efforts to attract an aerospace venture to West Texas. And if this latest effort does indeed 'take-off,' we just might owe a tip-of-the-hat ... not to Rick Perry and his bunch ... but to Gregg McKenzie and HIS bunch.

It was about 15 years ago, and I was managing editor of the Fort Stockton Pioneer, a Thursday morning weekly. In that capacity, I was covering a meeting of the Pecos County Commissioners Court when Pct. 1 Commissioner Gregg McKenzie first raised in public discussion, the topic of a spaceport in West Texas, particularly in our very own Pecos County. Initial discussions, back then in Fort Stockton, covered some of the same ground as the recent discussions being reported now in Midland ... economic impact, educational opportunities and so on.

But why West Texas? Well, apparently many of the conditions that made this region such an ideal location for flight training bases back in the 40s, preparing American air crews for World War II, made it an ideal location for aerospace ventures in the modern day. For one thing, we had a lot of open ground. And back in the 90s, that ground was pretty cheap. And we had a lot of open airspace. And that is still true today, even with increased private and commercial air traffic. And while there are other barren areas in the southwest, they might be encumbered in one way or another. At that time, there was competition from a site in Nevada to provide a location for a spaceport ... but it was surrounded by so many secure or off-limits areas run by various branches of the U.S. military and the U.S. government, that any effort to locate a private enterprise in the middle of it posed serious bureaucratic challenge. Proponents of a spaceport here also noted a pro-business attitude among people and governments in Texas, that was harder to find in a state such as California.

Needless to say there were some smiles in the room over McKenzie's suggestion ... but there was enough consideration to provide for a second hearing, and a third. It also was well-covered in the local newspaper. Gregg was a pro at working the media, and in me he found a sympathetic audience ... even if we were separated by a generation or two. He was a member of a pioneer ranching family and a life-long West Texan, while I was a newbie ... and a dang Yankee from back east, to boot. But we still connected over childhood memories of adventures in the stars ... Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon for Gregg, Dr. Who and James Kirk for me.

And we were both mindful that some of America's pioneering rocket research was done just up the road a ways ... 60+ years earlier in southeast New Mexico, where Dr. Robert Goddard once set-up shop and dremed of reaching then unheard-of heights.

For a while, there was even some excitement over the idea, especially following a visit by representatives of the Washington (state)-based Kistler Aerospace. They were strong on conception ... but execution fell short. Kistler was later acquired by another company, underwent some re-branding, then closed it's doors in 2007.

Still, though, there was some buzz generated among companies 'out west' ... not just by the Kistler Aerospace venture in Pecos County, but also by efforts of Blue Origin (another Washington state-based company) in nearby Culberson County. Add to that another, later venture back in Pecos County by the California-based JP Aerospace.

And now comes another California-based company, XCOR Aerospace, and what may be one of the more serious proposals yet ... I wish I could say THE most serious, but there's just not as much information about Blue Origin's venture ... THEY may be the ones with the edge, to be the first to 'have humans flown into space from Texas.'

But, hey, whatever ... good luck to XCOR ... or whoever makes it work. I think Gregg had an inspred - and inspiring! - dream, and a good idea ... and I would love to see that dream be realized, that idea take flight at long last.